SA's insecurity, its desire to belong, make it pander to the outrages of Africa's pariahs
The fact that Grace Mugabe can come into this country, brazenly attack one of its citizens and then play hide-and-seek with the law when she's kindly invited to appear in court to answer charges, is an indication South Africa has become a lawless jungle.
She's behaving as though she was in Zimbabwe, where she'd probably have received an award for bravery, and her victim thrown in jail instead.
But we invite characters like Grace Mugabe by our own action. If the law is brought into disrepute by its own people, primarily the political class which is meant to enforce it, foreigners cannot be expected to respect it.
As a result, South Africa has become a magnet for all sorts of miscreants - traffickers of drugs and humans, mobsters, money launderers, hijackers of all manner of things including buildings, and religious quacks out for a fast buck. It's a playground for the corrupt and the crooked.
No wonder Grace Mugabe is miffed she's being picked on. After all, hers was not a serious misdemeanour. Just a wayward electric cord that accidentally collided with a pretty face. Small potatoes. Thabo Mbeki certainly seems to agree. He says he hopes the fracas won't be allowed to damage relations between the two countries.Mbeki was talking from experience. As president he looked the other way when Botswana hanged a South African citizen. His government wouldn't raise a finger to save her from the gallows for fear of annoying a fellow African country.
This time around no life is stake. Just a storm in a teacup. So it's not worth rocking the boat.
But what's the point of "good relations" if they don't serve the interests of our people? What these so-called relations have done is to reduce a previously prosperous country to a basket case.
But Mbeki is probably referring to his friendship with Robert Mugabe. Being in Mugabe's good books has been the government's guiding principle, especially under Mbeki. It is still the view of many in the current government. That explains the lies and obfuscation we've seen from officialdom since Grace Mugabe caused a diplomatic storm by wielding that electric cord.
The government seems to deliberately misunderstand its obligations. The paramount responsibility of any government - its primary reason for existence - is to protect its citizens, be it at home or abroad. Nobody should be allowed to harm or hurt any of its citizens and get away with it.
But the government has been so negligent in this regard that crime, for instance, has become a way of life.
Normal procedure dictates that a suspect in a criminal case be arrested and brought to court. So why was Grace Mugabe not arrested? Why was she allowed to promise to saunter to court almost at her leisure? And when she didn't come as promised, why wasn't she apprehended?
South Africa has been made a laughing stock over the matter. The law has been brought into disrepute, which is an invitation to lawlessness. Those with means and influence are allowed to do as they please.Imagine if Grace Mugabe were an American or British visitor who had committed such an offence? We would be hearing charges of how we have been disrespected and even of racism. We would have thrown the book at her. Our principles are often flexible; they're for hire.
The eagerness to subvert our principles to please or accommodate every pathology or wrongdoing on the continent is often driven by a deep sense of insecurity. We want to belong. We bend over backwards in order to please, at the expense of our values and our laws - sacrificing the things that make us who we are.
The rot set in right at the very beginning. The new South Africa was hardly a year old when, in 1995, Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha defied world opinion and hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa, an Ogoni activist. Nelson Mandela, after publicly berating Abacha, dispatched Mbeki, his then deputy president, to Nigeria to express his displeasure. Instead, Mbeki went to Nigeria to apologise.
That need, that eagerness to belong, has driven - and constrained- our Africa policy. We see it in our government's complicity in the destruction of Zimbabwe. We've convinced ourselves, for instance, that persuading Mugabe to abide by the will of his people is akin to doing the West's bidding.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame sent his henchmen to gun down, in broad daylight, dissidents resident in South Africa. And when President Jacob Zuma subsequently met him, instead of reprimanding him, he apologised for the strong language used to denounce the shootings.
And, of course, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, sought by the International Criminal Court for genocide, was allowed into the country at Mugabe's behest, and then spirited away in defiance of our courts.
South Africa, with its sophisticated economy, could deploy its muscle for the betterment of the continent and its people. But its eagerness to go with the flow has hamstrung it to such an extent that a run-of-the-mill criminal case seems a bridge too far.