The ruckus around Solly Msimanga's visit to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, seems to be all about politics and not a whole lot about diplomacy and foreign affairs.
The real reason why the African National Congress (ANC) has accused Msimanga of all sorts of things (like "treason" and "running a parallel government") is because he is from the Democratic Alliance (DA) and mayor of the Tshwane Metropolitan Council. Tshwane used to be controlled by the ANC, but the party was unable to muster enough support during the last local government election and lost the mayoral chain.
We clearly have not factored in the results of that election. It was huge and the repercussions will be felt in our body politic for years. The ANC's loss of Pretoria, the country's capital, is big. It effectively means the seat of government – the Union Buildings – the head of state's official residence, ministers' mansions and every government department resides in a city controlled by the opposition. Similarly, the legislature sits in a province which has been controlled by opposition parties since a DA-led coalition swept the ANC out of Cape Town in 2006.
It hurts. And Msimanga is an easy target.
Clear,insightful & educational statement on DA-TAIWAN links. Taiwan backed apartheid, was close ally of Nats. DA wants to restore relations⤵ https://t.co/9KMITjHZMK— Moloto Mothapo (@MolotoMothapo) January 2, 2017
According to Msimanga, he visited the Taipei mayor at the latter's invitation to explore investment opportunities for both cities, and accepted the invite because every avenue needs to be explored to cultivate economic ties to the benefit for the people of his city. He added this was not an official visit, but was conducted while he was on official leave and paid for by the Taiwanese.
The Tshwane mayor and his advisors are no fools. There is no such thing as an "unofficial visit" – Msimanga was invited because he's mayor, not because he's Solly from Tshwane. It doesn't matter on who's time it happened or if the metro council footed the bill. Obviously the Taiwanese believe there are opportunities for them and the mayor might be able to assist.
The department of international relations and cooperation says Msimanga notified them of the visit and they advised him not to follow through, saying all visits need to be coordinated and conducted within the framework of South Africa's foreign policy.
DIRCO must just confiscate Msimanga's official/diplomatic passport for wilfully undermining SA's foreign policy - we can't debate forever!— Moloto Mothapo (@MolotoMothapo) January 3, 2017
Msimanga, apparently, ignored the advice and went ahead, meeting the mayor of Taipei, posing for pictures (which the ANC interpreted as taunting it) and, upon his return, defending the jaunt in the name of encouraging investment.
On the face of it, it seems Msimanga might have enjoyed flexing his executive muscle and using some political capital on independent diplomatic forays. Politically, it might have been ill-advised (the DA-led coalition in Tshwane will have a number of battles to fight this year) and done simply to irritate the ANC.
But it seems that the ANC - which says he defied diplomatic policy and brought South Africa into disrepute, and views the visit as an attempt to resuscitate relations with "one of the National Party's staunchest friends" - is being more than disingenuous in its attack on Msimanga.
"Treason: The crime of betraying one's country, especially by attempting to kill or overthrow the sovereign or government."— Mbhazima Shilowa (@Enghumbhini) January 3, 2017
South Africa have maintained an official presence in Taipei ever since then-President Nelson Mandela announced in November 1996 that diplomatic ties with Taipei would be severed in favour of Beijing. That decision was the result of two years of indecision by the new ANC government on which of the two Chinas the new South Africa should have official relationships with.
At that stage, South Africa was one of 30 countries – and by far the biggest and most influential – that had diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which is regarded by Beijing as a province and breakaway state. Taiwan knew that it was crucial that Mandela's South Africa be kept on-side in its efforts to gain international recognition as a sovereign state and re-entry into the United Nations (UN), which has since the early 1970's only recognised Beijing.
Its biggest coup was when Mandela solicited support from the Taiwanese government in the run-up to the 1994 elections, accepting more than R30 million for the party's election campaign. After Mandela became president, Taiwan increased investment into the country and assisted the ANC government's flagship programme, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP).
During a visit by the Taiwanese vice-premier in August 1996, barely two months before South Africa decided to dump Taipei, Mandela said his government will not forsake Taiwan and that the country helped the ANC financially during the struggle. "We can't now say we want nothing to do with Taiwan. I won't be guilty of that," Mandela said.
At that stage Taiwanese investment in 620 South African companies, employing more than 40,000 people, amounted to almost R6,5-billion.
But realpolitik – the rise of China, South Africa's investment needs and the country's diplomatic repositioning – dictated that Mandela's government was only going to look in one direction, and that was to Beiijing, not Taipei. Taiwan was furious, recalling its ambassador (who, upon departing, said Mandela told him he was under "unbearable" pressure) and saying it won't encourage any further investment in South Africa.
Beijing has since become South Africa's single biggest trading partner (although the European Union as a bloc is still bigger) and a key international ally. Trade between the two amounted to more than R293,6-billion in 2015.
This country also has a "liaision office" in Taipei, with the express mandate to "maintain and expand" economic, trade and investment "exchanges" between the two.
Musawenkosi Aphane, South Africa's senior representative (as opposed to "ambassador" or "high commissioner") writes in a message on the office's website: "The strength of cooperation between South Africa and Taiwan is underpinned by our similar values and principles that are informed by our commitment to a technical partnership aimed at advancing South Africa and Taiwan's domestic development priorities. Our total bilateral trade was recorded at over US$2,2 billion for 2012."
The department of trade and industry even led a group of local investors to Taiwan in 2014 to market South Africa as an "investment destination of choice".
If Msimanga went to Taiwan to encourage investment, it seems it was done within the framework set by our foreign and trade policy, as set out on the department of international relations and cooperation's own website. (Thanks to Max du Preez, who first tweeted about it.) He can hardly reset relations on his own.
The visit might not be clever politics, but it certainly wasn't treason. If it was, why did Mandela not face another treason charge, to go with his first one?