The new director-general of the Department of International Relations, Jerry Matjila, says the country has to lead by following the constitution and doing what is right.

The ANC government has often been criticised for failing to protect human rights in its foreign policy.

But Jerry Matjila, the new director-general of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco),insists that is changing.

“The president and the minister (of Dirco, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane) have told every one of our diplomats that the Bill of Rights is your Bible,” he said in an interview at the Dirco headquarters in Pretoria. “We have a vision to create a better world with more justice and more human rights.”

He recently took up the post after returning from Geneva, where he had been ambassador to the UN.

Matjila is a seasoned career diplomat who represented the ANC abroad before 1994.

He says he has seen significant changes in foreign policy over the last two years – not only on human rights, but also in the more aggressive stance towards opening international markets and dealing with conflict.

Political analysts have seen possible evidence of the benefits of this engagement – Zuma being able to persuade the likes of Angola’s Eduardo dos Santos that the SADC must take a tougher line against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

An issue which ignited the most controversy during the Mbeki administration was the 2007 vote against a UN Security Council resolution condemning the military junta in Myanmar (Burma) for human rights abuses.

South Africa gave complex procedural and strategic reasons for its vote, but human rights advocates were unconvinced and felt South Africa had betrayed its own human rights legacy.

Matjila said that would not happen again. “If the junta puts this woman (detained opposition leader Aung San Su Ki) in prison, why protect the junta? So there are very clear and unambiguous instructions from the top on these questions,” he said. He went on to describe how he had “ruffled the feathers” of other African governments by invoking the Bill of Rights to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from persecution and discrimination.

It might surprise some human rights advocates to hear this. Matjila had annoyed them last year when he said in the UN Human Rights Council that extending the protection of the 2001 Durban Declaration against racism to gays would “demean” the victims of racism.

In a similar vein, at the third committee of the UN General Assembly in New York, South Africa voted for an amendment proposed by the Africa group which successfully removed the words “sexual orientation” from a resolution to protect various categories of vulnerable people from “extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions”.


A few weeks later South Africa switched its position in the General Assembly, supporting a US-sponsored amendment to re-insert “sexual orientation” into the resolution. The amendment was successful.

But South Africa still criticised Western nations for being “divisive” by trying to insert the “gay issue” into different draft resolutions on human rights.

In June this year, Matjila sponsored and persuaded the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution to establish a working group to discuss how human rights law could be used to protect gays against discrimination and violence.

The Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) told him he should leave the issue to the West. Many African countries agreed.

“In sub-Saharan Africa almost 80 percent of countries say (homosexuality) is criminal because of culture. Among Muslim nations, almost 100 percent regard it as criminal, for religious reasons,” he said.

But he told them: “Our constitution enjoins us to tackle this issue. Can we keep quiet or not lead? No. We had to. Of course, you lose friends and allies, but as a country we feel we have to defend them because it’s the right thing to do.”

He finds it very ironic that homosexuality is now branded as “culturally un-African”.

Most African states which criminalise it inherited those laws from the British or French. “But when the colonial regimes changed, we didn’t change the penal codes,” he said. “Now we say it’s ‘culture’.”

In the end the debate was very close – 23 countries on the UN HRC voted for the resolution, and 19 were against, with two abstentions.

He feels so strongly about this issue he will go back to Geneva to chair the working group now set up to tackle it.

Another important shift in foreign policy, which Matjila has identified over the past two years, has been towards a more aggressive pursuit of South Africa’s economic interests.

He said Zuma was a super salesman who was never shy to promote South Africa’s econ-omic interests with foreign leaders, including those of India and China.

Zuma was one of the proponents of South Africa joining the Bric (Brazil. Russia, India China) group of large, emerging economies earlier this year.

“We are becoming increasingly competitive in producing finished products. We need new markets for those. We will always have markets for our commodities, but manufactured goods are the challenge. That’s why we are re-gearing our foreign policy towards those markets.”

At last year’s South Africa-EU summit in Brussels, EU officials had expressed concern about South Africa joining Bric.

“I said: ‘Have no fear, our old, established relations are still important; the EU is still our biggest investor and still provides the greatest technology transfers, tourists, and training of our people, including our scientists. So those relations are too mature to do away with or substitute.’”

Multilateralism – addressing international issues through international organisations like the UN rather than through individual nations – is a key foreign policy platform for South Africa.

“It is the only way we, as South Africa, can benefit from common goods, and participate equally,” said Matjila.

But multilateralism presents its own challenges and pitfalls, as South Africa discovered over the Libya issue.

Almost certainly South Africa’s most controversial foreign policy decision this year was its vote for the UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorised a no-fly zone over Libya and “all necessary measures” to be used to enforce it and to protect civilians.

South Africa was criticised, either for supporting Resolution 1973 in the first place, or for being inconsistent and naive in criticising Nato.

Matjila insisted South Africa had done the right thing in voting for Resolution 1973 to prevent further loss of civilian lives. “We couldn’t keep quiet when one of our own people was killing his own people,” he said.

Resolution 1973 also acknowledged the AU’s roadmap for resolving the Libyan crisis. But he acknowledged that South Africa had not fully explored in advance how the resolution would be implemented.

South Africa believed the UN – rather than Nato – would implement it. He said there was no formal system at the UN Security Council for interpreting resolutions.

“Fifteen members interpret it 15 different ways. Some have the means to enforce their interpretations and some don’t,” he said. “It certainly opened my mind that maybe, before passing resolutions, parties concerned should exchange ideas on how you implement it.”

Matjila also said the Zuma administration’s more orthodox HIV/Aids policy had helped diplomats sell South Africa. Where before they fielded lots of criticism, “now we get only praise”.

He also hopes that later this year Parliament will adopt the new foreign policy white paper which has been drafted over the past year. He also wishes for the adoption of legislation to establish South Africa’s first development agency. The SA Development Partnership Agency would raise South Africa to the level of a donor country.

Peter Fabricius - Daily News