Zuma decodes South African foreign policy

By Khadija Patel 14 October 2011

President Zuma was in top form at the University of Pretoria on Thursday when he interpreted South Africa’s foreign policy. With surprising confidence but characteristic warmth, he waded through the morass of South Africa’s international relations and even managed a little dig at Julius Malema. By KHADIJA PATEL.

South Africa has been forced to explain a string of curious foreign policy decisions recently. Often, the explanations offered failed to account for the intelligence of the South African populace or its government. Zuma’s lecture on the country’s foreign policy has however succeeded in clearly enunciating South Africa’s position on a dizzying array of international issues. He offered a cogent explanation of the thrust of South African foreign policy with a confidence that belied the many challenges he currently faces. Zuma left no doubt about who exactly was in charge of the country and he sought as well to dispel claims of foreign influences into South Africa’s decisions on the international stage.   

“Our foreign policy is independent and decisions are informed by the national interest. We look at what is of benefit to the South African people, and what will advance our domestic priorities at that given time. We are not dictated to by other countries, individuals or lobby group interests within our own country,” Zuma punched out.  Later a University of Pretoria student would ask him how the government would defend its foreign policy from individuals in lobby groups that call for regime change in neighbouring countries. Zuma enjoyed a hearty laugh at the impertinence of the student and pointed out that the “individual” was already subjected to a disciplinary hearing by his organisation. “You can only know once the person has spoken what that person wanted to say,” he said. Zuma noted that the democratic culture of South Africa allowed for vigorous dialogue and the government would not stop any person from pronouncing their views on international matters.

Zuma emphasised that South Africa’s foreign policy was a culmination of the views of such people. “The basis of our foreign policy was crafted by ordinary people of the Republic of South Africa, and is embodied in the Freedom Charter of 1955,” he said. Zuma also credited former ANC President Oliver Tambo for defining the thrust of the country’s foreign policy in 1977. “We seek to live in peace with our neighbours and the peoples of the world in conditions of equality, mutual respect and equal advantage,” Zuma quoted Tambo.  

Zuma further revealed that the country’s foreign policy is founded on “four pillars”. First, priority is accorded to SADC and Africa. “We work with countries of the developing South to address shared challenges of underdevelopment,” he said. Next, South Africa seeks to promote global equity and social justice. Thirdly, South Africa recognises the significance of the “developed North” in forging ahead. “We work with countries of the developed North to develop a true and effective partnership for a better world,” Zuma said.  The last tenet of South Africa’s foreign policy stresses a desire to revise the balance of power on the international stage. “We play our part to strengthen and transform the multilateral system, to reflect the diversity of our nations, and ensure its centrality in global governance,” he said.

While Zuma noted that South Africa’s “primary focus remains the African continent”, he failed to clarify the mechanics of South Africa’s policy towards development and humanitarian aid. South Africa is already one of the greatest providers of development aid in Africa but the Somali famine this year left the government fumbling in its response to the humanitarian emergency. Zuma claimed South Africa supported “a comprehensive approach that addresses both the economic and political dimensions of Somalia including the need to resolve the security and humanitarian situation in that country,” but failed to identify if that support includes a more proactive role in mediating the Somali conflict. Zuma warmly commended South African relief agencies and singled out Gift of the Givers for special praise.  “They fly the South African flag of love and care in challenging conditions, creating a positive feeling about our country amongst many people in distress around the world, from Somalia to Japan,” he said.

It is South Africa’s embrace of China, however, that has been the cause of much bemusement in recent weeks. And while Zuma pronounced cordial relations with the United States, he was particularly effusive on South African relations with China. Zuma detailed South Africa’s derecognition of Taiwan and recognition instead of the People’s Republic of China, stressing South Africa’s support for the “One China” policy. Zuma revealed that in a Joint Communiqué dated 30 December 1997, the governments of South Africa and China agreed to a policy of “non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful co-existence”. When later prompted on the delay in processing the Dalai Lama’s visa, Zuma was made to comment on the debacle for the first time. He stressed the complexity of the issue.  Zuma indicated that the delay stemmed from South Africa’s immigration policies and indicated that the Dalai Lama was not accorded special treatment by South Africans. “Dalai Lama is an individual who applied for a visa to come to South Africa,” Zuma said. He claimed it was “very difficult” to detail what exactly had happened at immigration after the visa application was received. “Countries deal with immigration in many ways,” Zuma said. He went on to compare the delay in the processing of the monk’s visa to the US branding ANC cadres terrorists during apartheid. He noted that even Mandela was labelled a terrorist and Tokyo Sexwale had in recent years complained that he was not offered a US visa because he was once branded a terrorist in American books.  Zuma said that the decision taken by the US was a matter of ensuring internal security and national interests. The comparison is a beguiling one but it is very clever as well. It served to remind the US of a historical slight, quieting implicit American criticism by pointing out that the US is itself not averse to making unpopular immigration choices.

Zuma also once more reproached Nato for “abusing” the UN imposed no-fly zone in Libya to further their own interests, but offered the strongest rebuke of Gaddafi. Zuma explained that South Africa voted in favour of the UN Security Council resolution because it sought to protect civilians from Gaddafi. Zuma said Gaddafi’s forces had opened fire against unarmed protesters and noted, “Gaffafi’s regime was capable of continuing its atrocities.” Zuma said contrary to some opinion, Libya under Gaddafi was not a democracy. “There were no principles that guided the authority of Libya. Libya was ruled by Gaddafi and Gaddafi alone,” he said.

Zuma’s words against Gaddafi were remarkable in their strength but incongruous for the leader of a country that was not too long ago suspected to have offered Gaddafi asylum. If this has indeed been South Africa’s stance all along and not a recent reversal, it proves a stunning indictment of the South African government’s failure to pronounce its stance on Gaddafi more clearly.

Zuma went on to indicate that if presented with the same resolution today, South Africa would again vote in favour of it but would demand that measures be taken to prevent abuse of the resolution by countries looking to further their own interests. He further noted that South Africa’s abstention from the Security Council vote on Syria last week stemmed from fears that the resolution may once more be abused.

Diplomats and political researchers alike have bemoaned a lack of a codified South African foreign policy but Zuma has taken the first steps towards ensuring South Africa’s actions on the international stage are more comprehensible. But the delay in offering such an explanation may well have already cost South Africa a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. DM

Read more:

  • Read President Zuma’s full speech at The Presidency;
  • Zuma: Nobody dictates SA foreign policy in News24;
  • South Africa’s Zuma says UN Security Council needs African member in Monsters and Critics.



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