Comment and Analysis

SA's global relations stance directly affects its economy

Elizabeth Sidiropoulos

Some of the policy proposals to be debated by the ANC at its leadership conference in Mangaung have been discussed publicly.

The ANC's Polokwane conference in 2007 preceded the global financial crisis. (Madelene Cronje)

Others, such as international relations, have not. Jobs and the economy win elections, but how a country tackles global relations has a direct effect on these domestic issues.

The ANC's Polokwane conference in 2007 preceded the global financial crisis, the elevation of the G20 to the premier global economic governance forum and the election of Barack Obama to the United States presidency. The foreign policy resolutions reflected a world view in which the forces of imperialism-capitalism and progressive internationalism were at war. In reality, the ANC government often practises a more pragmatic ­foreign policy, but its world view, as presented in its Mangaung discussion proposals, has not changed.

The proposals reassert South Africa's long-standing commitment to African and Southern solidarity and reform of global governance. But the ANC also emphasises the responsibilities of African states to continental and subregional institutions, calling on them to pay their African Union (AU) membership dues and discuss the regulation of multinational companies' operations. Bordering on domestic affairs, the proposals call for an assessment of whether Southern African Development Community member states are adhering to bilateral and SADC agreements.

The ANC is taking a stronger line on upholding and strengthening democratic institutions such as the Pan-African Parliament, the transformation of the SADC parliamentary forum into a parliament and the encouragement of SADC to do more to promote democracy in the region. The document also calls for the unbanning of political parties and the release of all political prisoners in Swaziland. These statements are to be welcomed, for they underscore South Africa's constitutional values and norm-setting power. No mention, though, of Zimbabwe, a country in which South Africa will be expected to play a crucial mediating role in the constitutional referendum and the general election set for 2013.

Beyond Mangaung, the ruling party needs to consider five issues: First, the ANC wants a debate on what constitutes our national interest. This includes a commitment to human rights and democracy, not just trade and economic interests. Consensus across interest groups will be difficult: the ANC sees the national interest as advancing the "national democratic revolution". Can this be reconciled with the Constitution?

Effective co-operation
Second, human rights and democracy have rooted themselves in many countries, but challenges to political and economic freedoms still remain. Without eroding sovereignty, how can we overcome elite impunity in authoritarian states? South Africa has hesitated to support the use of force internationally, rightly arguing that its consequences may do more harm than good. But, as Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz argued, war is the continuation of politics by other means. Consider Libya and Syria: Is there a time when force becomes a necessary tool of diplomacy to end violence against civilians?

Third, global values are in flux. South Africa has espoused certain principles in conflict resolution and in global governance forums. It has found common cause with key emerging countries in the global South, such as India, Brazil and China, in lobbying for the reform of global institutions. It is unclear, however, how much agreement there is on the "what" and the "how" of reform, or how this would affect South Africa's engagement with its African agenda.

Fourth, multipolarity is increasing across the globe. As new superpowers rise, they may consider multilateralism a messy and unnecessary constraint on their power. How should South Africa engage with established and emerging powers to build effective co-operation?

Lastly, strategic partnerships that cross traditional divides are essential tools in countries' foreign policies. They serve two purposes: advancing bilateral relations (co-operation in trade, investment and innovation opportunities) and achieving broader global goals in which common interests and principles are shared. Since 1994, South Africa has made a major contribution to continental institution-building. This was achieved by developing strategic African partnerships, an approach South Africa should develop as Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma settles into the tough job of AU chair. South Africa will have to prioritise its key partnerships in Africa, the South and the North, to meet global challenges

An effective foreign policy helps South Africa to manage its socioeconomic difficulties in a manner that illustrates its commitment to constitutional values. After all, external expectations of South Africa as a significant global player emanate from the "soft power" of our values, political transformation and commitment to shaping the new interdependent enterprise that is our planet. That is where our credibility, reliability and legitimacy lie.

Elizabeth Sidiropoulos is the national director of the South African Institute of International Affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand

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