SA lacks a foreign policy, say Mbeki and experts

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Alaister Russell)

A ‘transactional’ policy of garnering international investments is not the same as a foreign policy which determines South Africa’s orientation towards the world, they said at a seminar in Pretoria.

Former President Thabo Mbeki has criticised the Ramaphosa administration for having no discernible foreign policy in several important areas of the globe, mainly in Africa.

The issues which the government did not understand ranged from the impact of US President Donald Trump upending US Africa policy through to the belt of violence across the Sahel, Mbeki suggested, at a seminar on South Africa in the World in 2019 organised by the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Pretoria.

Other participants also criticised the government for lacking a coherent foreign policy. “A transactional policy with business will work. But a transactional foreign policy will not work,” one foreign policy expert said. It was not enough to have a foreign policy which merely promoted investment. South Africa also needed a geopolitical policy which was the essential underpinning of economic relations with the world.

Mbeki said that other African countries could perhaps get by without taking a position on critical issues in Africa, but not South Africa.

He said he did not think South Africa had a policy, for example, on the “belt of conflict” running through the Sahel, from Mauritania on the Atlantic, east to Chad and even into Sudan. Much of this conflict he attributed to Islamic jihadist terrorist groups recruiting members of the Fulani group which straddled several national borders.

What does South Africa think about this? What are we doing about it?” Mbeki asked, adding, “I don’t think we have a policy.”

And then he noted that South Africa was one of the countries trying to resolve the conflict in South Sudan. “But I don’t know what our policy position is. It’s not just about silencing the guns,” Mbeki continued, referring to the African Union’s policy of “Silencing the Guns (in Africa) by 2020” which South Africa will have to implement when it chairs the AU next year.

It’s also about answering questions about why the guns started firing in the first place.”

Mbeki said South Sudan’s governing SPLM party had met as far back as December 2004 to discuss the internal party tensions on the eve of signing a peace agreement with Khartoum early in 2005. The party had identified the same problems which nine years later, in December 2013, precipitated the civil war.

We are engaged as a country in trying to find a solution to the South Sudan problem,” Mbeki said, referring to South Africa’s designation by the AU as one of the mediators in the conflict. “But do we know what we need to do?”

Mbeki turned to Ethiopia, saying “we have a serious situation… in a very important country”. The ethnic federation which might have been necessary when it was established in the early 1990s, was now “pulling apart”, Mbeki said.

Historically, we have had very good relations with Ethiopia. But what are we doing about it?” he asked again.

He similarly asked what South Africa thought about the fact that over the last few years many African countries had developed much closer ties with Israel. This was not necessarily a bad thing, Mbeki said, but he wondered what impact it was having on Africa’s relations with Palestine.

And in Latin America, Mbeki asked whether South Africa was considering the implications of the recent rightward shift in the region’s politics, which had reversed the previous leftward shift in Brazil, Nicaragua and Paraguay.

And he asked also if South Africa was examining the implications for Africa of the policies of Trump and what it should do about them. “Clearly, we can’t ignore it, because, like it or not, US policy will have implications for all of us.”

This included the impact on Africa of the trade war between the US and China, especially in the context of the growing relations between China and Africa, Mbeki said. And he asked if South Africa was also examining what impact the rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe and the Nordic countries would have on its relations with those countries, especially Sweden (with which the ANC has had particularly strong relations, historically).

Mbeki noted that there had been much excitement about the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) which is due to begin operating in July 2020. But he asked whether the free trade agreement would alter the economic relations between South Africa and other African countries.

He recalled that when the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Free Trade Agreement (FTA) had been launched during his presidency, South Africa had agreed to allow an aluminium smelter to be built in Maputo rather than Richards Bay, to try to balance relations between South Africa as the dominant regional economy, and the other members of the FTA.

It had also been agreed that South Africa would reduce its import tariffs more and faster than the other countries. But a recent study had shown that even these measures had done nothing to rebalance relations between SA and its SADC neighbours – because they didn’t have anything to export.

He noted that Nigeria had initially been hesitant to sign on to the AfCFTA because it feared that if it lifted import tariffs, it would be flooded by South African imports which would damage its efforts to industrialise.

So the IGD should be helping by examining what the AfCFTA should be doing to address this sort of problem – not just lowering tariffs but exploring other policy decisions, Mbeki said.

Catherine Grant-Makokera, director of Tutwa Consulting, proposed that South Africa should at least give tariff-free and quota-free access to its market for all African Least Developed Countries within the AfCFTA.

Other experts said South Africa needed to consider more deeply about what the country’s strategic orientation in the world should be. All foreign policy ultimately emanated from the Presidency and so President Cyril Ramaphosa should be persuaded to take foreign policy more seriously than just securing investments. He should get foreign policy experts around him to formulate a signature foreign policy, as each of the other presidents before him had had a signature foreign policy.

South Africa would have chaired four international organisations over five years, one expert said, referring to BRICS, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and next year, the African Union.

But Pretoria seemed to be interested in chairing these bodies purely for the prestige and political capital of chairing them. It was not doing enough with them to justify its chairing of them.

There was also broad consensus that South Africa had lost its moral authority in Africa, largely because of the periodic eruptions of xenophobic violence, and that the country would have to resolve this problem if it hoped to regain the moral high ground it had once held. DM


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