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South Africa is in desperate need of coherence and coordinated leadership on foreign policy


Rebone Tau is a political commentator and author of The Rise and Fall of the ANCYL. She is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Pan-African Thought & Conversation (IPATC) at the University of Johannesburg. She writes in her personal capacity.

We can’t have a country that takes emotional decisions based on unclear objectives. Foreign policy decisions need to be informed by our national interest. This is how other countries decide their approach to dealing with the rest of the world.

The current administration has serious problems in many areas, and if you think it is only in the security cluster, then you have no idea what is going on in the foreign policy space.

South Africa’s foreign policy continues to be unclear. Long gone are the days of a coherent message on being the moral conscience of the world and the continent. So too has Thabo Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech, which birthed the “African solutions for Africa’s problems” mantra, which gave us Nepad, APRM, a role in revisioning the AU, the Pan-African Parliament, the collaboration around the 2010 Fifa World Cup and much more. 

We don’t know what our national interests are as a country anymore. What do we stand for? What do we want for the continent? Where do we see ourselves in the short, medium and long term? Nothing is being said about the White Paper on Foreign Policy which we last heard of in 2012.

This current administration needs to bring back the white paper in order to restore a sense of coherence and coordinated leadership to our foreign policy. We can’t have a country that takes emotional decisions based on unclear objectives. Decisions need to be informed by our national interest. This is how other countries decide their approach to dealing with the rest of the world.

Last year, South Africa had a seat at the United Nations Security Council and President Cyril Ramaphosa was Chairperson of the AU. However, we did not see a clear agenda until Covid-19 came along. This murky approach was also visible over the last few years when the only visible coherent foreign policy initiative was BRICS.

Now, to return to the incoherence: recently South Africa fielded a candidate for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) director-general position in the person of Professor Mthunzi Mdwaba, a position that was endorsed by the SADC and the AU and it is alleged that the South African government had also committed R8-million towards his campaign.

In early October 2021, the Cabinet decided to withdraw his name along with all other submissions. This was not the first time that such a thing has happened. Last year, the government fielded two candidates for the position of deputy chairperson of the African Union Commission, i.e. Ambassador Ndumiso Ntshinga, Deputy Director-General for Africa at the Department of International Relations and formerly South Africa’s ambassador to the African Union (AU), and Professor Eddy Maloka, Chief Executive Officer of the African Peer Review Mechanism. This while Ramaphosa was the AU Chairperson.

That was a serious diplomatic blunder. South Africa was the biggest loser at this year’s AU Summit as both candidates’ names were eventually withdrawn. Diplomacy is about negotiations. You don’t always have to withdraw. It is important to also learn to negotiate with other countries.

When South Africa fielded two names for the deputy chairpersonship of the AU Commission, it showed that some people may be learning on the job. This thing of people learning on the job is a serious embarrassment as we will never be taken seriously in multilateral fora. One even wonders what the SADC and the AU think about South Africa after the latest development of withdrawing a candidate who has vast experience at the ILO like Professor Mdwaba, as well as Ambassador Ntshinga and Prof Maloka who also have vast experience when it comes to the African continent.

This also brings to mind the near-fiasco with the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretary-General, Wamkele Mene, who did not receive adequate support or endorsement from the South African government. They only came at the end, after he was elected, to congratulate him and bask in some of the glory of victory. South Africa’s credibility carried him through, but not the country’s officials.

Does this mean that the centre is not holding when it comes to foreign policy under the current administration? I tend to think so. Looking back, the president did not have anything to say on foreign policy in this year’s State of the Nation Address, which was a first since the dawn of democracy.  This left some of us very shocked.

Moving forward, this administration really needs to get its act together. South Africa can’t continue to be a laughing stock globally, can’t continue to field candidates and withdraw them later. We need to see a clear vision and mission. The White Paper on Foreign Policy needs to be updated urgently. There is what we call public diplomacy: the government should go on roadshows to engage with ordinary South Africans.

The government also needs to coordinate a review of our national interests if they still want to be taken seriously on the continent and globally. The future of the nation depends on it. DM


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