Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido (left) and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Picture: STF/AFP
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido (left) and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Picture: STF/AFP

The Venezuelan crisis has again raised a choice for SA’s diplomats and they have, once again, fluffed it.

The content of our diplomacy is often criticised for the fact that it favours global polecats, support for failing leftist governments, and that policies are bizarrely rooted in issues topical during colonial times 50 years ago.

It is bizarrely fixated in the political proclivities of the ANC in exile, in which everything the US does is bad, and everything Cuba does is good.

Venezuela is a good example, except that now the world has moved on. The US has a truly disturbing history of regime change interventions in Latin America, as everybody knows. It is tempting to consider the Venezuela crisis in similar terms.

International relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu either inadvertently or deliberately referred to this history by saying, prior to a UN Security Council meeting on the topic, that SA will not support “regime change” in any country.

This time in Venezuela almost the entire continent is supportive of Juan Guaido, the national assembly leader who has declared himself president, including the largest and most powerful Latin American nations, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia.

The term “regime change” is something of a byword for US adventures in trying to undermine governments that supported the Soviet Union. But applying the old Cold War template doesn’t work in this case. Typically, most South American governments have strenuously opposed the US intervention of any kind on the continent.

But this time in Venezuela almost the entire continent is supportive of Juan Guaido, the national assembly leader who has declared himself president, including the largest and most powerful Latin American nations, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia. Backing President Nicolas Maduro is Russia and China, both of which have huge investments in Venezuela, and the usual suspects, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

SA has fallen in with this group, but the interesting case is Mexico which has decided to remain “neutral”. Why was that not an option for SA? The answer is perhaps that SA’s foreign policy is not so much an instinctive supporter of tyrannical leaders hated by their own populations, although sometimes it seems like it, but is rather an approach of intellectual vacuity and an instinctive supporter of China.

According to one foreign relations expert, the problem with SA’s foreign policy is not that it is caught in a time-trap, but that it is nonexistent. SA always seems to try and follow the path of least resistance, and the result is bewildering.

Just consider, in the Venezuelan case, the Chinese took a slightly different approach, inviting Maduro to visit China and asserting, as it always does, that China does not  interfere in domestic politics. But then it granted him practically nothing in financial support, and Maduro’s visit was widely regarded as a failure. It then hedged its bets by meeting at a lower level with the opposition.

Yet, this kind of nuance seems to be beyond SA’s diplomatic template. One key question for SA is whether foreign relations are “extra-constitutional” in the sense that the founding principles of the constitution do not apply. In fact, the formal legal position is that they do.

As long ago as 1995, the Constitutional Court declared in the Makwanyane case that the state must demonstrate its commitment to SA’s founding values “in everything that it does”. The case, unfortunately, did not specifically address foreign policy; it related to capital punishment.

However, the thrust of the case was whether capital punishment was inconsistent with a commitment to human rights, and it established the principle that SA’s government is bound by the founding principles of the document.

This notion has been systematically ignored by successive ANC administrations, and foreign relations have been regarded as a kind of non-constitutionally applicable zone.

That impunity can be seen in the Omar al-Bashir incident and the granting of diplomatic immunity to Grace Mugabe even after she allegedly assaulted South African citizens. This is not only morally suspect and legally dubious, but it’s also shortsighted.

As the ANC should know, regime change can, sometimes, be a good idea. Look what happened in SA.