(The Root) — South African President Jacob Zuma began his remarks to the press corps this week with an ode to two men.
The first, predictably, was former President Nelson Mandela, a 94-year-old anti-apartheid icon and Nobel Peace laureate who is seen as the father of modern South Africa. The second man he named, however, is a telling indicator of where Africa's economic powerhouse sees itself — and how the nation seems to be resisting the tide of American hegemony. It was Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro.
In that speech earlier this week, Zuma hailed Castro as "one of the revolutionary icons in the fight for freedom and equity in a world free from oppression, exploitation and prejudice."
South Africa has historically leaned left — Zuma and his cohorts in the African National Congress refer to one another as "comrade," and the ruling coalition counts the South African Communist Party as an important member of the bloc. But one of the reasons South Africa may be pulling back from Western hegemony could be that it wants to distance itself from the current global economic crisis. Also, South Africa pushed for its finance minister to head the World Bank and clearly feels that its economic voice is not being heard.
The United States has close and positive diplomatic relations with South Africa, but this hasn't always been the case. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney dredged up that fact from the past in the third presidential debate, when he equated Iran with apartheid-era South Africa.
"I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world," he said, referring to Iran, "the same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa."
These days, it seems as if South Africa is the one turning away a little bit. That's exemplified by two recent South African actions: its decision to join a grouping of developing nations in 2011 and Zuma's current crusade for more African representation on the United Nations Security Council.
"There is a little bit of ideology of not letting the North tell us what to do, but at the same time, our main trading partner is the European Union, and the U.S. is an extremely important trading partner," said Tom Wheeler, a former South African diplomat who works as a research associate with the South African Institute of International Affairs.
Wheeler — whose first diplomatic posting was to Washington, D.C., in November 1963, the same month as the Kennedy assassination — said that the ANC leaders' love of Cuba is a relic of the struggle against apartheid. Cuba sided with the anti-apartheid movement by fighting against South Africa's apartheid government in Angola in the 1970s.
"It all revolves around that struggle-era sentiment," Wheeler said, adding that South Africa and the United States have stronger relations today than do South Africa and Cuba. "It's not rational."
Last year South Africa joined BRIC, an economic coalition composed of Brazil, Russia, India and China. The addition changed the group's name to BRICS. As South Africa's deputy minister of international relations and cooperation, Ebrahim Ebrahim, explained in an October speech in Johannesburg, BRICS wants to create "a more democratic international system founded on the rule of law and multilateral diplomacy."
He said the group believes that "today's world order should be based on the rule of international law and the strengthening of multilateralism, with the United Nations playing the central role" — instead of one nation. This decision makes sense in light of South Africa's relationship with the United States, Wheeler said.
"My sense is that the relationship is better, not brilliant. There's always this sort of 'wicked West' attitude that floats around, but it's not as expressed as it was before," he said. "We've got to get along with the Americans; we can't just write America off."
That studied indifference was evident when Zuma dodged this reporter's question seeking his thoughts on the upcoming American election and American policy toward Africa.
"All that we are interested in is to ensure that the American people make their choice," he said. "Once they've made their choice, we'd like to see our relationship growing stronger. We'd want to see the policy of the United States being good toward Africa, but as to who must win, that's the business of the Americans. I wouldn't want to venture into that one."
At least he was less blunt than his Cuban hero. In January, Castro weighed in on the race in a scathing editorial in state-run media. If Americans had to choose between Obama, a Republican candidate and a robot, he wrote, "Ninety percent of voting Americans — especially Hispanics, blacks and the growing number of the impoverished middle class — would vote for the robot."
Anita Powell is a Johannesburg-based journalist who has covered Africa for five years and Iraq and Afghanistan previously. Follow her on Twitter.