Opinionista Khadija Patel 15 May 2013

International Relations: Know thyself, South Africa

While South Africa’s foreign policy rarely attracts the attention of local media, one must reflect on the significance of foreign policy to the rest of the country.

On Tuesday, after a news briefing with Deputy Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim at the Department of International Relations and Co-Operation, I found myself explaining why I wrote about South Africa’s international relations. “No, I didn’t study international relations,” I explained. “I have always been interested in international relations and I’m lucky enough to work for a publication that allows me to explore my interests.”

Yet there is a lesson most journalists learn at sometime in their career – the story is not about you. As creatures of narcissism, this realisation is made with grudging acceptance. We learn that the journalist, the storyteller, is only the channel through which a whole world of stories may be told. And if the realisation that the story is not about you is made begrudgingly, then the realisation of a whole world’s stories waiting to be told is overwhelming. There are so many stories being told in a cacophony of conflicting voices. And then there are so many stories that are not being told.

At the heart of all these stories are the writers who must weave together eyewitness testimony, reflection, statements and opinion to offer humbly some sense of the chaos in the big, bad world. Real writers, the kind who slave away on manuscripts for days and nights, cursing the distractions of the internet, may baulk at the idea of mere journalists fancying themselves as writers, but if they are the true craftsmen in this trade, then us journalists are the designers of mass-produced goods. Our work may lack the quality of the craftsmen, but it is more accessible to a greater number of people.

Even as we accept that our work does not quite live up to the qualities of true craftsmanship and the stories we tell are about more than ourselves, it is in the stories that we do decide to tell, in the choices we make, that our own identities are still reflected. My gravitation towards stories with an international relations slant perhaps speaks to my interest in locating myself, as a South African, with complex, multi-faceted connections to other parts of the world. And it is perhaps in analysing how an entire nation negotiates its place in relation to the rest of the world, that I too am learning how to negotiate my own “international relations”.

It certainly is an interesting time to follow South Africa’s international relations. Events in the Central African Republic earlier this year reminded us that we ignore issues around South Africa’s foreign policy at our peril. The decisions that inform South Africa’s foreign policy do eventually, in some way, have repercussions at home.

And more so than anywhere else, South Africa’s policy decisions in Zimbabwe are especially significant. What happens in Zimbabwe over the next few months impacts massively on South Africa.

When Deputy Minister Ebrahim spoke on Tuesday, he emphasised that South Africa was indeed ready to fund “part” of the election in Zimbabwe and also provide logistical support to the Zimbabweans’ electoral efforts. He also noted that Zanu-PF’s insistence on holding an election within the next two months amounted to “playing politics”.

And while some roll their eyes in derision of South Africa’s heightened sense of self-importance to the rest of the continent, many around the world continue to treat South Africa as a crucial tenet of south-south relationships. South Africa is a member of IBSA, one of four co-chairs in the Development Working Group, and the only African country of the G20. The election of Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to the Chair of the AU Commission last year also demonstrates the flexing muscle of South Africa’s position on the continent.

And lest we forget, South Africa is currently the chair of the BRICS Group.

It is, however, South Africa’s position in Africa and the moves it has made recently to strengthen its influence beyond southern Africa, that has garnered attention. While Ebrahim was unable to comment on the actual movement of South African troops to the United Nations’ intervention force in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he noted that the South African regional body, SADC, continued to call for a political solution to the crisis in the eastern DRC.

“[SADC] further urged the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the M23 to continue with the Kampala Talks with the view of concluding them expeditiously, to allow the people of the Eastern DRC to live in peace,” he said.

The exhortation of a political solution for the crisis in the DRC, when South Africa has already committed troops to a military solution to the crisis there, has led some to allege that South Africa’s foreign policy is ambiguous.

And it is perhaps apt that on Tuesday, South Africa’s former ambassador to Argentina, Tony Leon, was telling a crowd at the Troyeville Hotel that policy analyst Greg Mills had described South Africa’s foreign policy as “a bit of this and a bit of that.”

“The military has once again taken over our foreign policy… We don’t practise what we preach,” Leon said.

South African diplomats nonetheless recoil at such analyses.

As the South African Foreign Policy Initiative recently pointed out, Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has described South Africa’s foreign policy as “South Africa punching within its weight”.

Reconciling these views of South African foreign policy with reality, however, remains the key to understanding how our foreign policy is positioned in a changing world order.  DM

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