South Africa’s foreign policy stuck in the doldrums

Categories: | Author: Politics Research | Posted: 3/8/2012 | Views: 3107

When a government department announces a policy White Paper, an expectation is created that a fundamental policy shift is on the horizon. As such, a White Paper offers bold ideas regarding new policy directions. This is not so with the new White Paper on South Africa’s foreign policy developed by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO).


One fundamental shortcoming of the new White Paper on foreign policy is an absence of a clear sense of leadership and purpose about the country’s place in Africa and the world. Its publication, however, should be welcomed, especially because it opens up an important space for the public to subject the work of DIRCO to intense scrutiny.


Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has been promising to deliver this policy framework since March 2010 when she gave her first budget vote. Now that it is finally delivered, what should we make of it?


With the exception of a few areas such as the Southern African Development Partnership Agency (SADPA), aimed at managing South Africa’s development cooperation and humanitarian assistance, and the proposed instruments for engaging civil society stakeholders, much of the White Paper is old wine in new bottles. It essentially regurgitates the old pillars of South Africa’s foreign policy, such as the centrality of the African continent; South-South relations; North-South relations; and promotion of multilateralism and global governance reforms.


Beyond this, the white paper suffers weaknesses in five other important areas. First, its preamble announces a new ‘Diplomacy of Ubuntu’, yet this fizzles out and is not discussed anywhere else except as a passing reference in the conclusion. There are no solid ideas or compelling substance that defines this new diplomacy of Ubuntu.


Second, in its opening paragraphs the White Paper makes an unsubstantiated claim that foreign policy is aligned with South Africa’s domestic and developmental needs. One would be hard pressed to find any serious attempt to demonstrate convincingly how this is so, except to offer a cursory reference to South Africa’s socio-economic profile. There is not even a single line devoted to the New Growth Path, which is South Africa’s flagship development plan. DIRCO should have, at least, set out unambiguously its distinct contribution to promoting economic development.


Fundamentally, the White Paper fails to project a clear purpose for South Africa’s foreign policy and to unveil a new set of instruments and tools that should lend strong meaning to the alignment between foreign policy and key domestic priorities. Even where mention is made of the need to promote economic diplomacy, this is not coherently developed. For example, it does not frame any outline on how government and business can work together to best leverage existing political relations between South Africa and key African countries. And neither does it reveal any strategies for extracting maximum benefits from the continent’s changing commercial landscape for South Africa’s own economic advancement.


Third, the White Paper offers a convoluted definition of national interest. This nebulous notion includes everything that can be imagined under the sun: ‘ensuring the prosperity of the country, its region, and continent’ as well as ‘promoting the well-being, development and upliftment of its [South Africa] people’. This does not register any meaningful focus that at least connects society with the rarefied foreign policy elite. Such thinking just confirms how out of touch our foreign policy is from domestic realities. There should have been recognition of the need for a meaningful dialogue at the national level, cutting across different sectors, including government agencies and business actors, to define how South Africa should evolve a more precise definition of its interests and how these could be best advanced.


Fourth, there is absence of prioritisation of countries that South Africa needs to deepen relations with, both within the African continent and in the rest of the world. Not every country is important to South Africa. The ubiquitous nature of South Africa’s foreign policy posture is further expression of a lack of focus and absence of clear and specific objectives that South Africa seeks to achieve. The White Paper restates the importance of all bilateral commitments in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas and the Caribbean which, in a sense, is a way of manufacturing a rationale for resource commitments to the pursuit of vague foreign policy goals.


Proper foreign policy prioritisation would certainly allow for the resizing of South Africa’s diplomatic missions abroad and thereby ensure greater fiscal efficiency. Alternatively, it would facilitate optimal reallocation of resources in priority areas so as to realise greater benefits for the welfare of South African citizens and its economic actors.


It is no longer tenable to pursue all and sundry in foreign policy and continue to maintain a corpulent diplomatic structure in the face of massive domestic challenges. DIRCO’s work should be forced to contribute to advancing domestic socio-economic priorities. It should convincingly justify its work primarily on the basis of this. Harder questions, therefore, should be asked of DIRCO’s value add, especially to demonstrate concrete benefits it generates for the country in Africa and abroad. If this new White Paper had aimed to achieve just that, it would have been impressive.


Finally, the absence of purpose and ideas in the document is further worsened by the missing substance of South Africa’s leadership in the African continent. The draft White Paper passes the buck on dealing with global or African challenges to either consensual arrangements with other African countries or multilateralism. There is neither a projection of South Africa’s leadership edge nor a distinctly South African agenda in the country’s pursuit of African relations aimed at benefiting other African countries. South Africa’s foreign policy is worryingly differential to other African countries, some of which are run by autocrats and phoney democrats.


South Africa’s lack of ambition to play a leadership role in the continent deprives it of an opportunity to reinforce its values of democracy and human rights in its dealings with other African leaders. South Africa does not even intend to tie these values as precondition for its developmental assistance. This craven attitude towards African countries is not in keeping with South Africa’s stature and its desire to be a global actor that should be taken seriously.


It is this apologetic posture of its foreign policy that explains why President Jacob Zuma angrily confronted the ANC Youth League for pointing out obvious deficiencies of democracy in some of the smaller countries in the region. South Africa is more comfortable indulging dictators than playing the kind of leadership role that is required to steer its region and the African continent in the right direction.


Continuity, rather than bold repositioning, is a theme that runs through the entire White Paper. It is a 36 page document with over 36 references to assertions such as ‘South Africa will continue…’ Each page is meant to remind us that things will stay the same. It is just that the rhetoric has changed its inflection. Anyone who expects to see many new ideas in South Africa’s foreign policy under Nkoana-Mashabane is sure to be disappointed.

The South African government should have used the process of developing the White Paper to hone what the International Relations scholar, Joseph Nye Jr, characterises in his book, The Future of Power, as smart power. Nye suggests that countries using smart power have ‘the ability to combine hard and soft power resources into effective strategies’, and this is achieved through well-designed strategies and skilful leadership. South Africa’s foreign policy should thus be calibrated to produce desired outcomes and to create benefits for the country, especially in the African continent.

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