Opinionista Thembinkosi Gcoyi 26 October 2015

Foreign policy: South Africa has to put its people first

The government has a moral responsibility to ensure measures are taken to realise the noble ideals for which South Africans of a progressive stripe fought so hard. This requires some tough decisions. We are required to make a definite choice about whether we stand in solidarity with those whose conditions mirror our own during apartheid, in order to advance their cause for emancipation, or stand shoulder to shoulder with our own people, who, 21 years on, have not tasted the fruits of our economic freedom, except nominally.

The African National Congress’s seminal paper on foreign relations penned by the legendary Nelson Mandela in 1993 is regarded by many as the guiding light of South African foreign relations. In it, the late stalwart posited strongly that South Africa’s foreign relations would be guided, among other considerations, by the noble objective of promoting human rights. Soon after taking power, South Africa put its human rights principles into practise by raising alarm bells over the killing of Ogoni activists by the regime of Sani Abacha in Nigeria. Since that time, South Africa has struggled to remain true to the sentiments espoused in this document, though there have been successes.

In recent years, the foreign policy commentariat has been puzzled by South Africa’s flirting with governments that are regarded as human rights violators. These include Zimbabwe, Libya, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Israel, Cuba, Venezuela, and seemingly, especially China. The latter seems to invite special attention for reasons that are beyond the scope of this short piece.

It has become customary for any progress in South Africa’s relations with the People’s Republic to be tempered by comments about “supping with human rights violators”. Many are puzzled that a movement that waged a relentless struggle against human rights violations could, in such a short space of time, relegate human rights concerns to the ‘Mvela League’, and prize economic advancement and the maintenance of cordial relations above them.

Which begs the question: For what purpose do countries adopt foreign policies? What is a foreign policy and for whose benefit is it made? I will let the readers make up their own minds about these questions. Personally, I identify with those who view foreign policy as nothing but a tool to advance a country’s domestic priorities through the international environment. I believe it was Robert Putnam who spoke about two-level games. In that context, South Africa seeks to achieve its domestic priorities by establishing relationships that can advance its domestic agenda.

What is the domestic agenda in 2015? The eradication of poverty; creation of employment; eliminating violent crime; provision of decent health services; restoring the dignity of the black majority, undermined through centuries of subjugation and exclusion from pursuing opportunities. From an employment perspective, South Africa faces an unemployment crisis of 25% (35% using the expanded definition).

All of us accept, without hesitation, that a 25% unemployment rate in a country that has gone through the atrocity of apartheid can only serve to unleash dangerous forces our society can ill-afford. As such, the government has a moral responsibility to ensure measures are taken to realise the noble ideals for which South Africans of a progressive stripe fought so hard.

Unfortunately, doing everything possible to achieve the priorities listed above requires that the South African polity make some tough decisions. We are required to make a definite choice about whether we stand in solidarity with those whose conditions mirror our own during apartheid, in order to advance their cause for emancipation, or stand shoulder to shoulder with our own people, who, 21 years on, have not tasted the fruits of our economic freedom, except nominally. We are required to decide whether we choose to fly against the wind and castigate those countries whose economic cooperation we require for our own advancement, in the service of the causes of those who are being dehumanised by their own government. It requires us to think carefully about what we take to be our collective responsibility to make this country the great place we all imagined when our democracy came to be in 1994.

Despite my own progressive impulses, I am inclined to prioritise the reversal of the legacy of apartheid in this country. I choose my sisters, cousins, friends and countrymen, who struggle to find employment because, for a variety of reasons, we are not able to create the necessary conditions for our economy to thrive. I am tempted to side with those thousands of students who brave a depraved police service in order to fight for a democratic education system that it is well funded and which does not leave any child behind because of their socio-economic condition, which condition is largely a result of apartheid exclusion. I choose those South Africans who have waited 21 years to taste the sweet fruits of our democracy, and who, despite the emergence of a black middle class and the opening of the doors of opportunity, have seen their own conditions deteriorate to a point of desperation. It should pain us all when we hear our countrymen decry the demise of apartheid because they view their conditions as having worsened since the dawn of democracy. It should pain us because, sooner rather than later, these people will express their hopelessness in ways that will require the state to use heavy handed tactics, supported by the middle class whose own comfortable existence will be under siege.

I am not one bit ashamed to say I choose a strong relationship with the government and PEOPLE of the People’s Republic of China if this advances our economic wellbeing as a country. Despite making this choice, I feel somewhat silly, as largely, this is an artificial choice. Realistically, we do not have a choice in the matter. Of course, we are at liberty to cite our revolutionary morality and obligation to stand with those whose own governments do not respect their human rights. Some would say as a country that benefitted tremendously from the support of the international community, we have a moral duty to return the favour for those in need. To those, I say, good luck! A close reading of South Africa’s situation and standing in the international arena may be in order to appreciate more fully the pitfalls of a proselytising foreign policy for the millions of our brethren who do not have access to opportunities to improve their lot.

Perhaps a lot of us have become accustomed to hearing about South Africa punching above its weight in international affairs. All of us like the feeling that the world takes us seriously and that we have staked a claim to the management of the international system. Some of us even believe, in good faith, that we are a significant member of the international community and that our voice has the potential to sway countries’ behaviour. I suppose that could be true up to point, but only a definite point. Yes we are influential on the African continent. However, we must not confuse influence with power. The two are simply not the same. Yes we can advance an agenda at the United Nations in solidarity with specific formations of the South such as the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77.

But to suppose for one moment that South Africa can dictate how China should manage its domestic politics is sheer folly. Many who are considerably better resourced than we are have tried and failed dismally. Think Chen Guangcheng and Ai Weiwei and their international supporters and you will have your answer. We alI know of a well-meaning Scandinavian country that found itself in hot water for the actions of a certain Nobel committee that awarded the prize to the wrong fellow in the eyes of the Communist Party of China. To say the consequences were swift is an understatement. Is that a fate we are willing to contend with as a country?

One is inclined to support the government’s reluctance to grant a visa to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to visit South Africa for the celebrations of the birthday of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Whether the decision was deliberate or not is moot. China considers the matter of the Dalai Lama a core interest. The country will respond strongly when it perceives encroachment in this area, especially by countries of a lesser standing such as ours.

One can sympathise with the Arch and His Holiness and still accept the South African government’s reluctance to grant a visa as a well-considered decision. To be sure, the optics are not good as questions about sovereignty arise as a consequence. These questions make for very nice debates in academia and online platforms. In the real world, they have real life implications that struggling economies such as ours may wish to ponder carefully. Privately, the Arch can probably sympathise with this position, whatever his disdain for the Communist Party of China and its authoritarian tendencies.

In arguing that we should stay out of the domestic affairs of China, I am in no way arguing that we should not seek to use our influence when we have it. However, it is important to make the right assessment and understand clearly the consequences of our decisions. Preaching to China about human rights will have immediate consequences for our country and our efforts to create employment via Chinese investment. The fact is, the relationship is asymmetrical and China holds most of the cards. We must accept this and grow our economy to stand half a chance of changing it. As things stand, it is the unpalatable reality. Countries such Lesotho find themselves in the same position in relation to South Africa. We hold most of the cards and they have found a way of leveraging the relationship for their benefit.

In cases where we can influence countries to change tack on human rights, we should do so without hesitation. However, this must never come at the expense of South Africans. Under no circumstances can we delay the full emancipation of our people out of gratitude for what was done for us in our quest to attain freedom. Doing so will unfortunately only invite chaos in our own country, as surely many are losing patience with the democracy project as it has not yielded the expected benefits for many. DM


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