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Diplomatic Missions are a critical component of foreign policy implementation

Thembinkosi Gcoyi is the Managing Director and Co-founder of Frontline Africa Consulting. He is a former South African Diplomat and has served as Economic Counsellor at the countrys Embassy in Beijing, China. He also runs a blog on his firms website - He may be contacted at [email protected].

Perhaps we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that foreign policy exists only for the pursuit of economic ends. There are always other strategic considerations that countries must take into consideration in formulating their foreign policy strategies. These could be peace and security related. Some relate to South Africa’s multilateral agenda. They are no less important than overt economic aims.

There seems to be a growing outcry about the size of South Africa’s international relations establishment. There are worries that South Africa is spending oversized sums of taxpayer money on maintaining diplomatic missions abroad, for no discernible return. Specifically, there is discontent over the quoted figure of ZAR1.9 billion spent on maintenance of personnel.

Apparently the country pays its diplomats more than other countries do. This worry is compounded by the suspicion that some of these missions are entirely unnecessary, given the economic value of the countries in which they are located. Readers may have seen the story carried by the Sunday Times over the weekend, as well as listened to the Redi Tlhabi show on 702 this past Monday.

National Treasury has given credence to these reports in its report/assessment about the cost of maintaining diplomatic missions. Apparently the Treasury is of the view that government ought to reconsider the value of having so many missions abroad at a time when the fiscus is struggling to meet some of its domestic obligations. The Democratic Alliance has also weighed in on the subject, arguing that the budget of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) could be reduced to fund the zero fee increases demanded by the #FeesMustFall campaign.

It is difficult not to be sympathetic to many of the arguments made about the need to conserve our resources in order to meet our most pressing needs as a country. I fully support the notion that we should be more circumspect about how we use our limited budget to achieve our socio-economic development needs. However, I am not convinced that South African diplomatic missions are an unnecessary drain on resources.

At last count, the bulk of South African diplomatic missions were located on the African continent. From the dawn of our democracy, South Africa made the hugely important decision that it would focus its diplomatic efforts on the African continent. As would be recalled, President Mandela stated clearly that South African could never be an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty. He went further to argue that South Africa would need to build stronger relationships with countries of the continent to ensure that a greater number of countries were self-sustaining, free from war, disease and poverty. As far as I am aware, nobody has questioned the high principles inherent in such a statement.

Trouble is; it costs money to become a notable player on any stage, let alone one as vast and varied as the African continent. Most of us acknowledge, even if grudgingly, the important role that South Africa has played in the strides that have been made by the continent. From the DRC, South Sudan, Burundi, Zimbabwe etc, all of us agree that South Africa played some catalytic role in driving change in those countries. Of course, recent reversals notwithstanding.

At the heart of South Africa’s strategy is partly the quest for a better Africa. More importantly in my view, there is a realisation that the continent is South Africa’s strongest point, and that as long as the continent remains mired in difficulty, South African companies will find it very difficult to do business in these countries. In the recent past, we have all seen how a number of South African companies have made a break for the continent, with the likes of MTN, Vodacom, Shoprite and many others are doing successful business in a number of countries on the continent. Part of their success, despite any protestations to the contrary, boils down to the goodwill that South Africa has managed to accumulate over years through its dogged engagement with countries on the continent, even those that many of us cannot pinpoint on an A5 map.

South Africa made the decision long ago that it would use its diplomatic missions to open doors for South African companies who want to do business around the world. After all, that is the role of government. Whether or not business has seized the opportunities created is not a matter for the government to account on. Government can only do so much. Business must make the ultimate decision to take the plunge with all the risks that entails.

South Africa also made the determination that its proximity to its key export markets was such that the country could easily be displaced by other countries as distance to markets is simply not in its favour. In the event, the country would use its resources to create a receptive environment for South African goods on the continent. The outcome of these efforts is that South Africa now sends 25% of its manufactured products to the African continent. South Africa is a leading investor on the continent, competing strongly with the likes of China, the US, Britain and France.

Diplomatic missions are the coalface of South African international relations strategy. They act as important contact points for channelling information to decision makers about what moves the country should be making to secure its position. Despite the existence of CNN and BBC, there is still no substituting actual presence on the ground for informing strategies. Diplomatic perspective always imbues information with nuances that can never be picked up from newspaper reports. Diplomats are in any case monitoring a different set of matrices relative to media outlets that report facts without any regard to broader dynamics about the country’s self-interests.

Some of the commentary on the subject has even gone as far as to speculate that missions are opened purely for the deployment of political appointees. That could not be further from the truth. Fact is, the government, through DIRCO has a very clear process for establishing new offices across the world. This is a multi-stakeholder process, which takes a long time to finalise. It is properly costed and informed by the expected benefits of maintaining such a presence in the identified country. Never is this done arbitrarily because there is a comrade who needs a job.

Perhaps we should also disabuse ourselves of the notion that foreign policy exists only for the pursuit of economic ends. There are always other strategic considerations that countries must take into consideration in formulating their foreign policy strategies. These could be peace and security related. Some relate to South Africa’s multilateral agenda. These are no less important than overt economic aims. In any case, these tend to feedback into economic priorities over time. Think long term benefits of peace and security. Think UN. Think IAEA.

Yes. South Africa does have an above average number of political appointees in its diplomatic services. Some of these are former government officials who have experienced the domestic policy making environment in all its complexity. Some have failed in their previous roles. However, it does not follow that the fact of being a political appointee renders you incapable of excelling in the diplomatic services. Tony Leon was a political appointee. So was Douglas Gibson, Sheila Camerer, and Sandra Botha. I doubt any of us find anything wrong with their service to this country in their diplomatic roles by virtue of being politicians. I’m quite sure they were fine representatives of this country and used their knowledge of our political and economic systems quite adroitly to promote our national interests in their countries of accreditation.

A special mention should be made about Bruce Koloane, who seems to always take it on the chin when the subject of political appointments is discussed. Perhaps to clarify; Bruce is not a political appointee. He is an employee of DIRCO who has served in a number of roles, the last of which was the Chief of State Protocol (Deputy Director-General). What is lost in all the disparaging remarks is that Bruce is acknowledged to be a fine diplomat and fella who has done excellent work for this country in his previous posting to Spain. He was also Consul-General to Shanghai, and opened the South African Embassy in Beijing. Fairness also demands that we recognise that the jet was much bigger than him and that it would be grossly unfair to prevent him from growing in his career for something most of us acknowledge he could not have done alone.

As for the National Treasury report, it would be greatly amiss for this important institution not to point out it views on the expenditure of funds by another government institution. However, it is also worth noting that the Treasury’s view could also be a reflection of the political views that obtain within that institution about the place of South Africa in the world. Quite rightly, the Department is concerned with managing government resources and not increasing South Africa’s diplomatic clout. In the event, it may find some of the spending out of kilter given the difficult task it has of balancing the books. Does that mean it is correct? Perhaps not. The only way South Africa is going to improve its standing in the world is by maintaining a presence in all countries that are deemed important for whatever strategic reason, not only those that are deemed important for economic purposes.

The cost of maintaining missions is a function of many considerations. Property rentals are hugely expensive in most countries. Hong Kong, Switzerland, China, New York, Luanda. All these are hugely expensive places that will always drive up your monthly bills. Of course, an argument could be made about what type of lodging should be afforded to our diplomats. However, you are never going to win an argument that says people must reside in 60 sqm. townhouse equivalents in harsh environments where their lifestyle is greatly different to South Africa for a variety of reasons, including environmental ones.

We should also disabuse ourselves of the notion that posting is some gravy train. Yes it pays well, but it is a hugely inconvenient undertaking that may result in personal dislocation, family breakdowns, and massive stress for all involved. People lose loved ones during their postings and are stuck with a massive level of guilt for not being there. Children sometimes grow up without a sense of home as they live a nomadic life with their parents moving from one Embassy to another. People contract diseases that are not endemic to their own country and sometimes have to live on prophylaxis just to prevent themselves from picking up strange diseases. People die from preventable diseases that are not detected due to poor health services and scant medical infrastructure.

Most people who bemoan the perks of the job would be amazed to realise the sacrifice that goes with posting, despite the seeming glamour of it all. Guinea-Bissau is not Rome. Juba no Washington, Ndjamena certainly no Paris. So, is the job well compensated? Absolutely. Is this justified? Most certainly. Can it be relooked? Perhaps, but not without the potential of losing out on skills and experience that can easily find a home outside government employ. The end result of any rationalisation exercise driven by populism can only be a hollowed diplomatic service that struggles to hold its own against some of the best diplomats in the world, including from competing nations such as Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, India, China, Turkey etc. I say nothing of the US, Britain, and the EU member states.

As a last thought, it is worth considering that the only way we will improve the flow of FDI is not by taking out newspaper advertisements in foreign media, but by actually doing the work of convincing investors to take an interest in our country. We will do this by residing in far off places to establish and maintain relationships with a variety of actors that can influence how we are seen as a country. God knows, we need more feet on the ground working their socks off given the radiating stink that seems to seep out of our country on a daily basis. We will not counter these perceptions from our air conditioned offices in Pretoria, Sandton or Cape Town. We will do so by being on the ground and walking the streets daily, meeting different people and talking about our own country all we can. Nobody else will do this for us. And yes, it costs a fair amount of money to do it. DM


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