This isn't a politics blog, but I've argued before that South Africa's participation on the UN Security Council is brining shame to the country, that it amounts to "Voting for Authoritarianism". On that occasion, I condemned the South African government for voting with Russia and China against a draft resolution that would have censured Burma over its human rights abuses. Now South Africa has again sided with a bunch of autocracies (China, Libya, Russia and Vietnam) by voting against a resolution (pdf) on Zimbabwe that would have, among other things, (a) condemned the regime for stealing the recent election, (b) called for a return to democracy, (c) imposed an arms embargo and (d) placed targeted sanctions on the upper echelons of the government. Just like on the Burma vote, South Africa is the only liberal democracy that voted against the resolution. (Indonesia, which is also a democracy, abstained on both votes).
The minutes (pdf) of the meeting make it clear that the South African government is taking a ridiculously procedural view of matters. South Africa's ambassador to the UN, Dumisani Kumalo, argued that while government was worried about the situation in Zimbabwe, South Africa is obliged to follow the African consensus as expressed by SADC and the AU. And SADC and the AU did not call for sanctions, simply expressed "grave concern". Kumalo went on to say "dialog" between the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC parties is the only way the problem can be addressed.
While I have not been a critic of "quiet diplomacy" in the past (because the alternative policy options looked worse), it's clear things have changed: the Zimbabwean government has absolutely no legitimacy left and it has taken electoral fraud, violence and political intimidation to new heights. It is also clear that Mugabe will never give up power voluntarily and negotiations are doomed to failure as a result unless outside pressure is put on the regime. The argument that South Africa is oblidged to follow African consensus is a transparent excuse and belied by the fact that tiny Burkina Faso managed to vote for the resolution.
Thomas Friedman is perfectly right, I think, to argue South Africa, Russia and China may be popular, but they are spineless.
Update: the UN document handling system seems to be deeply silly, so the links to the draft resolution and the minutes might not work. Have a look at this page, and search for "Peace and security--Africa (Zimbabwe)" to find the relevant documents.