President Nelson Mandela pressed the button and held his breath. If he was hoping to get off lightly after ditching the Republic of China, as Taiwan prefers to be known, as a diplomatic partner, friend and ally, in favour of mainland China, he was quickly disillusioned by the furore that ensued. And the cost is being counted in billions of dollars. TOM NEVIN reports on the implication of Taiwan's retribution.
It has been only a few months since Mr Mandela publicly assured Taiwan s Vice-Premier, Mr Hsu Li-teh, on an official visit to South Africa, that the South African Government had no intention of cutting its diplomatic ties with the Chinese island republic. "To do so," he said, "would be immoral." TOM NEVIN reports on the implication of Taiwan's retribution.
Yet cut them, he did. It was a move that caught South Africa's diplomatic community, particularly the Taiwanese, completely by surprise. "The announcement was totally unexpected," said a distressed Taiwanese Consul-General, Mr Tai Feng. The diplomat had met with Mr Mandela two days before the fateful pronouncement was delivered but no mention had been made then of the fact that his country would be given a 13 month notice period in which to shut down its Pretoria Embassy.
The time South Africa has given Taiwan to pack its bags and go home - they must be gone by 31 December 1997 - is unusually long and is seen as a placatory measure to soften the blow. But it had little effect on Taiwan's anger and sense of injustice and betrayal. Retribution was swift and hugely costly to South Africa.
In the nearly three years of South Africa's majority rule, while the country was sorting out its thinking on foreign affairs, it appeared that it would adopt a "two Chinas" policy. And that was comforting for Taiwan as it seemed that a return on its investment was assured.
Taiwan was open handed when the ANC was contesting the 1994 non-racial elections - it gave the ANC R10m as opposed to mainland China's R2m - and was generous to a fault in funding South Africa's subsequent reconstruction and development programme. It urged the Taiwanese business community to get involved in South African projects. Only recently, it agreed to bank-roll a R13.8bn petrochemical project in the economically depressed Eastern Cape province.
Taiwan should have known better than to hope that South Africa could sustain friendly ties with both Chinas. There could never be any prospect of South Africa establishing formal links...