South Africa’s foreign policy: Progress or ‘Progressive’?

South Africa’s foreign policy: Progress or ‘Progressive’?

Instead of making progress beyond the creditable and successful record built by Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s foreign policy now threatens to be regressive by choosing ideology over content and outcome. The African National Congress’s ‘progressive’ world view bears little reality to a modern world of fast-flowing finance, the competitive policy requirements whereby states attract investors, and the importance of keeping international doors to trade and capital open, which also includes a modicum of humility and observance of the niceties of diplomatic tactfulness. It may prove tricky to have your radical cake and eat chicken too. By MALCOLM FERGUSON and GREG MILLS.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa recently defended South Africa’s international relations strategy in Parliament, saying: “Our foreign policy is very progressive. It cannot be faulted.” He said the African National Congress (ANC) was implementing “the best foreign policy this country has ever had”.

The timing of the deputy president’s intervention coincided with The Economist’s denunciation of South Africa’s foreign policy as “clueless and immoral”, contrasting the government’s refusal to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama with whisking away Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir from the African Union summit, and highlighting the irrational belief that trade with China depends on hostility towards the West which, ironically, remains South Africa’s largest trading partner.

And that article was, in turn, linked to the release of the ANC’s National General Council 2015 foreign policy discussion document, outlining a role for the party as a member of the “international revolutionary movement to liberate humanity from the bondage of imperialism and neo-colonialism”, and declaring the ANC’s staunch support for China and Russia.

The document is most notable for its portrayal of the US as ‘imperialist’ and ‘aggressive’, and of the ANC’s role as ‘progressive’, a term repeated 25 times. There is a new sense of urgency assigned to this role. From the party’s vantage: “The sudden collapse of socialism in the world altered completely the balance of forces in favour of imperialism. It ushered in a new world hegemonic era of global socio-economic agenda of capitalism and free market imperatives.” Rather than embracing this new world, which has seen unprecedented reductions in poverty numbers worldwide, the document argues that this has to be undone. In the 20 years from the end of the Cold War, those living in poverty fell by half as a share of the total population in developing countries to 21%, a reduction of nearly 1-billion people. Yet the document says: “Imperialism has plunged humanity into a perpetual socio-economic crisis”. It adds: “The high levels of poverty, inequality, unemployment, disease and underdevelopment confirm our long held view that the capitalist market economy cannot resolve its own contradictions.”

And this document has been followed up by a debate led by the ANC around dual citizenship, a move apparently designed to prevent South Africans fighting in the Israeli army – ignoring of course that hundreds, even thousands, of South Africans, black and white, are volunteer, career soldiers in the British and US armed forces – while the Israeli armed forces accept no volunteers, only Jewish immigrants who have resided in that country for three years and have had Israeli citizenship automatically conferred upon them by law, resulting from their period of residence as immigrants.

In explaining the thinking overall behind this policy, Deputy Minister in the Presidency Obed Bapela has said that the ANC is attempting to build “an alternative agenda for the world” one that he too refers to as “progressive movement”.

Is this then the best-ever foreign policy the country has possessed, and is it ‘progressive’?

The metrics, of course, are subjective, to a point. Under Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, the country punched well above its weight in foreign policy, and was able to make progress in dealing with major international issues, the Israel-Palestine conflict included. This did not require a new so-called ‘south-south’ organisation like Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) or the India, Brazil, South Africa Dialogue Forum, but involved simple nuanced presidentially-led diplomacy taking advantage of South Africa’s chosen position, well placed within the leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement.

For example, rather than flaying the Israelis with cobwebs, Mandela used his offices to broker a meeting between the pro-peace then Israeli president Ezer Weizman and Yasser Arafat.

Equally, Mbeki met with or spoke to Arafat as regularly as he did the Israeli prime ministers Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon and other Israeli notables such as Shimon Peres in an effort to offer South Africa’s experience in conflict resolution to try to help bring peace to the region. Mbeki committed a great deal of his own personal political capital to engage pro-peace leaders in Palestinian and Israeli society, while Aziz Pahad, his long serving deputy minister and point man on the Middle East, was as much at home engaging Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in Baghdad about ostensibly concealed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ as he was meeting Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It was these efforts at international good citizenship which gave South Africa considerable international gravitas.

Instead of making progress beyond such a creditable and successful record, South Africa’s foreign policy now threatens to be regressive by inserting ideology in preference to content and outcome.

South Africa’s post-1994 foreign policy, which was deliberately muddled during the Mandela and Mbeki years, allowed lots of room for a ‘little bit of this and a little bit of that’ in keeping old liberation allies happy while cementing relations with trading partners old and new. The new ‘progressive’ version is now being streamlined into an un-nuanced and deliberately ‘enhanced’ anti-Western position where ideological purity carries greater weight than concrete national interest.

To what end? What identifiable national interest shortcoming is served by this calculated shift away from the carefully and masterfully calibrated non-alignment and gravitas achieved in the Mandela/Mbeki era? What discernible international trend is being served?

According to the ANC document: “They have vowed in Washington that there will be Russia or China to challenge the US hegemony (sic).” And apparently: “The US does not appreciate the resurgence of China and Russia as dominant factors in the arena of international power relations. It has instead declared a cold war against these two emerging world powers.” The Russians and Chinese surely would be surprised to learn that only now are they perceived in the current ANC thinking as “emerging world powers”. This can only leave ordinary observers wondering why they are part of the Big Five on the United Nations Security Council – what happened in the seven decades that passed since World War II?

According to the document, not only is the US intent on destabilising the Chinese (on three fronts: environmental, human rights, and through building an “anti-China alliance of Asian satellite states” – one again wonders which those might be and whether they would happily view this characterisation as appropriate) and the Russians (again through human rights issues and by encircling Russia, viz Ukraine), but this “sponsored destabilisation (is) unfolding in the streets of Latin America including in Venezuela, which the US has strangely declared a threat to its ‘national security’, in the Middle East and in African countries with the sole intention of toppling a (sic) progressive democratically-elected governments.” In the absence of obvious indications of how such conclusions are arrived at one can only ask what possible evidence is offered to support this bizarre proposition? Single swallows do not signal summer.

In the absence of substantiation to support such notions, the question can legitimately be asked: Do the current policy mavens in the ANC truly believe that South Africa can play both sides in a world it has itself defined as increasingly divided and where it sees itself at the head of a self-declared anti-Western faction? A commentator in Nigeria, which the writers recently visited, openly scoffed at such a notion and suggested South Africa would be leading “an African army of one if it goes down that road”.

More worryingly, at the same time as the ANC prefers to buff its radical credentials, its mandarins (in Washington) are attempting to secure an extension to the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), which permits duty-free access of continental products (including South African goods) to the US market.

Until now the extension of Agoa trade privileges to South Africa, among others, for 10 more years have been threatened by a minor spat over what the US sees as “unfair barriers” hindering the access of US-bred chicken and other meats into the South African market.

However, it now seems this was only the thin edge of the wedge, as the Americans perceived in this to be not only foot dragging on the part of the South African government, reflecting both ideological antipathy and bureaucratic capacity problems, but to add insult to injury, there is now a not-so-subtly asserted perception that the Zuma government openly views this key export market as an imperialist troublemaker. It’s a gamble on whether the US will remain docile, keeping SA in Agoa because of the benefits to other smaller regional states, notably Lesotho and Swaziland, or whether US politicians will tire of Luthuli House’s tirade and cut South Africa off?

Perhaps these progressive experts would have done well to have consulted their Indian Congress Party counterparts about the wisdom of such blatant anti-Western trumpeting. India, as a major Brics partner, can hardly be accused of either pandering to or choosing sides in favour of its Russian and Chinese Brics’ partners or being pro-imperialist or non-progressive because it resolutely pursues its substantial interests with Western nations. This it does without such overt and boastful posturing and what does it lose by doing so? Why should South Africa be any different?

By doing so, South Africa runs a significant risk. The US imported $1.3-billion in light vehicles from South Africa in 2014, or nearly three-quarters of imports covered by Agoa preferences, and little under a quarter of all SA-US trade.

It may prove tricky to have your radical cake and eat chicken too.

Agoa is a unilateral trade preference, not an agreement with African states. It can be rescinded by the US without consulting other governments. The authors of the document seem to overestimate the cards South Africa holds in this relationship.

If the current ANC leadership is true to its goal of a ‘better life for all’, it would do well to take a leaf out of the book of its previous national leadership and gear its policies to improving relations with the very trade partners it now seeks to berate. Rather than being progressive for the dubious honour of claiming that title, would it not be better to weigh the possible costs of its current actions which suggest a devil-may-care, cavalier attitude to the impact the loss of these privileges could have on the poor and marginalised of our nation, rather than courting its own institutional mythology and ideological credentials.

The preference of conspiracies and theories over the hard choices and harsh political consequences necessary to run a government can be understood by any politician, in South Africa as well as further afield. Yet the ANC’s ‘progressive’ world view bears little reality to a modern world of fast-flowing finance, the competitive policy requirements whereby states attract investors, and the importance of keeping international doors to trade and capital open, which includes a modicum of humility and observance of the niceties of diplomatic tactfulness.

When Mandela told an obvious audience that if they didn’t like the ANC’s friends they “could jump in the pond” it was said in a manner that lacked no boldness or direct firmness of resolve to pursue a defined interest. Yet the manner of saying gave no offence. The same cannot be said of the ANC’s current effort.

Thus when the ANC declares that as it has “always been anti-imperialist in nature and pro-working class, the need to define ‘progressive policies’ is therefore imperative and urgent so that we know when we choose friends what criteria to look for”. The approach chosen however, only limits the scope of partnerships and constrains diplomatic manoeuvrability – precisely not what is required if the country wants to punch above its weight in the international arena. DM

Malcolm Ferguson is a retired diplomat; Greg Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation.

Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma attends the China – South Africa Economy Forum at a hotel in Beijing, China, 05 December 2014. EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options