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South Africa’s Foreign Policy: A fine balancing act in a world beset with ‘duality’ politics


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Before we label the South African government lackeys of China, let’s consider for a moment the complexities of the balancing act required by the men and women in service of the country in various embassies and consulates around the world.

In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting point nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.’ – Michael Oakeshott

It is a commonly known fact that South Africa since the presidency of Mandela has been, as they say, “boxing above its weight” with regards to international relations, from the time of SA’s involvement in attempting to find lasting peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the early 1990s, to its continued participation on the continent in “peace-building” and “peace-keeping” operations on behalf of the United Nations as well as its ascendency as a member into the BRICS group.

BRICS comprises the biggest economies of developing countries and is a force to be reckoned with as it relates to challenging the current global governance architecture, which they argue favours the victors of post-World War II, a configuration which they argue is clearly dated and in desperate need of transformation and change, to reflect a more equitable reality – one in which the global south also finds expression in world affairs.

Mandela famously told President Bush Sr that “I am the captain of my ship and will thus determine its destiny” when the Americans did not approve of SA’s involvement in the DRC peace process as well as our close ties with the Cuban and Palestinian peoples.

During the last decade, many scholars of international relations argued that the foreign policy of South Africa is confusing. In international relations, one of the basic tenets and assumptions is that national governments through their foreign policy must be “predictable” in their behaviour and where this is not the case, that country cannot be trusted as an ally because they argue it will flip-flop when it comes down to trust and reliance. Some argue that the world is anarchic, that there is no global authority that can manage such anarchy and thus it is up to individual nation states to determine their own destiny; in other words, the stronger will prevail. This is also so because of the binary outcome of the Cold War era, where you were either seen to be with the capitalist (West) or with the communists (East). Off course, many international relations scholars know that global politics is a bit more complicated than such myopic sentiments.

Several academics have sought to understand South Africa’s foreign policy in the post-apartheid period, and most have concluded that it is confused or, at best, struggling to reconcile its dual roles as both global and regional player.

There is a counterargument to this, however, which is the substance of this article. This argument sees South African foreign policy not as infantile or adolescent confusion, but emerging as a mature and considered response to its global and regional positions. This argument views South Africa’s foreign policy as geared towards regional integration and continental co-operation. It interprets South Africa’s behaviour as applying “soft power” strategies to have a greater influence in the region and to provide the requisite leadership in the affairs of the continent.

This argument assumes that this is done, not to the detriment of its international standing and position and the advantage of the region, but rather with the explicit intention of enhancing South Africa’s standing in the international order.

And so, the recent visit to Taiwan by the mayor of Tshwane brings to the fore these contradictions and beckons the question whether our foreign policy is consistent or confused?

Consider the response from government with regards to this ill-considered visit by the honourable mayor.

In this regard, South Africa, I would argue, is fairly consistent in its approach to the Republic of China (Taiwan) and its interactions with the People’s Republic of China (mainland China), the latter being accepted by the United Nations, as the only representative of the peoples of China since the 1970’s.

It’s important that one puts it out there – the balancing act referred to above is about strategic choices within the international system. When looking at China and its relative military and economic strengths in the world, it would be folly for South Africa to think it can simply recognise Taiwan and indeed have closer diplomatic ties with the island country, when in fact China explicitly prohibits this and threatens economic and other forms of sanctions should any country violate this policy expression, including, may I add, the United States of America.

President Obama’s administration in recent years wanted to sell military arms to Taiwan and China threatened economic sanctions against the US if it should continue with such sales. Now, considering China underwrites a massive chunk of the US’s foreign debt, to the tune of trillions of dollars, Obama took heed of such a threat and simply could not ignore it.

And so the question we must ask ourselves is what makes us think we can play political Russian Roulette when it comes to matters of Taiwan and indeed the ongoing controversy surrounding the Dalai Lama of Tibet and why the South African government continues to skirt the matter of issuing a visa to the religious leader whenever he intends to visit our shores.

The political fallout with China is simply too ghastly to contemplate and the strategic choice is to rather upset Taiwan and our own Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu, as opposed to the great China, soon to become the largest economy in the world.

However, many would like us to believe that these are incorrect choices, that SA must determine its own destiny. I argue that these nonsensical arguments by our own Democratic Alliance and certain practitioners are devoid of strategic considerations.

The ongoing duality that exists in our international system is certainly cause for concern. On the one hand, we are told that the intervention in Syria (Aleppo) by Russia and Syrian armies are tantamount to war crimes, but the continuous shelling and bombings in aid of the Iraqi military in Mosul to stem the tide of ISIS is perfectly okay. In both cases many women and children are dying daily and the International Criminal Court (ICC) does nothing and says nothing in this regard but is quick to take its instruction from the UN security council to institute charges against Sudanese leader Al Bashir.

The ICC does not operate in isolation and is part of a global international system. International relations post-World War II have taken on a duality in the application of rights and responsibilities. In short, the more powerful countries (the victors of WW II) have configured global institutions in a manner that benefits them and not the rest of the world.

To illustrate, the United Nations Security Council is configured to have five permanent members (US, UK, France, China, Russia) which have final say over all decision-making on global security affairs. These permanent five each hold a veto power which they can use to stop any decision with which they don’t agree. The World Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Monitory Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (collectively referred to as the Brettonwood institutions) represent the same duality. They agreed that the IMF president can only come from the EU and that the head of the World Bank can only come from the US. So before we label the South African government lackeys of China, let’s consider for a moment the complexities of the balancing act required by the men and women in service of the country in various embassies and consulates around the world.

Taking into consideration the quotation at the beginning of the article, South Africa is carefully navigating the rough seas of global politics. The aim is to ensure that it occupies a key role in the region and to achieve this it uses soft power strategies to inculcate its hegemony within the region. It strives at all times to advocate a sense of belonging, among Africans in the world, and that Africa needs to take its rightful place as an equal member among the constellation of nations.

In so doing, South Africa hopes to gain the trust of its region and the continent, to be seen as a responsible state not directed by Western ambitions, which put continental concerns and approaches before everything else. This it hopes would lead to South Africa being seen as the rightful facilitator, a “voice” and an arbiter of continental and regional challenges within the global governance structures. And this, I argue, is intended to lead to its improved standing in the international order. By representing and leading a region, South Africa is modelling a process of fairer global relations in which regional blocs are fairly represented in global forums that are not dominated by post-war cliques. DM

Dr Oscar van Heerden is soon to launch his book: Consistent or Confused, the politics of Mbeki’s Foreign Policy years 1995-2007.


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