Naledi Pandor has inherited several pressing foreign policy dilemmas from her outgoing predecessor Lindiwe Sisulu.
Though South Africa’s foreign policy as a whole is in need of a makeover, perhaps Pandor’s two biggest immediate challenges will be the issues which may have cost Sisulu her job; whether or not to downgrade the South African embassy in Israel and how to normalise South Africa’s very difficult relations with Rwanda. The Israel embassy question remains unfinished business from the ANC’s elective conference at Nasrec in December 2017. Another decision with foreign policy implications from that conference which has not been implemented was the one to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Sisulu more than once publicly stated that the cabinet was reconsidering the decision to withdraw, despite the ruling party’s definite decision that it should do so.
The Zuma administration had already introduced legislation to pull South Africa out of the ICC just days before the Nasrec conference. Although President Cyril Ramaphosa has not publicly stated his views, it is widely believed that he never wanted SA to leave the ICC.
Arguably, however, this is not a decision primarily for the International Relations and Cooperation Minister but more for the new Justice Minister, Ronald Lamola, who took over from Michael Masutha — or more likely, the whole Cabinet. Masutha was clearly in favour of pulling out of the ICC. Lamola has not publicly expressed his views on this.
The Israeli and Rwanda decisions fall much more clearly in the lap of the new International Relations and Cooperation Minister. For a long time, the government seemed to be procrastinating on the Israel embassy decision in particular, sparking speculation that it was caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, it had a clear mandate from the ANC to downgrade the embassy. On the other hand, it appeared to be concerned about a negative reaction from the SA Jewish community if it did so. There were suggestions that the decision might hurt Ramaphosa’s drive to boost investment by $100-billion over five years, as some Jewish-owned companies could be making those investment decisions.
After lengthy equivocation, Sisulu announced at the SA Institute of International Affairs in April that SA’s ambassador to Israel, who had returned in December 2018 at the end of his tour, would not be replaced. And so she had already begun to implement the ANC’s decision.
The South African Jewish community was incensed, especially after Ramaphosa had told the SA Jewish Report, the community’s newspaper, just before the May 8 elections that the Cabinet had not yet decided whether or not to downgrade the embassy.
That prompted Zev Krengel, national vice-president of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, to tell the SA Jewish Report that Sisulu was “the single biggest enemy” of South African Jewry in the government. This fuelled speculation that Sisulu’s stance on the status of the SA embassy in Israel would cost her her job as Minister of International Relations and Cooperation.
There was also speculation that another reason Ramaphosa intended moving her from international relations was that she had failed to execute his instruction to “normalise” relations with Rwanda.
Ramaphosa issued this instruction after meeting Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Kigali in March 2018.
Relations between the two countries had soured badly because of the assassination of Kagame’s former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya in a posh Sandton hotel on New Year’s Eve, 2013 and several attempts to assassinate his former army chief of staff, General Kayumba Nyamwasa in or around Johannesburg. The two had taken refuge in South Africa after falling out with Kagame and had formed an opposition political party, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC).
In March 2014, after about the third attempt on Nyamwasa’s life, Pretoria finally reacted by expelling three Rwandan diplomats and one Burundian from the Rwandan High Commission in Pretoria. Rwanda retaliated by expelling six South African diplomats from the SA High Commission in Kigali. Both high commissions remained operating on skeleton staff.
Whether Sisulu had any real chance of normalising such fraught relations can be questioned. Evidence has emerged from the long-delayed inquest into Karegeya’s death that the South African police and other authorities believe the Rwandan government was responsible for his murder and so Pretoria did not believe they would succeed in extraditing the suspects from Rwanda.
But Sisulu probably complicated her task when she volunteered at a press conference last year that she had met Nyamwasa to discuss the normalisation of relations – since he was clearly a complicating factor – and had been “pleasantly surprised” to discover from him that he would like to negotiate with Kagame to resolve their political stand-off amicably.
This remark incensed Kigali, which officially reacted by telling her bluntly that if she wished to negotiate with “terrorists” she could go ahead on her own. Unofficially, a Rwandan website believed to be operated by Rwandan military intelligence accused her of being Nyamwasa’s “prostitute.” She withdrew from the normalisation exercise in disgust, leaving it to South Africa’s security agencies to pursue it.
Was Ramaphosa annoyed by Sisulu’s failure to carry out his instructions? Perhaps.
Can Pandor do better? It’s hard to say without knowing Ramaphosa’s feelings on these issues. If he was angered by Sisulu’s handling of the Israeli issue, was this because of her decision, or just because of the timing of it, on eve of the May 8 elections? If it was just the timing then he and Pandor might go ahead and implement the embassy downgrade now. If it was the decision itself, Pandor will presumably have to continue navigating the treacherous waters between an angry and demanding Jewish community and an angry and demanding ANC, backed by the aggressively anti-Israel Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) lobby on the other side.
On Rwanda, Pandor could probably simplify her task by not making any gratuitous remarks backing the ambitions of dissidents to negotiate with Kagame. But she will still require skill to navigate around the many built-in landmines in the SA-Rwanda relationship. Protecting the lives and political rights of Nyamwasa and the RNC while also reassuring Kigali that these dissidents are not using SA as a haven from which to plot Kagame’s violent overthrow is never going to be easy. A UN panel of experts’ report published in September 2018 that suggested the RNC was planning to launch attacks on Rwanda from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo further complicates Pandor’s task – though some experts have cast doubt on the accuracy of the UN report.
Though these two issues have been particularly contentious inside the government and ANC, they are arguably not the major foreign policy challenges Pandor will face.
How Pandor manages South Africa’s seat on the UN Security Council which it took up in January is probably more important for the country’s broader foreign relations and its global reputation.
Sisulu often proclaimed that human rights were the “religion” of the ANC and therefore formed the cornerstone of foreign policy on her watch. Late last year she did instruct her diplomats to support a UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Myanmar government for its abuse of the Rohingya minority. South Africa had earlier abstained from the resolution.
But there has not been any visible shift towards a more assertive human rights stance on the higher-profile UN Security Council where South Africa took up a two-year seat in January. We have mostly witnessed more of the same sort of decisions as South Africa often controversially took during its first two terms on the Council, in 2007-2008 and 2011 -2012.
Pretoria continues to side with oppressive and undemocratic governments like those in Venezuela and Syria against any attempts by Western and other states to pressure them to stop abusing their people.
Western governments are dismayed that in spite of its honourable history as one of the countries which negotiated the landmark Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), South Africa joins Russia in blocking efforts to allow the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – which is supposed to administer the CWC – to name and shame the Syrian government for using chemical weapons against its own people in the civil war there.
In Africa, we also have seen South Africa shielding the government of Democratic Republic of Congo from Security Council scrutiny after the victory of Felix Tshisekedi in elections in December 2018 which was widely considered fraudulent. And South Africa joined China, Russia, Equatorial Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire in abstaining from a Security Council resolution, proposed by the US, to renew the arms embargo imposed on South Sudan last year as well as the sanctions slapped on those blocking peace in the country.
SA’s ambassador Jerry Matjila said further pressure on the South Sudanese leaders was not necessary as a peace process was already underway. But since this is about the third or fourth such peace effort and all the others have collapsed in renewed fighting, that seemed unduly optimistic.
Pretoria simply has an aversion in principle to any kind of external pressure being applied by Western countries to bad governments – which that in Juba clearly is – in Africa or elsewhere. Though, as we have seen, South Africa is quite prepared to apply pressure to Israel.
And, as Western ambassadors frequently point out, the ANC seems to have conveniently forgotten that it mobilised one of the most successful campaigns of international sanctions, boycotts, disinvestment, embargoes and comprehensive isolation of apartheid South Africa.
Behind South Africa’s reluctance to join any international sanctions effort is its apparent great fear of what it regards as “regime change” agendas by the US and other Western governments.
In practice then, Pretoria is content to watch bad governments continue to do bad things to their people, reassured somehow that if no-one from the international community interferes with them, they will somehow eventually see the light, mend their ways, and become model leaders.
Will Ramaphosa and Pandor want to change that? Probably not, though taking more nuanced positions, on a case-by-case basis, rather than just opposing such resolutions in principle, could be beneficial for South Africa’s now rather threadbare image as a champion of human rights in its foreign policy.
In a recent article for ISS Today, Anton du Plessis, executive director of the Institute for Security Studies wrote that; “Globally the country’s reputation for respecting the law and good governance must be rebuilt.
“Getting it right on the world stage is critical to making South Africa more attractive for foreign direct investment.”
The argument here is that for foreign investors a country which does not insist on the rule of law being observed in other countries may be suspected of not having sufficient respect for the rule of law at home either.
In other words, championing human rights in South Africa’s foreign policy is also good for its economic diplomacy which will in itself presumably be another major challenge for Pandor. This is clearly a major priority for Ramaphosa whose investment drive has overshadowed other objectives and who has barely mentioned specific foreign policy issues in his speeches.
The panel of experts under former deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad which Sisulu commissioned to review South Africa’s foreign policy, reported that the country was “not using its economic potential and its inherent natural resources optimally” in conducting economic diplomacy.
“South Africa does not have a clear country-by-country strategy for economic diplomacy…There is no clear analysis of varied capacities and competitive advantage.”
Pahad’s panel added that South Africa’s diplomatic academy was not adequately preparing the country’s diplomats to represent the country in the “complex and challenging global economic environment”.
The panel recommended that Dirco, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and other relevant departments should immediately embark on a mapping exercise of all countries and regions to establish economic opportunities.
And it said diplomats posted abroad must be empowered and capacitated to be able to undertake economic diplomacy and to identify economic opportunities for South Africa in their host countries.
Presumably, Pandor will regard the implementation of these recommendations as a priority in her new portfolio.
And the panel also made other recommendations which she will need to respond to, many of them concerning the generally poor quality and ill-discipline and not just the lack of economic skills, of many of South Africa’s diplomats posted abroad.
Many of these problems arose from former president Jacob Zuma’s habit of dumping scores of disgraced or otherwise unwanted officials in South Africa’s embassies abroad. This eventually led to South Africa having among the highest percentages of political postings – rather than posting of career diplomats – in the world.
The panel recommended that South Africa should cut back on such political postings, something that Sisulu had already vowed to do.
All in all, Pandor has her work cut out for her if she is to make a success of her new portfolio. DM
"This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain; our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness." ~ Dalai Lama XIV