Mandela and a tale of two pariahs

By James Baron  / 

Thu, Dec 12, 2013 - Page 8

“O my friends, there is no friend.”

With this line, attributed to Aristotle, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida opened Politics of Friendship, his treatise on friendship and its political implications.

As Taiwan’s last ambassador to South Africa, Loh I-cheng (陸以正) paid homage to former South African president Nelson Mandela on Friday.

Loh spoke of a close personal relationship with Mandela, though his reminiscences were tinged with bitterness over the then-president’s decision to switch ties to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1996.

The switch was hardly a bombshell. Even before Mandela told Loh, Taiwanese officials were well aware that the influence of the South African Communist Party on Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) made continued official relations untenable.

Mandela, who visited Taipei and Beijing as ANC head in 1993, most likely angled for dual recognition. However, any suggestion of such a bed sharing arrangement was stymied by China, just as it had been when Niger attempted to do similarly the year before (albeit after several weeks of wrangling).

Loh’s recollection of being “infuriated” doubtless reflects the frustration of any diplomat who has seen weed-killing realpolitik poured on the roots of a relationship that took years to cultivate. In the end, the “human touch,” which Loh ascribed to Mandela, counted for little.

While Loh seems to have been realistic about the inevitability of the situation, his chagrin brought to mind a series of columns by the career diplomat Bernard Joei (芮正皋) which ran in the China Post from 1993 to 1996.

Collected under the title In Search of Justice, these ruminations are a fine example of the delusional spin employed by Taipei in appraising developments in Taiwan-South Africa relations as they unfurled.

Joei wrote of Mandela’s decision to “cow down to communist China’s pressure,” sententiously adding that “by doing so, Mandela has gone against his own high standard of morality and created a situation that shall not reflect favorably on him in the history books.”

Repeatedly and glibly invoking the term “neo-apartheid” in relation to the PRC’s effort to isolate Taiwan, Joei expressed shock at Mandela’s about-face.

How could a man who overcame the injustices of apartheid be “hopping into bed with a [PRC] regime scorned the world over for its abuses of human rights, dictatorship, intolerance of opposing political views and mistreatment of ethnic minorities?” Joei asked.

The holier-than-thou bleating descends into full-blown slapstick in one column where Joei, a former charge d’affaires and ambassador to several African nations, draws parallels between the ROC and the ANC.

They were founded in the same year, Joei po-facedly prattles: “Just as the ANC struggled against apartheid, the ROC fought ruthless warlords and Japanese aggression to stay alive.”

If this comparison is not exactly watertight, perhaps another is more apposite. In 1993, South African academic Peter Vale spoke on the future of Taiwan-South Africa relations at a conference in Taipei sponsored by the Democratic Progressive Party.

Vale said that Taiwan and South Africa belonged to a group of pariah nations — including Chile and Israel — which had become known as the “Fifth World.”

These countries shared a number of characteristics: They were governed by immigrants or their descendants, they had achieved a degree of economic development that was the envy of their neighbors and they were the targets of communist agitation.

Once the “pariah bond” was ruptured by the end of apartheid, the outcome was inevitable.

Economic considerations were about the only card Taipei had left to play. However, while South Africa’s trade with Taiwan was at roughly twice the volume of its trade with Beijing at the time of the split, the new ANC government was clearly thinking ahead.

Taiwanese officials attempted to scaremonger by suggesting that trade with the PRC would actually damage the South African economy as China was a direct competitor. Naturally, this desperate last gambit failed. As of last year, the PRC remains South Africa’s No. 1 trade partner, with two-fifths of the combined volume of US$19.4 billion flowing in Pretoria’s direction.

Across the world, memories appeared short last week as representatives of political parties that vilified Mandela engaged in hagiography. However, the old guard of the KMT is on even shakier ground than Britain’s Tories when it comes to apotheosizing Mandela.

As a pair of pariahs, Taiwan and apartheid-era South Africa were back-scratching bedfellows. Along with Israel, Taiwan facilitated the Botha government’s nuclear program in the 1980s, while the international community stood back. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government of former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) hailed the regime as a bulwark against communism while acquiescing in the perpetuation of a wicked system of repression. And why not? For in the subjugation of a people by a minority, immigrant regime, it was presented with its own reflection.

By the end of the 1980s, the ANC already had ties with twice as many nations as South Africa. Some countries were later than others jumping the sinking ship of apartheid. Despite its last-minute attempts to salvage something from the wreckage by wooing Mandela and the ANC, the KMT government was still clinging to the railings of a rotten vessel as it went down. This should not be forgotten.

James Baron is a freelance journalist and writer. He previously worked for the Taiwan International Cooperation and Development Fund.