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Time for a reset: Incoherence plagues South African foreign policy — particularly on Israel


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.

South Africa’s lack of foreign policy coherence was brought into sharp focus by the barrage of social media insults from ANC members, aimed at President Cyril Ramaphosa after he received a letter of credence from the new Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Eliav Belotsercovsky.

International relations experts, academics and diplomats struggle to understand the linkages between the ANC, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) and the Presidency when it comes to South Africa’s foreign policy.

The confusion became palpable during the Jacob Zuma administration and seemingly continues. Under the current administration, we are no more enlightened about South Africa’s main foreign policy priorities, as well as by who and how they are determined. This continued lack of foreign policy coherence leaves many questions and concerns.

More recently, the lack of foreign policy coherence has been brought into sharp focus by the barrage of social media insults from ANC members aimed at President Cyril Ramaphosa, who received a letter of credence from the new Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Eliav Belotsercovsky, on 25 January.

This spate of insults has demonstrated that the rank and file of the ANC clearly does not understand its own conference resolutions — they do not stipulate a total severance of diplomatic ties with Israel. 

Ambassador Belotsercovsky is not the first Israeli ambassador to South Africa. It will help ANC members to appreciate that diplomacy is not limited to travel and tourism, but is sometimes made up of a series of complex trade-offs and negotiations. 

At the ANC’s 54th national conference, the party resolved the following: “The ANC has unanimously resolved to direct the SA government to immediately and unconditionally downgrade the South African Embassy in Israel to a Liaison Office.”

However, this resolution is not clear on what status the South African government should accord the Israeli Embassy in South Africa, while on the other hand, the same resolution is not clear on the mandate of the South African Liaison Office in Israel — will it issue only visas or continue with political and trade relations with Israel?

Going into the 55th national conference, ANC  branch members should make sure they elect delegates who are not only going to be voting cows that collect money and drink copious amounts of alcohol, as has been seen in recent conferences, but include those who fully appreciate the complexity of the policy under discussion and craft clear resolutions for implementation.

Not only has the lack of South African foreign policy coherence confused keen foreign policy observers and stakeholders, but it has also sown confusion in South Africa on the treatment of Israel.

Newly crowned Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane, participated in a Miss Universe pageant that took place in Israel at the end of 2021. This saw the South African government withdraw its support for Miss South Africa. The move by the Department of Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation seemed arbitrary in the absence of a clearly articulated foreign policy position relating to South Africa-Israel cultural relations.

Above and beyond the foreign policy contradictions pertaining to Israel, questions on who is the main driver of foreign policy formulation between Dirco, the Presidency and the ANC remain unanswered.

The last time we had any meaningful debate pertaining to foreign policy formulation and the white paper was in 2011. Even more concerning is the lack of a clearly agreed and articulated set of national interests, which ought to guide foreign policy formulation.

President Ramaphosa seriously needs to consider both institutional and leadership reforms in Dirco to reset the formulation of foreign policy and its cohesive implementation. There is no shortage of capable personnel who could help South Africa rediscover its foreign policy glory days.  

For example, Minister Lindiwe Zulu, who comes with extensive foreign policy experience, could be considered for the department’s leadership. Not only was she the former adviser to Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma during her era as minister of Foreign Affairs, but she also served as chief director for Western and Central Africa from 2001-2003. 

Dirco needs a minister who understands and appreciates the complex nature of foreign policy and can synthesise its divergent interests into a cohesive policy strategy and programme for implementation.

At this rate, even the redeployment of Minister Dlamini Zuma to Dirco is worth considering.

Public diplomacy offers another opportunity for foreign policy reform — as things stand, public diplomacy has remained underutilised and has thus resulted in missed opportunities for foreign policy cohesion. 

We need a government that will communicate with South Africans, explain some of the positions it takes when it comes to foreign policy matters, articulate national interests and conclude stakeholder engagements on the process of the White Paper on Foreign Policy. 

These are but some of the quick wins in the quest to revitalise foreign policy coherence in South Africa.  

During her stint as International Relations minister, Lindiwe Sisulu appointed a foreign policy review panel consisting of retired ambassadors and senior diplomats who had vast experience in and knowledge of foreign policy. This panel was chaired by former deputy minister Aziz Pahad, with Dr Ayanda Ntsaluba serving as its deputy chairperson.

Its report was launched on 17 April 2019 and stated the following: “The task of the Panel was to assess strengths and weaknesses of South Africa’s current foreign policy trajectory, and advise, as appropriate, on interventions necessary for us to make a contribution towards a world that is humane, just and equitable for all the people. 

“This is done whilst simultaneously pursuing South Africa’s national priorities, advancing the African Agenda, and contributing to the maintenance of global peace and security.”

In the quest for revitalising South Africa’s foreign policy fortunes, it is also important to ensure that the work of this panel is not ignored and that its recommendations are taken into serious consideration.

The ANC’s upcoming 55th national conference gives ANC members an opportunity to engage further on important issues pertaining to foreign policy, including that of Israel and Palestine. More importantly, it also gives the ANC-led South African government an opportunity to reset the coordination of foreign policy towards clearly defined and coherently articulated policy priorities for implementation.  

Therefore, it is also crucial for ANC branch members to elect delegates who are able to engage in foreign policy matters with the seriousness they deserve. 

They must be able to craft resolutions that will provide clarity in foreign policy formulation and improve South Africa’s ability to pursue its national priorities and contribute to a world that is “humane, just and equitable for all people”.

Foreign policy coherence, clear coordination and implementation are non-negotiable towards this end. DM


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sam Shu says:

    Couldnt agree more. There is no coherent foreign policy, just knee jerk reactions to those the ANC perceives as friends (often dictatorships and those that do corrupt deals with members – trains from china? Nukes from Russia? Shelter for crooks in Dubai? Inaction on coups and human rights violations in africa and the Middle East, except, of course, for Israel) and those that it perceives as enemies, often democracies, that criticize our “friends”

  • Antonette Rowland says:

    I agree. However, should foreign policy be dictated only by a ruling party or does it apply more broadly?

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