/ 25 March 2011

An armchair guide to SA’s foreign policy challenges

An Armchair Guide To Sa's Foreign Policy Challenges

If the heart of foreign policy is its vision then a cardiogram of South Africa’s post-apartheid foreign policy would start with some fairly lively scratches: Nelson Mandela’s lofty but somewhat naive vision of external relations conducted with human rights foremost in mind moves to the racy peaks of Thabo Mbeki’s aggressively pursued vision of a united Africa taking its rightful place in the global order, followed by the gentler rhythms of Zuma’s administration, which is in many respects a carry over of Mbeki’s vision, but more carefully driven.

Following are some of South Africa’s biggest foreign policy challenges — and what 2011 is likely to bring.

Finding big ideas
Gilbert Khadiagala, the Jan Smuts professor of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, expands on these trends and identifies several opportunities for refining South Africa’s big foreign policy ideas in 2011. “Since the end of the Mbeki administration, there has been concern about the lack of a clear sense of leadership, inspiration and purpose in South African foreign policy,” Khadiagala says.

“Jacob Zuma’s administration has favoured a more institutional approach and it is debatable whether the department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco) has seized this opportunity to lead.” In Khadiagala’s view it is vital that South Africa lead in the articulation of a foreign policy vision that draws on current changes, entailing a return to “a value-driven policy that underscores the significance of the promotion of democracy and pluralism throughout Africa”.

“The dangerous dream of a United States of Africa has faded with the influence of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, but there remains a need for creative thinking about the future of the African Union: is this the best institution for managing African international affairs or should Africa contemplate new forms?” In 2011: Dirco’s 2010-2015 Strategy Framework, available online, describes the department’s vision in broad brush strokes, but policy wonks are looking to the publication of the white paper on foreign policy for a clearer picture of the ideas that are driving South African foreign policy.

Better public diplomacy
In thinking about where we are today in regard to foreign policy, it is worth recalling PJ O’Rourke’s assessment of it in days gone by. “The world is full of discrimination of the worst kind,” O’Rourke wrote in his 1989 bestseller Holidays In Hell. “The problem with South Africans is they admit it. They don’t say, like the French, ‘Algerians have a legal right to live in the 16th arrondissement, but they can’t afford to’—The South Africans just say, ‘Fuck you.’ I believe it’s right there in their Constitution, section IV: ‘Fuck you. We’re bigots.'”

Siphamandla Zondi, the director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, picks up the thread post-1994: “The reputation South Africa built through the iconography of Mandela and a near-miraculous transition helped generate positive public perception of South Africa abroad. However, controversy over our position on Zimbabwe and our voting positions during our last tenure in the United Nations Security Council have since harmed our image.”

“We’re not a new player in international affairs anymore. Our stature today puts us in the league of older southern powers like Brazil and India. “South Africa, therefore, has to adapt very fast both to the global role that its growing prestige gives to it and the new ways of doing diplomacy, and one such way of doing this that has become prominent recently is the protection and projection of reputation through social networks and media coverage,” Zondi says.

Until now, says Zondi, the South African government has demonstrated an “inadequate understanding of the way our image, reputation and prestige contributes to maintaining our relatively privileged position globally”. There is ample evidence to suggest, however, that Dirco has noted the need for better communication.

This is most obviously reflected in the change of the department’s name from foreign affairs to international relations and cooperation. Additionally, it has a new public relations front and academia is returning reports of improved access to Dirco’s leaders.

In 2011: The issues that are likely to measure South Africa’s public diplomacy in 2011 are numerous, but communicating the logic of the relationship between Pretoria and Jerusalem as international pressure mounts against Israel’s policies will be difficult, as will the communication of the South African government’s commitment to combating climate change in the face of fossil fuel-oriented energy expansion plans.

SA’s nuclear diplomacy
When it comes to the issue of nuclear proliferation, South Africa has been the world’s moral conscience in the past decade and a half, choosing to give up its arsenal and drive non-proliferation initiatives on the African continent and internationally. In recent years, however, the country’s good-guy standing has become a little hazy, as University of the Western Cape senior politics lecturer Joelien Pretorius explains.

“South Africa’s insistence on amendments to the 2007 Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran, as well as South Africa’s strong support for the normalisation of nuclear trade with India, even though India has never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, seems to indicate a more interest-based trend in our approach to nuclear issues,” says Pretorius. South Africa’s support for normalised nuclear trade with India has raised eyebrows, not least because such trade could be contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Pelindaba Treaty, which establishes Africa as a nuclear-weapons-free zone, and which South Africa was instrumental in creating.

Article 9 (c), for example, specifies that: “Each party undertakes not to provide source or special fissionable material, or equipment, or material especially designed or prepared for the processing, use or production of special fissionable material for peaceful purposes to any non-nuclear weapon state unless subject to a comprehensive safeguards agreement concluded with IAEA.” And India’s military facilities are not subject to any IAEA safeguards. So far, however, South Africa has not entered into any nuclear trade agreement with India.

The country is, it seems, torn on the one hand between cooperating with an increasingly important economic partner and fellow Brics member and, on the other, ensuring that its African partners are not threatened by South African trade and political interests. In 2011: Watch the development of South Africa’s nuclear energy plans in the face of global and local anti-nuclear lobbies that have been vastly emboldened by the Japanese nuclear crisis.

In October look out for the 6th London Conference on a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, at which South African support for nuclear trade with India could come under the spotlight.

UN Security Council reform
South Africa ascended to the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member for the first time in 2006-2007 and very quickly became the institution’s enfant terrible, blocking sanctions resolutions on Burma and Zimbabwe in the name of institutional reform.

“The mistake we made,” former UN Security Council ambassador Dumisani Khumalo recently told a Centre for Conflict Resolution meeting, “is that we assumed that South Africans understood what it meant to be on the Security Council. We were wrong. People had this idea that we could use our position to solve all the evils in the world, when, in fact, it has unequal rules that favour the permanent members.”

Reforming global governance institutions was a key objective of the Mbeki administration, but it is one that, although still inscribed in the documents that guide South African diplomats under Zuma, appears to have slipped in order of importance.

“Look at the 2010-2013 strategic plan on the Dirco website and you’ll see that the African agenda is our number one priority, followed by south-south cooperation at number two, north-south dialogue at number three, strengthening political and economic relations at number four, and then only these issues of global governance. The message is that Africa comes first,” says Tom Wheeler, director of the Wits- based South African Institute of International Relations.

At a January consultation between academics and the Dirco leadership it was pointed out to Dirco that all South Africa’s new Brics partners would be on the UN Security Council at the same time and that this happy confluence could surely be used to advance the reform agenda. “They laughed at us,” one of the academics recalls.

“They said they might write similar things in their propaganda, but all South Africa’s partners pursue only their own narrow self-interest.” In 2011: The onset of such hard-nosed realism led analysts to predict a much quieter South African tenure in 2011-2012.

That might have been the case until the confusion this past week on the Libya vote, which appears to have twisted foreign policy in a knot which will take a while to untangle.

This article, which is the first in a series, was supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundation. Its views are those of the author and the Mail & Guardian