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John Howard should follow Thabo Mbeki if he wants to show leadership

By Greg Barns - posted Thursday, 27 March 2003

South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki and John Howard share much in common. Both lead nations that are middle-ranking powers whose economic clout in their respective regions is unrivalled.

And when it comes to Iraq, both Mbeki and Howard have been the recipients of phone calls from George W Bush.

But that's where the common interest ends. Whereas Howard has tucked in behind the American flag and is backing George Bush's war in Iraq, Thabo Mbeki has used South Africa's clout as a middleweight non-aligned democracy to be a facilitator of peace.


Mbeki is prepared to risk economic harm to his country as the price of non-participation on Iraq, as two leading South African analysts - Greg Mills and Tim Hughes of the South African Institute of International Affairs - noted earlier this month. "If there is credence to the argument that US actions are driven by economic self-interest as much as security concerns, then it will be American, British and Australian companies that will enjoy the spoils of post-war reconstruction in Iraq. If so, South Africa will not be invited to tender", they wrote on March 16 in the South African newspaper, The Independent.

And unlike John Howard, Mbeki has reportedly worked the phones relentlessly in the past month, seeking support from fellow African countries such as Guinea, Cameroon and Angola, who are on the UN Security Council, to prevent conflict in Iraq. He has also spoken to Britain and France.

In fact, Mbeki's commitment to preventing war appears so resolute that he personally led anti-war rallies in his country last month, while Howard condemned them.

Perhaps the clearest and most practical example of South Africa's willingness to use its middle ranking, non-aligned status, was Mbeki's decision to send his Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aziz Pahad, to urge Saddam Hussein to cooperate with the UN weapons inspectors.

South Africa has some experience in dealing with weapons inspectors - in fact Mr Howard turned to South Africa as the model that Iraq should follow if it wants to avoid war.

Howard told the media on February 5 that Iraq must do "what South Africa did when that country decided to renounce dangerous weapons, invite the inspectors in".


Howard was referring to South Africa's voluntary dismantling of its nuclear weapons between 1990 and 1993.

South Africa's strong stance on the Iraq conflict and its preparedness to snub the US should provide a lesson to Australia. For a start, South Africa is not facing the possibility of terrorist activity as a result of its stance on Iraq, whereas there appear to be credible reports that this is the case with Australia. One of the leading experts on Al-Queda, Dr Rohan Gunaratna, said earlier this month that Australia remains in danger of a serious terrorist strike from members of that network operating in south-east Asia. A threat that can only be enhanced by Australia's willingness to participate in a war against Iraq that is arguably illegal in international law.

South Africa's strong opposition to the war also reflects recognition that as the economic powerhouse and political leader of the African continent, it cannot afford to jeopardise regional security and economic integration.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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