South Africa’s foreign policy stuck in the doldrums

When a government department announces a policy white paper it creates an expectation that a fundamental policy shift is on the horizon. As such, it should offer bold ideas about new policy directions.

But this is not so with the new white paper on South Africa’s foreign policy developed by the department of international relations and co-operation. One of its fundamental shortcomings is an absence of a clear sense of leadership and purpose about the country’s place in Africa and the world.

However, its publication should be welcomed, especially because it opens up an important space for the public to scrutinise the department’s work. Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, minister of international relations and co-operation, has been promising to deliver this policy framework since March last year when she gave her first budget speech. Now that it has finally been delivered, what should we make of it?

With the exception of a few areas such as the Southern African Development Partnership Agency, aimed at managing South Africa’s development co-operation and humanitarian assistance, and the proposed instruments for engaging civil society stakeholders, much of the white paper is old wine in new bottles. It essentially regurgitates the old pillars of foreign policy, such as the centrality of the African continent, South-South relations, North-South relations, and the promotion of multilateralism and global governance reforms.

Beyond this, the white paper suffers weaknesses in five other important areas. First, its preamble announces a new “diplomacy of ubuntu”, but this fizzles out and is not discussed again in the paper except for a passing reference to it in the conclusion. There are no solid ideas or compelling substance that define this new diplomacy.

Second, in its opening paragraphs, the paper makes an unsubstantiated claim that South Africa’s foreign policy is aligned with its domestic and developmental needs. One would be hard-pressed to find any serious attempt to demonstrate convincingly how this is so, except to offer a cursory reference to South Africa’s socioeconomic profile. There is not even a single line devoted to the new growth path, which is South Africa’s flagship development plan. At least, the department should have set out unambiguously its distinct contribution to promoting economic development.

Fundamentally, the paper fails to project a clear purpose for South Africa’s foreign policy or to unveil new instruments and tools that would lend strong meaning to the alignment between foreign policy and key domestic priorities. Even where mention is made of the need to promote economic diplomacy, this is not coherently developed. For example, it does not frame any outline on how the government and business could work together best to leverage advantages from existing political relations with key African countries. Nor does it reveal any strategies for extracting maximum benefits from the continent’s changing commercial landscape for South Africa’s own economic advancement.

National interest
Third, the paper offers a convoluted definition of national interest. It includes almost everything under the sun, such as “ensuring the prosperity of the country, its region and continent” as well as “promoting the wellbeing, development and upliftment of its [South African] people”.

This does not make any meaningful connection between society and the rarefied foreign-policy elite. Such thinking confirms how out of touch our foreign policy is with domestic realities. There should have been a recognition of the need for a meaningful dialogue at the national level, cutting across different sectors, including government agencies and business actors, to define how South Africa should evolve a more precise definition of its interests and how these could be best advanced.

Fourth, a prioritisation of the countries that South Africa needs to deepen relations with is absent. Not every country is important to South Africa. The ubiquitous nature of South Africa’s foreign policy is further evidence of the lack of focus and clear and specific objectives the country should seek to achieve.

The paper restates the importance of bilateral commitments with Asia, the Middle East and Europe, and with the Americas and the Caribbean, which, in a sense, is a way of manufacturing a rationale for committing resources to pursue vague foreign policy goals.

Proper foreign policy prioritisation would allow for the resizing of diplomatic missions and ensure greater fiscal efficiency. Also it would facilitate an optimal reallocation of resources to priority areas to realise greater benefits for the welfare of South African citizens and its economic actors.

It is no longer tenable to maintain a corpulent diplomatic structure in the face of massive domestic challenges. The department’s work should be forced to contribute to advancing domestic socioeconomic priorities. It should justify its work on the basis of this. Harder questions should be asked about the department’s value-add, especially to demonstrate the concrete benefits it generates. If this white paper had aimed to achieve just that, it would have been impressive.

Finally, the absence of purpose and ideas in the document is aggravated by the missing substance of South African leadership on the continent. The paper passes the buck on dealing with global or African challenges, deferring to consensual arrangements with other African countries or multilateralism. There is no projection of South Africa’s leadership edge or a distinctly South African agenda in the country’s pursuit of African relations aimed at benefiting other African countries.

Instead, South Africa’s foreign policy is worryingly deferential to other African countries, some of which are run by autocrats and phoney democrats. South Africa’s lack of ambition to play a leadership role on the continent deprives it of an opportunity to reinforce its values of democracy and human rights in its dealings with other African leaders. South Africa does not even tie these values as preconditions for developmental assistance.

The apologetic nature of its foreign policy explains why President Jacob Zuma angrily confronted the ANC Youth League for pointing out obvious deficiencies of democracy in some of the smaller countries in the region. South Africa is more comfortable indulging dictators than playing the kind of leadership role that is required to steer its region and the continent in the right direction.

Continuity, rather than bold repositioning, is a theme that runs through the entire white paper. It is a 36-page document with more than 36 assertions such as “South Africa will continue —” Each page reminds us that things will stay the same. The rhetoric has just changed its inflection. Anyone who expects to see new ideas under Nkoana-Mashabane is sure to be disappointed.

The government should have used the white paper to hone “smart power”, the term coined by international relations scholar Joseph Nye Jnr in his book, The Future of Power. Nye says that countries using smart power have “the ability to combine hard and soft power resources into effective strategies”, and this is achieved with well-designed strategies and skilful leadership.

South Africa’s foreign policy should be calculated to produce desired outcomes and benefits for the country, especially on the continent.

Dr Mzukisi Qobo is a senior lecturer in the department of political sciences, University of Pretoria, and a member of the Midrand Group

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