South Africa’s foreign policy is crying out for leadership and innovative ideas. Recently South Africa’s behaviour on the global stage has been nothing short of comical. There was the inexplicable hostility to the Dalai Lama’s visit, then an inability to provide convincing reasons for endorsing United Nations Resolution 1973 on Libya, and lately timorous fence-sitting on Syria despite evident atrocities on the ground.
We also didn’t help our case on the African continent by insisting on Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s candidature for the African Union’s top job without a compelling motive. Couching its irrational campaign for Dlamini-Zuma as a crusade against “French imperialism” is an insult to important countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, and Ethiopia who are opposed to South Africa’s candidate.
Disturbingly, there is a growing populist rhetoric of “anti-imperialism” and “anti-colonialism” in Pretoria’s foreign policy posture. It is becoming fashionable to frame Western countries in this mould. This 1950s era anti-Western tone is a thread that runs through the ANC’s recent discussion document on International Relations.
Further, the ANC castigates the G20 as a legitimation of failed ideologies and as ‘not yet platform for fresh new thinking on global economic governance, nor should any approach be expected out of it in the absence of proactive strategic interventions by progressives’. Not only does this suggest gross ignorance of how the world has changed, but also betrays an absence of new ideas in the ruling party about advancing South Africa’s place in the world.
On Africa, the ANC cautions against South Africa playing a leadership role. In place of leadership it proposes a vacuous faith: to ‘hold fast our continued belief that our prosperity is directly linked to the prosperity of Africa’. If this was a document produced by a fringe group of radical leftist it would be easy to ignore. However, the ANC’s thinking has a fundamental influence on government. Its policy documents are likely to crystallise into a ‘Mangaung Consensus’ that will be foisted on government departments.
This outmoded thinking on foreign policy reflects not only the absence of talent on foreign policy matters at Luthuli House, but also poverty of advice around President Jacob Zuma. It is not that South Africa’s foreign policy has always been perfect, but the pillars that were carefully constructed during the early years of democracy are showing signs of weakening.
It appears that foreign policy decisions are informed by gut feelings of a coterie of party cadres with very limited involvement of technocrats. If South Africa wants to be taken seriously in Africa and abroad it will need to advance its foreign policy on different and better terms than suggested in the ANC’s document. The best start is to shift foreign policy thinking from Luthuli House to DIRCO, and build sufficient expertise for effective execution unencumbered by party dogmas about the West.
The country’s posture in Africa must shift from being guilt-driven to boldly setting out how it will take advantage of the commercial dynamism of the African continent. This means formulating strategies for the country to compete head-to-head with major emerging countries such as the BRIC, South Korea and Gulf states who are enlarging their footprints in agriculture, engineering services, mining, and infrastructure development throughout the continent. Our foreign policy must be in tune with the changing realities in the African continent and the needs of South African companies. The commercial edge of any diplomatic influence is a nation’s business sector, something the ANC does not seem to grasp. One of the critical touchstones of South Africa’s foreign policy should be how it enhances national economic competitiveness.
Finally, South Africa should deepen relations with Western countries while maintaining its diplomatic assertiveness. Recasting the West as devils with horns will not help South Africa in any way. While it is true that advanced industrial countries are experiencing anaemic growth and have a chequered past in the African continent, they remain vital sources of technical know-how and investment. South Africa should thus be careful not to put all its eggs in the BRIC basket. Its foreign policy can be greatly enhanced by balancing its newly found relations with the BRIC countries on the one hand, and Western countries on the other.
The closest relationships that most of the BRIC countries have are with the US and the European Union than amongst themselves. India received an endorsement for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council from the US during Obama’s visit to that country in 2011 rather than from its neighbour and fellow BRICS member, China.
Russia prioritises energy interdependence with Europe as a centrepiece of its foreign policy. China has a strong footprint in the US banking and technology sectors with significant investments in energy markets in the US and Canada. Brazil maintains a delicate balancing act in its bilateral relations with China and the US.
If South Africa is serious about its place in the world and its leadership in Africa it will have to reorient its foreign policy. This cannot happen while the party ideologues at Luthuli House call the shots instead of a competent cadre of technocrats at DIRCO.