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South Africa’s foreign policy must be fiercely independent and not be swayed by ideology


Mmusi Maimane is leader of Build One SA.

South Africa plays a vital leadership role on the continent, and was historically, through the leadership of Nelson Mandela, a moral compass to the world. We must use that leadership role to protect and advance African, and South African, interests.

The hosting of the 15th BRICS Summit for the next three days in Johannesburg is a significant event for South Africa at a time when the Madiba glow of our global reputation has lost its lustre in some quarters, and our currency has plummeted. South Africa’s foreign policy of late lurches from ill-founded statements to crisis management.

In the wake of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s last-minute unprecedented “family meeting” to clarify our opaque policies, and to reassure the nation, the continent, and the West of our commitment to Agoa and other key trade policies in the next quarter, Build One South Africa (Bosa) has considered its position on several issues pertaining to foreign policy and South Africa’s role in BRICS — specifically in anticipation of outcomes that serve the interests of all South Africans.

South African interests

In the modern era, a country’s economic fortunes, the global application of its cultural values and the aspirations of its citizens must be aligned. With the notable exception of our participation in both BRICS and in the AU, South Africa has not guided her international relations agenda based on our country’s national interests.

To date, our leaders have been unsuccessful in making a pivot from an ideologically driven international relations agenda to a pragmatic set of international relations defined by a well-articulated set of national interests.

At present, our leadership remains rooted in the past when it comes to determining who our friends are and who our enemies should be within the international arena. An emphasis on Cold War-era assessments of partnership models has done our country a disservice.

West vs East debate

In the words of Kwame Nkrumah, “we face neither East nor West; we face forward”. In that spirit, we are of the view that South Africa ought to focus on becoming self-sufficient and should not be swayed by, or dependent on, world powers — whether from the East or the West. 

There are no permanent friends in international relations, there are only permanent interests. Ours is to focus on South Africa’s interest — the delivery of employment for our citizens, stability in democracy and ensuring that our foreign policy is updated to meet our future needs on climate change, security, digitisation and diplomatic relations. 

Being pushed into a binary corner of choice by superpowers does not serve SA’s permanent interests. Considering our state of under-development and rampant unemployment, trade and economic benefit are our primary interests. 

South Africa for Africa

Instead, we must be pro-Africa. Bosa regards itself as deeply rooted in Pan-Africanism and is proudly African. We should be fixated on crafting a new global approach that requires tough choices and dogged commitment to those choices in the interests of South Africa and Africa, and, more broadly, the global South and those countries that remain pawns in the chess games of the superpowers.

South Africa plays a vital leadership role on the continent, and was historically, through the leadership of Nelson Mandela, a moral compass to the world. We must use that leadership role to protect and advance African, and South African, interests.

In terms of the African Union, reform is vital in changing it from an “Old Boys Club” to an active organisation with a future-focused agenda.

Africa’s regional economies and AU structures represent a trade value of over $450-billion. South Africa is strategically placed to be part of, and lead this boom in opportunity. We remain committed to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and advance its impact and reach by the cutting of red tape, ensuring the free movement of goods and services, eliminating trade barriers, and domesticating protocols and regulations to align with domestic trade policies.

In addition, new economic models that include the green economy and capital flows cannot be left out of the conversation. South Africa’s approach should focus on maintaining and signing new bilateral and multilateral trade agreements with African countries. With 1.2 billion citizens — and an expected further billion by 2050 — Africa should benefit from our population dividend.

New BRICS members

At present, BRICS holds 40% of the world population and a quarter of the world’s economy. With the growing influence, at least 40 countries have shown interest in joining the bloc in some way or another.

Read more in Daily Maverick: BRICS — Which countries want to join? See our interactive world map

Argentina, Iran, Indonesia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are being considered for membership of BRICS. Already Egypt, Bangladesh, and UAE are contributing capital to the BRICS bank.

In considering new members, we are adamant that a robust threshold be introduced. It must consider, among other things: (1) The state of democracy; (2) human rights track record; (3) regular free and fair elections; and (4) independence and impartiality of key institutions of state.

We cannot accept a situation whereby it becomes the norm that fully-fledged dictatorships are onboarded to BRICS.

Dollar discussion

While there is much talk of de-dollarisation and moving to alternative currencies, at present we are fully integrated into the dollar system. The global financial system is based on the US dollar and the strength of our currency relative to the dollar is going to impact the buying power of the rand. 

That is our bottom line, and we must not lose sight of it. While we are going through these economic challenges, we should not voluntarily add a weakened rand to that basket of challenges. It is not in our interests.

We do support multipolarity in the currency debate, but our national interests must be considered. In relation to America specifically, we have benefited from strong economic ties. In 2019 South Africa exported goods worth over R150-billion. Agricultural products are one of the largest exports to the US and in 2019 they totalled R7.3-billion.

These are significant numbers and if there is a risk that this trade will be reduced due to the introduction of tariffs or removal from agreements such as the American Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), our economy will suffer. DM


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