The composition of the country’s leadership will be very different from what we have had over the last fifteen years. A change in the cast of characters provides an opportunity to reassess policies and to chart new paths. Thus more than ten years after the articulation of the vision of an African renaissance by South Africa, and nearly 15 years after President Mandela spoke about a foreign policy guided by human rights, we ask the question: What should South Africa’s foreign policy be on the continent and globally in this next phase of our international engagement?
Many will argue that a country’s foreign policy should be first and foremost about promoting the national interest. The ‘national interest’ is not necessarily easily defined. The term may often conjure up images of a malign regional hegemon pursuing very narrow, self-centred objectives that result in zero-sum outcomes. In fact such a characterisation is very far from the truth in the inter-connected and interdependent world of today. A less realist perspective of national interest is one that is based on the premise that cooperation and institution-building, rather than competition, in the international system can have mutually beneficial outcomes for all. Indeed, the articulation of South Africa’s foreign policy has increasingly focused on the interdependence between South Africa’s well-being as a nation – our foremost national interest – and peace and economic development in the rest of the continent. However, there are many different ways of achieving such objectives, and thus often divergent views about how to do this.
South Africa is not unusual in this sense. But what is true is that there has been too little debate about what the broad national interest is and the ways and means to pursue it. Is it possible to arrive at a broadly accepted national interest, given our fragmented identities?
The overarching driver of much of South Africa’s foreign engagement in the last few years has been the fight against global inequity and African marginalisation. Most of Africa’s challenges emanate from an unfair and skewed global order, and South Africa has taken up the cudgels – in the UN Security Council, in the reform of the Bretton Woods institutions, in its participation in the G-5, and in the WTO to name but a few. South Africa’s global and continental engagement is built on the ideological premise that the West and particularly the US carries a huge burden of responsibility for the imbalances in the international system. Therefore, this might must be countered wherever possible.
Thus, when South Africa’s often competing foreign policy objectives clash (for example, the promotion of good governance and democracy versus solidarity with the Global South or indeed with African national-liberation leaders), then its ideological commitment to reverse global power imbalances or to cock a snook at the West seem to trump the rest. Zimbabwe was a case in point. South Africa seemed to have bought into Mugabe’s rhetoric about fighting western bigotry and colonialism. It was hardly a mark of distinction for the SA government to be praised by Zanu-PF for having stood up to the west in voting against the sanctions resolution in the UN Security Council.
In many respects Zimbabwe was and is a crucial test of our foreign policy objectives on two levels: first, from a purely moral perspective, given where South Africa has come from, the repression and violence been committed by the Zimbabwean security forces and militia calls for a robust response (this does not mean military intervention but requires less pussy footing around Mugabe and his cronies); second, from a selfish perspective that is linked to very narrow SA interests, the gaping hole that has become the Zimbabwean economy and the perceptions about political stability in the region, require a speedy closure to the impasse so that the stakeholders can begin addressing the core economic and constitutional challenges.
However, this raises questions about the extent to which there is a common understanding among most South Africans of what SA’s overarching national interests are. Are these national interests still defined along racial or class lines? How does the government aggregate these interests or seek to develop a consensus among different stakeholders?
In today’s world of global interdependence, the national interest (to make a better life for all and more specifically in the SA case to create more jobs, more prosperity and less poverty) is about the pursuit of economic interests at the regional and international level. This has to be achieved in a very globalised world, where the likes of China, Vietnam and Bangladesh are highly competitive in low-cost industries. They have achieved much of their advancement by eschewing formulaic ideological policy prescriptions, or as Deng Xiaoping famously said: ‘It does not matter what colour the cat is, as long as it can catch mice.’
Economic interests in the first instance manifest themselves as the interests of businesses – both big and small. These are also no longer representative of just white South African interests. What is important to appreciate is that such companies’ expansion both in terms of investment and exports makes a singular contribution to growing the economic pie in South Africa and also in the region where they operate. Trade and investment are the surest way of growing the economy and creating jobs. (In China more than half of its exports are produced by foreign companies which have invested in the country.) The recognition that business has an important role to play in society has also allowed us to move from the misleading equation that business is naked, exploitative capitalism, which has no benefits for the poor and the marginalised.
With that in mind, what should South Africa’s foreign policy look like post-2009? We highlight five elements:
First, government needs to build on previous strengths and ensure a degree of continuity in areas where success has been achieved – both politically and economically. SA’s global standing (as with all countries) has to be carefully nurtured; a sense of predictability and confidence are vital elements for engagement in the foreign relations realm.
Second, government should encourage a more open dialogue and debate among various sectors of society – not only within the top echelons of the ruling party – on the nexus between foreign engagement and national imperatives. The debate requires discussion among political parties, the business community, the trade union movement, and other elements of civil society. Following from that is a clear articulation to citizens of what this national interest is and how our foreign relations are vehicle for achieving this. However, this should not be an event but an ongoing process that reflects an appreciation of the fluid global dynamics and domestic priorities.
Third, our foreign policy should be more focused on where it can have maximum impact and where our national interests have the most at stake. Involving ourselves whether in conflict resolution, the multiplicity of bilateral commissions or major international conferences needs to be based on such an assessment. The ability to prioritise is an essential component of any foreign policy engagement, even more so for a country SA’s size and limited resources.
Fourth, we should build stronger bilateral partnerships (both with key Western countries, and developing countries, especially in Africa) that allow us to advance our continental and global agendas, not forsaking one of the most important advantages that SA has had in the past – the ability to build bridges across opposing views. This me
Fifth, we should also know when we must play hardball – not only with the North, but also with the developing world – when our fundamental interests, core values and continental vision are being undermined.
In the international arena, SA is returning to normality. While we are still regarded as an important regional player, with global engagement, the glorious days of the honeymoon are over. We now have to get down to the hard work of channelling all our energies into ensuring that our political and economic development remains on track, and that our reputation as a responsible and constructive global citizen is burnished.