State Visits as a Tool of Economic Diplomacy: Bandwagon or Business Sense?

Image: Flickr, Flowcomm
Image: Flickr, Flowcomm

Economic diplomacy has become a priority for South Africa’s foreign policy with the specific objectives of improving market access and trade with bilateral partners, increasing foreign direct investment, positioning South Africa as a preferred tourism destination and marketing South Africa abroad.

At the heart of this approach is the relationship between the government and private sector. The broad concept of economic diplomacy encompasses the achievement of specific business objectives through commercial diplomacy initiatives. To accomplish this, however, there is a need for regular consultation and a shared vision of South Africa’s foreign policy.

One of the most talked about, and arguably controversial, tools used by the South African Government to pursue commercial diplomacy is business delegations accompanying the president on his official state visits to other countries. Although not a new phenomenon, these have become more prominent since President Zuma assumed office in 2009, with approximately a dozen business delegations participating in bilateral state visits before the end of 2010. The delegations have been jointly organised by Business Unity South Africa and the Department of Trade and Industry. They have focused on a wide range of sectors and have included different levels of engagement and varying formats.

There has been significant interest shown from a diverse selection of businesses in participating in state visits as a result of the strong commitment from the presidency to include the private sector in events that were traditionally the domain of officials. The paper explores the benefits and challenges of using state visits as a tool for economic diplomacy from the perspective of both government and business. It identifies, at a general level, the practices used in a number of other countries that pursue similar objectives. Finally, the paper makes recommendations for a possible new model that could be explored by South Africa to maximise the potential of business participation in state visits.

28 Jul 2011