South Africa’s foreign policy agenda is due for a massive overhaul, with a possible return to the era of pan-African politics exemplified by former president Thabo Mbeki’s administration.
The department of international relations is attempting to reclaim South Africa’s position as a major influence on the continent by appointing a review panel to steer a new direction for the country’s foreign policy.
Two senior government officials confirmed to the Mail & Guardian this week that the international relations minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, has appointed the panel, comprising experts in foreign policy and economics. It has been set up to move South Africa’s foreign affairs approach from a focus on continental peace and security towards economic diplomacy.
The panel members include ANC head of economic transformation Enoch Godongwana, former deputy foreign affairs minister Aziz Pahad, former South African ambassador to Germany Lindiwe Mabuza, former international relations director general Ayanda Ntsaluba and economist Xhanti Payi.
The two government officials, who asked to remain anonymous, also confirmed that former deputy
chief justice Dikgang Moseneke has been appointed as special envoy to South Sudan and Lesotho.
The panel is expected to put together a diagnostic report on South Africa’s foreign affairs approach since 1994 and advise on a way forward.
Government insiders say the review was spurred by Sisulu’s belief that the country’s global and continental standing had “regressed”.
“Essentially, without verbalising it, she reckons under [former president Jacob] Zuma we’ve regressed,” one senior government official told the M&G.
“So, in essence, we’ve just been getting by — but in terms of influence and leadership roles, we no longer occupy that space. So this is a way to recover lost ground and recover that position.”
Although South Africa is not intending to abandon its peace and security mission on the continent, Sisulu has made it clear she wants the economy to be the main focus.
“It’s true that they [panel members] are going to be focusing on the economy because the minister’s understanding is that the president is focusing on that as a former businessman. So she wants to fall in line with what she believes are his priorities.”
South Africa also plans to have increased peace and security involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and play an active role in ensuring that free, fair and peaceful elections are held in the country following postponements dating back to 2016.
“Her [Sisulu’s] view is that South Africa has to be seen to be taking a leadership role, even as far as condemning the delay of handing over power by having an election for [DRC President Joseph] Kabila. Or put him under pressure to ensure that elections take place … even if it means we have to fund those elections,” said the official.
The policy review is seen as an attempt to mirror aspects of South Africa’s foreign affairs approach under Mbeki’s administration and his African Renaissance approach to development.
The return to this model is evident in plans to rebuild ties with Nigeria as well as the Caribbean countries — ties that were weakened under the Zuma administration.
The government believes good relations between Nigeria and South Africa, the continent’s two largest economies, are essential for driving economic programmes in Africa.
“Under Mbeki, he and [former Nigerian president Olusegun] Obasanjo were leading the continent. Once the two of them agree on a particular programme, it starts moving because they then influence their regions to fall in line,” said the second senior government official.
Leaders in Caribbean countries are understood to have approached Sisulu, raising concerns about what have become strained relations with South Africa. Historically, Caribbean countries have benefited from South Africa’s African Renaissance and International Co-operation Fund, which channels assistance to African countries, including Africans in the global diaspora.
A positive aspect of Zuma’s administration that will be retained is South Africa’s increased influence and participation in the Southern African Development Community, which improved under his leadership and former foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane’s tenure.
But fears have been raised by ministers sympathetic to Zuma that Sisulu’s new approach might involve a shift away from the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Brics) formation. Zuma’s administration was characterised by strong ties with Brics member states, giving rise to a nuclear deal with Russia and even plans for a Brics ratings agency.
Ramaphosa’s approach, however, has been different. He has already started reaching out to the West, securing more than R800-million in funding from the United Kingdom last month.
“The understanding is that he [Ramaphosa] is warming up to the West, almost recalibrating our relations to focus on the West because those are his friends, at the expense of Brics,” the senior official said.
“But there is no defocus on the attention Zuma put on Brics. It’s almost like Zuma had put all his eggs in that [Brics] basket. Ramaphosa is not going to take that route, where everything is Brics, at the expense of big countries with big economies. There will be a balance.”
Securing South Africa a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council will also be among Sisulu’s priorities. Government officials believe it is a foregone conclusion that South Africa will take its seat on the council, a step they say will further entrench the country’s position as a global player. — Additional reporting by Matuma Letsoalo