The last decade can be characterised as a dark age in South African foreign policy. Under the previous international relations and co-operation minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s stature on the global stage diminished significantly. The country lost respect among its peers in the African continent. During this time, foreign policy was less about the substance of ideas and more about a flurry of international activities that yielded few benefits for the country.
For South Africa, the BRICS grouping that includes Brazil, Russia, and China was the alpha and omega of foreign policy, with little thought on how to use this platform to generate tangible economic value. It became another platform for President Jacob Zuma to deepen relations with the Russians and signal intentions to mortgage South Africa’s energy future. South Africa was fixated on the old Cold War narrative that wrongly saw the BRICS as an alternative to Western dominance of the global system, so much so it paid little attention to other relations that could be of strategic value to the country. Complex issues were over-simplified and with little grasp of how much the world has changed since the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
Further, South Africa misunderstood the foreign policy posture of its partners in the BRICS, especially China and Russia, who have used this platform to bolster their national economic interests and geopolitical profile. Apart from strategic confusion over the role and identity of BRICS in a changing world, South Africa suffered many weaknesses in its foreign policy posture since Zuma took office in 2009.
Factors that have undermined South Africa’s foreign policy
There are three inter-related ills that plague South Africa’s foreign policy. The first is a defective political culture and institutional paralysis. Foreign policies are an expression of countries’ domestic priorities, values, and institutional and leadership quality. South Africa’s institutional and normative base was damaged under Zuma. The driving force of Zuma’s presidency, and by extension his foreign policy thrust, was transactional leadership – a preoccupation with using public office to maximise personal gains. This transactional trait was manifest in South Africa’s relations with Russia, something that became Zuma’s personal drive, with the country almost mortgaging its energy future over a dodgy nuclear deal to the Russians. Even on the African continent, relations with countries such as Angola, the DRC, and the Central African Republic were always enmeshed with commercial deals that had nothing to do with South Africa’s interests.
Second, Nkoana-Mashabane presided over poor governance at the Department of International Relations and Co-operation and got away with it. Under her watch, Dirco not only underperformed in achieving its strategic objectives, it also mismanaged hundreds of millions of rand.
According to the Auditor General’s statement for the financial year end 2016/2017, unauthorised expenditure amounted to R34-million, with the department riddled with various breaches of the Public Finance Management Act; irregular expenditure went up to R366-million, and fruitless expenditure climbed to just over R2-million. No action was taken against the officials who committed these sins, which suggests that this was sanctioned from the top. For her leadership failures at Dirco, Nkoana-Mashabane has been rewarded with another ministerial post to handle the sensitive portfolio of rural development and land reform.
Third, South Africa’s diplomatic missions abroad sprawled to 126 missions, without any strategic goal. Over 70% of these missions are headed by political appointees, meaning people who have a shallow training in diplomatic work and who are mostly unemployable anywhere in the economy. Many of them are cronies who are boarded on expensive welfare at taxpayers’ cost. Before Zuma came to office, it was a practice that South Africa’s foreign missions are mostly headed by career diplomats. Political appointees occupied a far smaller proportion of leadership roles in diplomatic missions abroad. Driving international relations across these missions cost a total of R3.7-billion, which is about half of the total approximation of the department at roughly R7-billion, yet there is no discernible value to the country.
In short, government suffers a serious lack of ideas and requisite institutional capabilities to articulate innovative foreign policy that responds to the new challenges of our time. Even on new threats such as cyber warfare, which other countries have identified as a critical aspect of foreign policy, it is doubtful that we possess strategic and tactical preparedness. Yet in the new age of foreign policy making, cyberspace has become an important domain of military operations alongside air, sea, and land. There is also a growing focus on leveraging the emergence of new technologies associated with the Fourth Industrial Age to explore new decision models in international relations, or to use data-driven approaches and predictive analytics to counter the threat of terrorism, or to structure new forms of virtual multilateralism among like-minded countries. These new challenges and opportunities require modernisation of institutions that drive foreign policy and upgrading of skills among decision-makers.
Preparing South Africa’s foreign policy for the future
In restoring foreign policy credibility, the first thing that Sisulu will have to deal with at Dirco is to rein in the culture of poor financial management, and insist on good governance, especially so since no one has ever been held to account for systematic financial mismanagement in that department. Second, she will need to oversee the building of sound institutional capabilities, and retooling technical skills, to prepare for new challenges in the world. This will be particularly important if Dirco is serious about promoting economic diplomacy, which is essentially about using international relations to generate economic value for the country, especially to address challenges related to low growth, weak investment in the domestic economy, and high levels of unemployment.
The critical success factors for economic diplomacy lie in ensuring better co-ordination across government to develop a shared approach to external relations, building strong government-business relations on clarifying the terms for the country’s Africa strategy, and drawing expertise from academia and policy think tanks.
For a long time now, South Africa’s foreign policy has been directionless. As part of closing the curtain on Zuma’s era, South Africa’s credibility on the global stage needs to be restored. South Africa has an important contribution to make in a changing global system, in shaping the foundations of a progressive multilateralism, and playing a leadership role on the African continent. To achieve all of this, domestic institutions must be fixed. DM
Qobo is deputy director at the NRF Research Chair on African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, University of Johannesburg