Opinionista Xhanti Payi 17 May 2019

Making foreign policy a bread-and-butter issue

Xhanti Payi, a member of the Advisory Panel on the Review of Foreign policy for the past year, reflects on SA’s foreign policy challenges and goals under a new administration.

The victory of the African National Congress under the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa in this election is not celebrated only by South Africans, but by many the world over.

In a tweet just hours after the Independent Electoral Commission released the official results, British prime minister Theresa May congratulated President Cyril Ramaphosa on this election success adding: “As I said in South Africa last year, by working together as friends and partners we will secure a more prosperous future for all our people. I look forward to continuing that work with you.”

These sentiments have been echoed by many world leaders with whom South Africa has worked hard to cultivate mutual relations and friendships.

As it is widely accepted, South Africa has gone through a period in which we lost our international stature, and saw our economic relations with many of our international partners weaken.

However, the work that President Ramaphosa, and his chief diplomat, Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, did over the past year to restore South Africa’s image globally, as well as to cultivate our political and economic relationships with old and new partners will be of critical value to President Ramaphosa’s agenda to attract investment for growth in order to meet the challenges of employment, growth and shared prosperity – both here at home, on the continent and globally.

In order to do this, the new administration will have to prove to all South Africans that the effort and money spent on cultivating these relationships is for their benefit and not just an effort at global pageantry.

The government will have to show South Africans that these are bread and butter issues. Further, the new government will have to prove to the international community with whom we have engaged over the past year that the New Dawn can be sustained and was not merely political rhetoric. This seems to be what leaders like Prime Minister May are banking on.

In a document released in December 1994 named Foreign Policy Perspective in a Democratic South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) stated that “Foreign Policy belongs to South Africa’s people”.

The document further extended the statement of the Freedom Charter’s assertion that “There Shall Be Peace and Friendship” to South Africa’s relations with peoples outside the borders. Thus, those who believe that foreign policy is removed from the pressing “bread and butter” issues of the people could not be more wrong, at least from the perspective of the governing party.

The challenges we face, from employment to economic growth require a strong effort to attract money we don’t have in order to build factories, roads, cultivate farms and provide energy. We have to convince people beyond our borders that we are a worthy destination and partner for investment.

This is why economic diplomacy will have to be an important facet of the work South Africa does on the global stage. This is of course closely related to the investment drive President Ramaphosa has established, which is starting to gain traction.

On the second score, the new government will have to attempt to show continuity in the principles and work it has laid down before South Africa and her international partners. The government will have to work to build capacity that allows international partners to effectively interact with South Africa wherever these partners may be in the world. This is why it was disappointing to hear the finance minister glibly announce a reduction in our diplomatic missions. If they must be, a strategic assessment must be done.

During the past year, I had the opportunity to serve in Minister Sisulu’s Advisory Panel on the Review of Foreign policy. What was very clear from interactions with diplomats and international partners is a great deal of goodwill which South Africa continues to enjoy from the global community.

Further, the strong hope and desire for stable and growing relations with them are evident. One diplomat observed how, despite the enormous changes that have rushed through the global environment over the last decade, South Africa’s role and leadership is still so widely sought after.

This could not have been more evident in the success of South Africa’s bid for the non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. Within a short period of time, South Africa was able to stage a return to a third stint by a vote of 183 of the 190 votes cast – better than the 182 received previously. This means that South Africa now has the opportunity, through the UNSC, to pursue the African Union’s goal to silence the guns by 2020 – and thus give meaning to Madiba’s cause for a peaceful Africa.

We also know that in 2018 South Africa celebrated two of its most extraordinary leaders who were at the forefront out of subjugation and into joining all of humanity. Those in the world, and especially among our friends, will remember that moment in our nation’s first democratic Parliament when, Albertina Sisulu MP, stood up to nominate one Nelson Mandela MP to be the president of the new South Africa.

It seems a mere coincidence now, but these two leaders played important and mutually fostering roles in pushing the values we now espouse as a people — both at home and abroad. Albertina Sisulu, or MaSisulu as she became affectionately known, played an important role in the development of the values our government now pursues.

She contributed to the founding of the United Democratic Front (UDF), which was a non-racial coalition of multiple organisations in the cause to defeat apartheid. The UDF became an important pillar on which the first democratic and successive governments placed and insisted on the values of inclusion and of collaboration. These are the values on which we now anchor our foreign policy – including cooperation and multilateralism.

We have evolved to being a contributor to global arrangements, debates, and solutions. As economist Kevin Lings asserted in his book, The Missing Piece, “…South Africa has regularly demonstrated an ability to surpass even the most optimistic of expectations.”

The country was invited to join the Group of Twenty (G20) when it was formed in 1999…” And “While South Africa is not one of the largest economies in the world, it was included because it is the largest financial system within Africa, and plays a meaningful role in the international financial system.”

During Canada’s hosting of the G7 Summit in June last year, South Africa was invited to participate after a seven-year absence. The powerful nations of the world still see South Africa as an important partner for growth and prosperity. South Africa is now back rebuilding, and these international platforms are a critical space on which to do such building – both our name and our priorities.

Thus, if it is true, as the ANC document quoted above that, “the essence of South Africa’s foreign policy is to promote and protect the interests and values of its citizens”, then South Africans should stay the course in repairing and building its relationships with global peers.

This is why the advisory panel set up by Minister Sisulu, and to which I have referred to, recommended a very strong focus on strengthening our diplomatic infrastructure, from processes to people, and making sure that we are fully capable of representing our national priorities wherever we are.

But also upon us is the responsibility we owe to the millions across the world who fought alongside Madiba and MaSisulu. They too want to know if the work we do, and the decisions we will take will be in keeping with our celebrated icons, and the sacrifices they made.

Given all the above, it has been an honour to serve as an economic voice in the foreign policy review panel of the young and old, insiders and outsiders, to help assess South Africa’s practice in the diplomatic arena, and what gaps and opportunities exist.

Indeed, those of us who follow economic trends and market participants know that it is not in what politicians say that lies the value, but in what they do. While many, both here at home and abroad, were willing to commit to investing in South Africa, they will not do so until they are convinced that our politicians are committed to a stable political and policy environment, with the highest quality of leadership and governance.

It should be our purpose that our policy is driven by the values, aspirations and needs of our people. As Prime Minister May has communicated to President Ramaphosa, continuity will be no small part of that effort. DM


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