What in the world is South Africa? Or, to put it another way, what is South Africa to the world?
Since Cyril Ramaphosa deposed Jacob Zuma in February, almost all the focus has been on domestic politics and policy. But now some people are beginning to ponder the future trajectory of South Africa’s foreign policy, wondering whether as a result of the leadership change it might once again be able to punch above its weight in global affairs.
Foreign policy generally slips almost unnoticed under the radar. Partly because there is a such a small (though talented) local community of international relations specialist commentators, academics and activists, the foreign policy positions that South Africa takes in global and regional multilateral forums attract little attention in the media or even in Parliament. As a result, there is an accountability deficit — Pretoria can do pretty much what it likes with little or no political cost.
It is also, alas, a reflection of the fact that South Africa matters less and no longer exercises the influence that it once did on the world stage. This comes largely down to Zuma. Unless your name was Vladimir, Zuma had little to offer the world — which is not the only similarity between Zuma and United States President Donald Trump.
Whereas, before Zuma, Thabo Mbeki was taken seriously for the deep-thinking visionary that he appeared to be and Nelson Mandela was, well, Mandela. Zuma was increasingly treated as a corrupt clown. At the G20 meeting last year, for example, while the other 19 world leaders made good use of their time networking and making deals, Zuma had just one bilateral meeting (with the Chinese). No one else was interested in seeing him, not even the Russian prime minister Putin.
Zuma’s choice of minister for foreign affairs hardly helped either — Maite Nkoana-Mashabane was a left-field choice in 2009 and achieved the remarkable feat of becoming less credible the longer she held office.
Did the state capture project have any effect on foreign policy, and did it make any inroads into the department of international relations and co-operation? Perhaps not as explicitly or as directly damaging as in other departments of state, but evidence may yet emerge of how ANC factionalism crept stealthily along the corridors of the department’s magnificent home on the edge of Pretoria and into the joints of foreign policy making.
At least one senior figure in the department has been fingered and is under investigation for resources that may have been deployed in service of the interests of a defeated candidate in the ANC leadership elections last December.
It was a surprise to the new president to discover that South Africa had initiated a campaign to join the United Nations Security Council last year but had summarily dropped it when their preferred candidate did not prevail at leadership elections. It is testimony to the goodwill the world feels towards this country (and its new president) that South Africa was successful in winning a Security Council place, notwithstanding the stop-start nature of its campaign.
But enough of the past. Now there is interest in seeing whether a Ramaphosa-led South Africa has something interesting to offer a troubled, turbulent world that is desperate for good leadership and credible defenders of the principle of multilateralism.
The quixotic Nkoana-Mashabane has been redeployed by Ramaphosa to tilt at other windmills and replaced by Lindiwe Sisulu. She is a hard-working and principled politician with pedigree and clout — and with the credibility, as well as the poise and charisma, to make a mark on the world.
She is taken seriously, for good reason, just as Ramaphosa is taken seriously. He was invited, for example, to visit Canada at the time of the G7 to meet the body’s leaders on the side. It is clear that Zuma would not have been afforded such an opportunity.
As Trump and his band of anti-intellectual populist acolytes around the globe try to drive a coach and horses through the system of multilateral governance built up over the past 70 years, there are high expectations that South Africa will offer a clear, fresh voice in defence of the rule of international law, especially in the realm of human rights.
But will these expectations be met? There is caution in the ranks of the diplomatic community. They recognise the positive early signs — in Sisulu’s words and in other signals. Her budget vote speech contained some unequivocal language about South Africa’s attitude to human rights and a multilateral political order.
But the jury is out: other countries want to see if the words will be matched by actions, although there is an understanding that any “rebalancing” of South Africa’s foreign policy priorities is unlikely to happen overnight, especially given that it is chairing Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) this year.
During the Zuma years, Brics came to dominate South Africa’s worldview and to eclipse traditional trading and diplomatic relationships. Supporting or appeasing Chinese and especially Russian positions became the default position in many multilateral forums.
In important places such as the Human Rights Council in Geneva, South Africa more often than not voted with Russia — usually without referring to Pretoria — a situation replicated in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), where South Africa’s permanent representative continued to vote with Russia, for example against the strengthening of monitoring mechanisms, without properly going back to Pretoria, long after Ramaphosa and Sisulu had taken the helm.
This is where the rubber hits the road. It is in votes in places such as the Human Rights Council and the OPCW that South Africa will be watched to see if its approach has really changed and, in turn, whether the malign grip that the human rights and humanitarian affairs desk at international relations has over the country’s voting position on key international bodies has been loosened.
Part of the job of the review panel of elders that Sisulu craftily appointed soon after taking on her new portfolio will be to help her reshape the department to suit the complex demands of the next generation of international relations challenges and to drive out any rogue units or diplomats who undermine the work of the many experienced and capable professionals in the department.
The review panel includes gnarled old foreign policy pros such as Mbeki’s long-time trusted adviser and deputy minister of foreign affairs, Aziz Pahad, as well as two former directors general of the department, Ayanda Ntsaluba and Sipho Pityana.
Even if they help to stiffen Sisulu’s resolve and ensure that the necessary reforms are made, there can be no guarantee that South Africa will not flatter to deceive. This is because the ANC factionalism that continues to obstruct Ramaphosa’s administration at almost every turn will probably remain a factor until he can quell the noise of the nationalists in the governing party.
For instance, the fight about membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC) remains a factional one, both inside and outside Cabinet. No one can seriously argue that South Africa should be a strong proponent of multilateralism while, at the same time, walking out of an important global institution. Instead, it should be advocating reform from within.
It would be the diplomatic and economic equivalent of Brexit — shooting oneself in the foot at the worst possible time. I do not think South Africa will leave the ICC any more than that Britain will be able, in the end, to detach itself from the European Union.
This is not to say there will not be legitimate tensions between some foreign policy positions and “economic diplomacy”. The presidency was swift to boast of the $10-billion in investment that was recently won from Saudi Arabia, for example, but were concerns about Saudi Arabia’s role in the devastating conflict in the Yemen (which has harmed far more children than in Syria) raised by Ramaphosa before the cheque was accepted?
From the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Zimbabwe, as well as in relation to old causes such as Western Sahara and the Palestinians, South Africa needs to articulate a powerful new message about human rights. It must be one that overcomes unhelpful dichotomies between traditional liberal civil and political rights on the one hand and socioeconomic rights on the other.
The biggest challenges the world faces, such as climate change, cannot be solved without international co-operation. Multilateralism is in the interests of South Africa and its most vulnerable communities.
As Sisulu likes to argue, the defence of human rights is in South Africa’s history: Where would the anti-apartheid movement have got to without successfully articulating the regime’s treatment of black people as a monstrous violation of human rights?
As in many areas of domestic policy, South Africa has lost much ground in the past decade. Ramaphosa’s victory presents an opportunity to restore the country’s place in the world at a crucial time in international relations, especially given its forthcoming two-year term on the Security Council.
The case for multilateral governance needs to be made strongly but with due regard for the fact that, to recover its reputation as a principled player in the sphere of international relations, South Africa is going to have to work very hard.
Richard Calland, a partner at the Paternoster Group, a political risk consultancy, is working on a new book, Cyril’s World: The Politics and Ideology of the New South African President