Banned by 9 major religions and counting
25 July 2014 15:30 (South Africa)
South Africa

SA’s Foreign Policies: A muddle in the middle

  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa
brooks on SA foreign policy.jpg

There was a time - not so very long ago, in fact - that one version of South African foreign policy was extraordinarily successful worldwide. By the eve of the collapse of Apartheid, after a great deal of concerted hard work, moral force and good friends around the world, the African National Congress had achieved broader international recognition than the official government of South Africa. Over the past decade and more, however, South African foreign policy has been bedevilled by what could be termed a slow-growing, ad hoc amateurism. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

At that time, in alliances with civil society, sports, cultural and labour bodies, the ANC and its collection of related bodies had forged an impressive coalition to delegitimise South Africa’s de jure government in the minds of both people and governments throughout the world.

By 1994, after the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president, in contrast with the previous regime, the then-president asserted that South Africa would engage the world with a principled, highly moral foreign policy. But much has happened since, and future prospects – based on current performance - are not particularly reassuring.

In the early 1990s, Nelson Mandela wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine, “The African National Congress (ANC) believes that the charting of a new foreign policy for South Africa is a key element in the creation of a peaceful and prosperous country. Apartheid corroded the very essence of life in South Africa. This is why the country's emerging political leaders are challenged to build a nation in which all people - irrespective of race, colour, creed, religion or sex - can assert fully their human worth; after apartheid, our people deserve nothing less than the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Mandela added that, “For four decades South Africa's international relations were dogged by the Apartheid issue. By the end of the 1980s, South Africa was one of the most isolated states on earth. Recovering from this will be no easy task….” But he went on to explain the first pillar on which this new foreign policy would be based was, “that issues of human rights are central to international relations and an understanding that they extend beyond the political, embracing the economic, social and environmental….”

But the president, just like so many others, was caught by the realities stemming from that old political adage that while campaigning for office was like reciting poetry, actually governing is like reading aloud from the national tax code. Attempting to implement such a human rights-centred foreign policy towards Nigeria under its odious despot, Sani Abacha, proved far harder to accomplish than to pronounce upon in real, practical terms.

Even so, in 1996, the South African government could still define the country’s international policies, saying: “It could be claimed with confidence that South Africa's return to the international community as a respected ‘world citizen’ has been welcomed widely and warmly the world over….”

In announcing this report, Deputy President Mbeki could comment, “A distinguishing feature of South Africa is the sustained interest of the rest of the world in the future of South Africa. The depth of this interest is not only confined to government, but includes ordinary people and especially those who were involved in the anti-Apartheid movement abroad. They have not disengaged themselves from South Africa since the elections. However, the strength and persistence of the international focus on South Africa puts the South African Government of National Unity under pressure to contribute positively and constructively to the global community.”

Mbeki went on to explain, “There are also expectations from Africa that South Africa should make a significant contribution towards peace and development on the continent. South Africa's problems cannot be worse than those experienced by other African countries. Despite our own limitations and problems, it is our objective to make a significant contribution to ensuring peace, democracy, respect for human rights and sustained development. These principles are fundamental to our foreign policy.”

However, in analysing the realities of the Mbeki period, political analyst Xolela Mangcu has argued, “It was a damaging politics that Mbeki extended to his approach to foreign policy. In this Manichean world of good and evil we were called upon to be either with other Africans or with whites and the West. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe rode not only on the language of racial nativism but also in the knowledge that there were leaders like Mbeki who would protect him in international forums on the account of his race and history.”

Mangcu went on to write that given the country’s powerful circumstances in Africa, “Mbeki also took it upon himself – through the foreign affairs department – to stand up for the continent both in fighting the superpowers but also in determining the terms of the world’s involvement with Africa. Mbeki’s pet projects, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, came under criticism in other parts of the continent precisely because of this ‘big brother’ role… Director of the Centre for African and European Studies at the University of Johannesburg, Gerrit Olivier, described Mbeki’s frenetic activities on the global stage as part of an effort to become ‘Africa’s uberdiplomat and world statesman.’ ”

The government’s position paper issued under the guidance of then-Deputy President Mbeki did note, however, that in addition to its high moral tone, South Africa was also part of a competitive international economic and commercial community. It said, for example, “In South Africa's case, we function as part of Southern Africa and Africa and therefore share an interest in accessing EU markets for export products. Yet there is also competition, which creates an element of rivalry which is healthy in a market-driven economy, but which must be handled with circumspection at inter-government level.” Nonetheless, the Department of Foreign Affairs (predecessor to the current DIRCO), offered as the first clause of its mission and vision statement, the high moral purpose, “Our vision is an African Continent which is prosperous, peaceful, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and united, and which contributes to a world that is just and equitable.”

With this as background, any reasonable statement of South African foreign policy goals, in addition to those abstract, high moral precepts and the broad encouragement to maximize South Africa’s political influence, the country’s foreign policy efforts should also be geared to promoting the country’s economic and commercial prospects. These would include deliberate efforts aimed at opening foreign markets for South African product exports, encouraging foreign investment domestically, and supporting innovation and opportunities for international business ventures. And, of course, it goes without saying the elements of the government, as a whole, need to work in tandem, rather than at cross-purposes or worse.

Over the past decade and more, however, South African foreign policy has been bedevilled by what could be termed a slow-growing, ad hoc amateurism; a too-easy reliance on the formalism of international organisations as a substitute for concrete results; and a growing confusion between supporting economic and commercial goals as a whole - as opposed to acting for the benefit of individual business profits. Taken together, they have sapped the energies of the nation’s international profile - without providing commensurate, real results. As a result, it is possible to argue that South Africa, today, resembles more and more that “pitiful, helpless giant” of Richard Nixon’s late night fears about America caught in the midst of the Vietnam War than it does the view of a colossus that bestrides a continent existing in popular sentiment here.

In fact, analyst Aubrey Matshiqi could be encouraged to pose the questions, “Does South Africa have a foreign policy? And is South Africa’s African agenda Africa’s agenda? There is no prize for guessing that these questions arise because our government is eating humble pie after the Economic Community of Central African States asked us to withdraw from the Central African Republic (CAR).”

On the one hand, several years ago, the South African government was unable to generate enough enthusiasm, expertise and energy to conclude a successful negotiation of a Southern Africa Customs Union – US free trade association, effectively pleading lack of expertise and staffing across departments sufficient to focus fully on the details of such a complicated proposal. But lost in that excuse was the important point that this would have been an agreement that could have offered real, benefits in terms of guaranteed entry into the massive US market, locked in by treaty. (In contrast, tariff free entry under the African Growth and Opportunity Act come from a unilateral US policy, subject to the whims of the Congress – and one up for renewal, change or cessation by 2015.)

By contrast, the entire country and government’s energies have been seized by, first the invitation to join the group, and then the chance to host a BRICS summit meeting. While the real output from such an association has, so far, been minimal beyond the cosmetic, about as much energy as could be gathered across the nation went into the event. And enormous intellectual energies continue to focus on BRICS-related discussions, even as every one of the institutions discussed at the summit still remain years away from real fruition – or any tangible benefit to the country’s economy – and population. Given the fact, further, that South Africa failed, in large part, to draw major benefits from the now-ended long-cycle commodity boom (and is now in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis), the country must examine much more seriously and honestly how the economic impact of its BRICS partners will play out in the years to come.

While the hard work of building concrete bilateral relations can languish, the South African government has, by contrast, poured enormous energies - and not inconsiderable funds - into building up transnational organizational structures such as a powerless Pan African Parliament, the intellectual frolic of the African Renaissance initiative, and a long, torturous (and diplomatically expensive) effort to get the African Union to pick former cabinet member Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma to become the head of the AU Commission, rather than putting her energies to work, helping manage the country.

Meanwhile, the country’s foreign policy was caught up in reversals and embarrassments over what measures it actually supported with regard to Libya and the Ivory Coast, as well as – at least in the cast of the latter – in finding itself at odds with the relevant regional international body, the UN and most of the nations of the region. Further, the country’s foreign policy managers have been unable to bring SA’s political heft to bear on its misbehaving neighbours – from tiny Swaziland to a much larger Zimbabwe. While the former is simply an embarrassment that makes ugly fodder of the country’s statements about human rights, the circumstances of the latter have dramatically affected domestic stability. Not least, this is helping generate over a million economic refugees contributing to domestic social upheavals - and leaving South Africa open to criticism about its selective approaches towards human rights.

More troublingly still, the country’s recent misadventures in the Central African Republic, whatever their ultimate official origins, demonstrate four major problems in South Africa’s foreign policy mechanisms and goals. First there has been a reluctance to clearly and convincingly define the purposes of this troop deployment thousands of kilometres from the nation (as well as what would ultimately have constituted success for such a mission). Second was the apparent inability to project sufficient force – and the supply and resupply logistics – to carry out the mission, whatever it was. Third was the visible confusion within government bureaucracies over the narrative of how that commitment came to be, what had happened and what its legal basis was and thus a consequent confusing pullback in the face of criticism from other African states. And fourth, and most troubling, has been the continuing, rumoured overlap of the military commitment to support a beleaguered, heartily disliked autocrat in return for preferential access to mineral resources by politically wired individuals. (For some, this overlap recalls, just for starters, the way American military units made and unmade Central American rulers on behalf of the United Fruit Company – the very epitome of that value-loaded phrase, “a banana republic.”)

The Economist has recently argued that Zuma’s “ruling African National Congress (ANC) soon had to rebut claims in a national newspaper that the soldiers had been sent to protect the commercial interests of people close to power at home. A readier explanation was less clearly spelled out: that the soldiers were in the CAR, along with troops from neighbouring Chad, as a show of force to help the January accord stick—and to prop up a disliked and autocratic leader. Instead, Mr Zuma and his party talked of ‘training’ and ‘capacity building’ to explain why the troops had been sent there in the first place. That has invited cynicism and anger at home, a response only partly explained by the shock of the casualties. But it also reflects South Africa’s diminished reputation as a power with a foreign policy that can influence events across the continent.”

The paper went on to argue, “Before he took office as president in 1994, Nelson Mandela pledged that human rights would be ‘the light that guides our foreign affairs’. That beacon has dimmed under his successors. Thabo Mbeki, who took over as president in 1999, indulged the human-rights abuses of Robert Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe so as not to align himself with the critical West. Other military and diplomatic ventures, for instance in Congo and Côte d’Ivoire, flopped. More recently Mr Zuma’s foreign-policy coup was to gain his country’s admittance to the BRICS club of emerging countries that includes China and Russia, which habitually block UN resolutions on human rights, often with South African support.”

The Economist concluded that, most recently, at the BRICS grouping, “South Africa is a minnow in such company, even if it’s GDP is easily the biggest in Africa. Indeed, it is this lack of economic muscle, as much as it’s dipping moral authority, that constrains South Africa’s ability to project power across so vast a continent.”

But bureaucratic confusion has manifested itself as part of the problem as well. The current squabble over the planned end of British foreign assistance to South Africa is also a result of some less than clear governmental communication. Aside from the fact that the British government had insisted that the end of aid had already been the subject of numerous bilateral consultations, and various South African government officials had responses that effectively ranged from, “this is totally new, a bombshell” to “well, we discussed it but haven’t agreed to it” to – rather more improbably – “we deserved this money but their cancellation is retribution for South Africa’s participation in BRICS.” Aside from the improbability the budget weenies in Whitehall were consciously weighing BRICS membership versus DIFD help, rather than more probably measuring foreign versus domestic spending in an era of austerity and deep budget cuts - especially when the SA government can spend this same amount on security enhancements at Nkandla - this South African preoccupation with getting a bit more aid rather than putting its financial house in order speaks of yet another element in its reluctance to stake out a clear international position on its relationship to aid donors.

Finally, of course, the most recent embarrassment has been the very public snarls over what is already being called “Guptagate”. Regardless of exactly how the various government offices – DIRCO, the Department of Defense, the line officers at Waterkloof Air Base, the police, the nation’s air traffic controllers, the customs inspectors, among others – were or were not involved in the resulting mess, the result was a clear international embarrassment. It offered a very unflattering view under the skin of the machinery of government. This particularly loose-limbed management of a nation’s foreign relations, allowing the penetration of government offices by a politically potent business group for private purposes, demonstrates the government’s inability to separate public from private and to carry out effective coordination in the face of persistent pressures from the politically connected.

Taken together, the experiences in recent years point to a degradation of the foreign affairs sophistication on behalf of the governing party. Instead, too much energy has gone into flashy but powerless international events and institutions, at the expense of the patient building of real ties to generate concrete benefits for the country’s economy. The country continues to hold to some grand ideals internationally, but they are being overtaken by real tasks, and even as those abstract ideals take a back seat to private gain. Finally, the growing administrative and bureaucratic confusion is now generating real harms.

As Matshiqi sadly concludes, “Another challenge facing the Zuma administration relates to its ability to balance South African interests that are located in a multiplicity of multilateral sites, including the African Union, and bilateral contexts with countries whose interests may be in conflict with ours. All our government must do is to demonstrate an understanding of foreign policy.”

What seems needed now is a vigorous overhaul in the way the South African government looks to its management of foreign policy as a logical, critical extension of national needs and goals, rather than opportunities for global glory. Oh, and while they’re at it, maybe they can keep the Minister for Everybody but Men and for Expensive Shoes from spending millions of desperately needed funds for disability programs on those two-week jols to New York City for international conferences with her buds. DM

Read more:

  • Winning the foreign policy battle begins at home, a column by Aubrey Matshiqi at History Matters website
  • South Africa’s foreign policy CAR crash at the Economist
  • Why is South Africa included in the BRICS? At the Economist
  • South Africa's foreign policy All over the place South Africa is joining the BRICS without much straw at the Economist
  • CRS (Congressional Research Service) Report for Congress, Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress: South Africa: Current Issues and U.S. Relations at the CRS website
  • South Africa's re-entry into the community of nations at the SA Government information website
  • Vision statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs
  • A New Foreign Policy for Jacob Zuma's South Africa at the Brookings Institution website
  • South Africa's Military Adventurism: A Dangerous Shift in Foreign Policy at the SACSIS website
  • South Africa's Future Foreign Policy – Nelson Mandela’s first major foreign policy vision article – in Foreign Affairs
  • South Africa after Mandela at Foreign Policy
  • Foreign Policy Perspective in a Democratic South Africa, at the ANC website
  • SAfrica: officials suspended over wedding scandal at the AP

Photo: President Jacob Zuma (Reuters)

  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa


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