South Africa

South Africa, World

A Merry Muddle: The Guiding Document for South Africa’s Foreign Policy

The ANC has issued a draft foreign policy discussion document in preparation for its National Policy Conference later this month. There are some gaps. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

It is now that time of year when the African National Congress takes up its various policy discussion documents and puts its official stamp of approval upon them at their big National Policy Conference. Given the stresses of its current leadership battle, these policy documents are probably taking second place to the mud wrestling over who will lead the party (and thus, presumably, the nation) in the coming years. Nevertheless, regardless of this rank order, the policy documents will be important in framing the policies endorsed by the party in its efforts to drive the national governmental apparatus.

In some areas, such as economic development, government control over major economic sectors, or social grant policies, the final agreed-to policy documents will certainly be strongly reflective of the leadership’s ambitions, values and goals. But that may not be the case as much as in foreign policy. This will be the case, if for no other reason, than that an articulate, cogent, coherent foreign policy no longer looms very large in South African thinking in the way it once did during Nelson Mandela’s tenure in office – as with “highly principled foreign policy” as a jewel in the crown of South Africa’s return to global respectability. That is because, for many, foreign policy, save at the margins, seemingly has little to do with the all turf wars being fought over the swag that constitutes the winnings of today’s “hyper-patronage” state.

The problem, of course, is that foreign policy, writ large, is about much more than that hoary old cartoon version of diplomats standing around in morning dress, balancing their cups of tea (or something stronger), and prancing their way through the dance of those inscrutable discussions at international conferences. Foreign policy – the diplomats’ occupational field of activity – is supposed to be a careful analysis of a nation’s most fundamental needs, goals, ambitions and responsibilities in connection with the rest of the international community and then a sorting out of what has to happen to enhance the nation’s safety and security.

In that sense, for a middle-tier nation such as South Africa, foreign policy is significantly about boosting the chances of the nation for economic advancement and regional stability – and, hopefully, in advancing at least some elements of that “highly principled foreign policy”, in terms of its efforts in international forums such as the United Nations. All of this must be tempered with some kind of realistic evaluation of what the country’s leaders see as national self-interest.

For a middle-range nation like South Africa, self- or national interest naturally includes the traditional values of state preservation and economic advancement, as well as support for the broad application of the rule of law, along with a vigorous nod towards support for regional and global stability. But while a nation’s foreign relations are strategies designed or intended to safeguard those national interests, in the current world, the deepening globalisation of relationships and decisions (even under stress) and the growth of transnational activities and non-state actors, all means foreign policy efforts bring much more than the traditional diplomats and foreign ministry into foreign relations – and reach deeper into the fabric of government and beyond.

Not surprisingly, as with this document under discussion, the governing party periodically produces a foreign policy manifesto for its national policy conference (coming up at the end of the month). Thereafter, a significant share of that language will find its way into governmental language on foreign policy planning and execution. The challenge is to see what is key about this document – and what has been left out.

In response to the version on offer some six months ago, we argued then that, “In sum, as a document for hands-on guidance to the government or the nation’s people, it suffers the flaws of all cut-and-paste jobs. Its constituent parts are there in response to the goals of many different interest groups and factions and the stitching together was spotty at best. What it clearly lacks, however, is any real sense of the criticality of economics and trade for national growth and success. There is no sense of comparison with rivals and alternative models of success, and no embrace of difficult choices that must be met in the future. When everything has equal weight and everything is a first priority, nothing is. This paper will make some ideologues happy, but it will offer little practical guidance to the party’s own government leaders, or to the bureaucracy they must lead in a complex, difficult world. And it will give them no insights about opportunities to advance the national interest that must be pursued.”

This time around, while the newest document speaks of South Africa’s dealings with the BRICS alignment, the building of solidarity with progressive forces globally and global institutional reform, as well as a range of consultative mechanisms such as enhanced parliamentary relations and exchanges, it devotes three sentences to the entirety of economic diplomacy. It says, in full,

The discussion document underscores the need for a holistic economic diplomacy strategy that is co-ordinated by the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO). Economic diplomacy is an important component of our foreign policy. The establishment of a new economic diplomacy unit within DIRCO will enable us to take advantage of the economic boom on the continent and improve trade relations with both traditional and newly identified markets. We are guided by the NDP [National Development Plan] injunction to increase foreign direct investment (FDI) and attract more tourists in order to build a resilient economy.”

That’s it.

There is no discussion of the how of growing FDI or other international participation in the economy, let alone why such things should matter to the country’s foreign affairs agency, or how that department should work tightly with all other elements of government, private industry and the investor community as a whole.

In response to this document after it was released to the public, in a recent discussion paper prepared by University of Johannesburg academics Chris Landsberg and Mzukisi Qobo, together with the Centre for Global Dialogue’s Francis Kornegay, the co-authors argued,

Since 2009 the ANC has failed to offer animating ideas about the country’s place in the world. Its perspectives on power dynamics in the world have travelled back in time, and are frozen in a world that no longer exists. This is notwithstanding its acknowledgement that at both the National Conference in Mangaung in 2012 and the National General Council of 2015 [it] observed that the material conditions continue to change in ways that are unpredictable and fluid. This point also features in the current discussion document prepared for the 30 June 2017 ANC Policy Conference.”

The ANC’s discussion document, however, does spend energy touting the criticality of the BRICS grouping for South Africa, saying, “The discussion document notes that South Africa’s role in BRICS is growing. At the same time we are alive to the changes in governments of our BRICS partners such as Brazil and assess how this could affect the cohesion in the forum in future.

The African Agenda must continue to guide our engagements in forums such as the BRICS. The BRICS New Development Bank shall become an alternative and effective funding mechanism for infrastructure development and socio-economic development in member countries and on our respective continents. South Africa will host the Africa office of the BRICS Bank, which will further strengthen our efforts to implement the vision of the African Renaissance.

Our focus in BRICS however shall not be construed as a negation of relations with countries of the North. Our understanding and approach is that these relations are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, they could be both complementary and reinforcing.

But as the Institute for Strategic Studies’ Jakkie Cilliers notes in a new paper – “Life Beyond BRICS?” – South Africa’s share of the BRICS group’s combined GDP is, bluntly put, virtually a rounding error, by virtue of the weight of the enormous economies of India and China. Based on current trends, it will become even smaller in future. Meanwhile, as a whole, the BRICS nations have less than 5% of their trade among the five nations.

Further, South Africa’s trade with the EU still dwarves its China trade. Moreover, South Africa continues to have trade surpluses – not with places like China or India, but with the US and the rest of Africa, grouped together. Of these details, the party’s discussion paper says virtually nothing.

Cilliers adds it is “ironic” that the “elevation of China’s importance to Africa and South Africa has largely occurred at considerable expense to South Africa’s manufacturing sector. Mbeki’s concerns that were expressed in a widely publicised speech in December 2006 have therefore come to haunt Zuma: ‘In its relationship with China, Africa must guard against merely becoming a supplier of raw materials in exchange for manufactured goods,’ he argued. The penny has dropped, but only after significant damage to the South African industrial base….” Cilliers does argue, however, that significant effort has now been going towards trying to leverage Chinese trade and financial resources to reverse such a de-industrialisation trend line. Still, any reversal of that trend still has a long distance to travel before there is measurable progress.

But as far as the ANC discussion document is concerned, there is little hint of any of this. There is only a scant reference to the American unilateral trade concession, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). That US law was extended for a further full decade last year, and exports to the US from South Africa that qualify under AGOA account for around $2-billion worth of duty-free exports to the US. This total generates many tens of thousands of increasingly highly skilled jobs in agriculture and manufacturing. But, given the Trump administration’s clearly expressed preference for bilateral trade agreements that carry a transactional, something-for-something bias, one would have expected the party’s discussion paper to have noted an increasingly urgent need for a forward thinking trade negotiation policy; one that looks beyond the current horizon, and aims to lock in some of this enhanced market access into the US – but not so.

Moreover, Landsberg, Qobo, and Kornegay, in pointing to a need for a more proactive approach, argue, “The ANC paper does not account for the fact that some countries, including India, have come out of the crisis [global financial crisis of 2008-9] emboldened to take policy measures that would restore economic dynamism. A balanced and honest appraisal of South Africa’s economic performance is necessary if the country is to turn the corner while also bolstering its place in the world. For South Africa to reclaim its credibility in the world, engage effectively in the African continent and earn the respect of its peers, it would need to fix its domestic politics and improve the performance of its economy. Rhetoric is unhelpful in the absence of a purposeful development strategy and an international relations perspective that is cast on the frame of rich ideas.”

But on perhaps the most important issue of all beyond economically related diplomatic efforts and foreign policy initiatives, the ANC discussion document is mum. And that, of course, is the future of South Africa’s interactions with its northern neighbour, Zimbabwe.

This relationship is almost certain to be tested in the future as the reins and reality of power move beyond the grasp of its incumbent president. There is the real possibility that such a shift might well trigger extensive population movements, still greater food insecurity than at present (and the consequent possibilities of disease), and the need for international efforts to provide emergency assistance, and even the possibility of civil unrest in Zimbabwe. All of these possible effects would generate impacts on South Africa’s border security, its ability to provide emergency support to affected communities, and how it is to deal with such impacts throughout the country.

Presumably because of a reluctance to upset the current leadership in Zimbabwe and aspects of the bilateral relationship, the party’s discussion paper avoids mentioning any of this. The question becomes one of where the locus of co-ordination for dealing with such possibilities is located in the South African government, and how the party will align itself in dealing with the potential outcome. Of course the transition of power in Harare could be a model of calmness and serenity; but shouldn’t a forward thinking party and government be planning how best to react to the possibilities – and thus helping encourage a peaceful transition there?

The challenge, then, just as Landsberg, Qobo and Kornegay have said, is that “The ANC’s idea of alliance blocs that are fixed, and determined ideologically or geopolitically, is a backward one, and does not resonate with the character of global transformations that have taken place in the last three decades.” While they were referring most specifically to South Africa’s sentimental attachment to Russia as a hold-over from the then-Soviet Union’s role in South Africa’s liberation struggle, this observation can, with equal weight, point to the need for a more realistic appreciation of the possibility a political dislocation or worse in Zimbabwe (or even other states in the region) would force painful decisions and actions inside South Africa.

But on this important issue of national security (just as with the centrality of economic diplomacy), the discussion paper has little to offer. One hopes that somewhere in DIRCO and in the rest of the security cluster, some careful plans are being worked out in the event of calamity. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma with Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula at the Second Extraordinary Summit of the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) at the African Union Headquarters, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 9 November 2016. (Photo: GCIS)


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