/ 20 December 1996

SA’s foreign-policy challenge

Anthoni van Nieuwkerk

In 1996, South Africa’s international relations went on a roller-coaster ride. The country’s multi-lateral approach to global affairs produced a number of successes, the high point of which was probably in April, when South Africa hosted the ninth meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Also significant is the progress in South Africa’s nuclear diplomacy, and its presidency of the Southern African Development Community. Bilaterally, President Nelson Mandela went on triumphant visits to Britain, France and Germany.

A low point was the debacle around Nigeria, while the apparent non-performance of the United States-South Africa binational commission and the related wrangle around the Armscor case must rank a close second.

Some would argue that the government has opted for ‘delayed response’ foreign policy-making and implementation.

This perception flows from observing the rather slow development of a mandate for the negotiations with the European Union; the contradictory development of South Africa’s China policy; the unclear response to the crisis in the Great Lakes area; and the low-profile treatment of obvious human-rights violators (such as Indonesia and Morocco).

Factors behind these perceptions include primarily the persistent claim that South Africa is attempting to develop a foreign-policy orientation in a vacuum. This refers to the absence of vision and leadership; and a clearly defined national interest. The argument is that South Africa has not found its role in the world, and furthermore, that its leadership is either not competent (in the case of its foreign minister) or ill-informed and driven by an antiquated understanding of global affairs (in the case of its president).

The situation is compounded by the lack of consensus of what ought to underlie the country’s ‘national interest’ ‘ including perhaps a judicious blend of trade interests and commercial values, and human rights and democratic values.

In the wake of South Africa’s recent announcement of its new China policy, a huge cry went up from Parliament and civil-society interests: where was the consultation? Why wasn’t the foreign ministry, or the Portfolio Committee on Foreign Affairs not properly informed beforehand (or not fully involved in the decision)? What this criticism and perceptions refer to is the lack of clear and consistent internal decision-making structures.

But critics do not always factor in the constraints policy-makers experience, the genuine efforts they make to speed up decisions and the attempts they make to facilitate the implementation of decisions.

Fortunately, and at least in my analysis, significant progress has been made by our foreign affairs policy-makers.

The Foreign Affairs Department’s deputy director general for multi-lateral affairs, Abdul Minty, recently remarked that ‘While it is true that the Department of Foreign Affairs under the previous regime did operate in a secretive fashion, it is being transformed and there are real attempts to reach out to the media in particular.’ This is an encouraging statement, but more needs to be done to share information and solicit input from civil society. How?

Foreign Affairs’ Director General Rusty Evans this month released a report on the outcome of a workshop (billed as ‘the first national consultative foreign-policy seminar’) convened by his department in September.

In light of democratic South Africa’s perceived strengths and weaknesses, the workshop identified challenges to its foreign policy, nine of which, in my view, can be seen as constituting the research agenda for South Africa’s evolving foreign policy ‘ probably for the duration of the present administration’s mandate (until 1999). These are:

1. Formulating a foreign policy framework based on national consensus, partly through ongoing and wider consultation;

2. Developing consensus on what South Africa’s national interest should be;

3. Reaching clarity on South Africa’s stance on human rights;

4. Reconceptualising South Africa’s leadership role in Southern Africa, including the role of non-governmental organisations;

5. Analysing the question of the unipolar world and the global economy, including the promotion of positive South-South relations;

6. Establishing a non-elitist advisory council which would allow regular consultation between civil society and government regarding contentious issues and other foreign policy matters; and

7. Improving governmental decision-making processes, including enhanced co-ordination with other government departments, and the addition of a policy planning unit within the foreign ministry.

Anthoni van Nieuwkerk is research director at the Foundation for Global Dialogue