A peek into SA’s foreign policy black box




When Foreign Becomes Domestic: The Interplay of National Interests, Pan-Africanism and Internationalism in South Africa’s Foreign Policy by Eddy Maloka (Ssali Publishing House)

Few people know South Africa’s foreign policy and its role in the African Union as well as Eddy Maloka, the head of the AU’s African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) and a former ministerial adviser.

Maloka is an adjunct professor at the University of the Witwatersrand and has travelled the length and breadth of the continent in his various capacities to observe elections, meet heads of state and chair meetings in Addis Ababa.

On the eve of South Africa’s yearlong chairship of the AU in 2020, his new book, When Foreign Becomes Domestic, provides valuable insight into the inner workings of the department of international relations and co-operation, its relations with the presidency and its capacity to play a role on the continent.

On some topics Maloka pulls no punches. He speaks frankly about the decline of South African foreign policy and the “administrative regression” that started during Jacob Zuma’s presidency. He also believes the move to focus exclusively on economic diplomacy — at the expense of political influence in peace and security issues and institutions such as the AU — will weaken South Africa’s diplomatic standing on the continent.

Arguably, this is already the case, perhaps not so much as a result of the priority given to economic interests, but because South Africa’s image has suffered severe reputational damage in the Zuma era and the many waves of xenophobic violence made it no friends on the African continent.

Maloka blames the government for “abandoning” the institutions of the AU that it hosts on its soil such as the APRM, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the Pan-African Parliament, which were created together with the transformation of the AU from the Organisation of African Unity in 2002. To this day the three institutions are still struggling to sign host country agreements with South Africa, which Maloka says seriously hampers their work.

Clearly, as head of the peer review mechanism this is particularly disturbing for Maloka, who states: “The impasse over the host country agreement is raising questions in Addis Ababa about the Africa-centric pretensions of South Africa’s foreign policy.”

Maloka complains that some of the innovations in the early Zuma era — when Maloka was still working at the international relations department — were never fully implemented. These include the South African Council on International relations, which was launched in 2015 but has been dormant ever since, and the South African Development Partnership Agency, which never got off the ground.

He also notes that the secondment policy of cadres to serve in institutions such as the AU has never been implemented and the deployment of staff internationally was “disjointed and incoherent — leading to inefficiency in the use of limited state resources”. This is one of the reasons there are so few South Africans working in the AU Commission in Addis Ababa, something that will be a constraint when the country chairs the institution next year.

In fact, Maloka will be one of the few senior AU officials from South Africa in the institution in 2020. And while he usually insists that he is not serving on behalf of South Africa, Maloka, who speaks excellent French, has over the years been able to bridge some of the internal divides on the continent and is an ambassador for what one might term “South African efficiency”, which is appreciated by some and resented by others in Addis Ababa.

Maloka also gives a frank assessment of the politicisation of the international relations department, going so far as outlining the way some pro-Thabo Mbeki officials were ostracised after Zuma was elected the ANC’s December 2007 conference in Polokwane. He explains that the idea of the African renaissance was replaced by the African agenda, not for any substantive reason but because the former was coined by Mbeki and was linked to the former president.

The same divisions in the department seen after Polokwane were present in the run-up to the December 2017 ANC elective conference at Nasrec. The department’s minister supported former AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and not Cyril Ramaphosa. “Those who were perceived to be on the wrong side of the factional divide [in the ANC] were either marginalised or managed out of the department,” Maloka states.

The dynamics between the presidency and international relations department have always affected foreign policy — going from a presidency-driven decision-making under Mbeki to the lead taken by the department’s minister under Zuma and arguably still under Ramaphosa until he shows otherwise.

This tension serves to explain some of the inconsistencies in the country’s foreign policy, notably in the United Nations Security Council where the decisions made by South Africa “exposed weaknesses in the decision-making architecture”. South Africa was at times “caught napping” and with “egg on its face” during previous tenures at the UN Security Council, says Maloka.

Maloka’s book not only gives interesting insights into the “black box” of decision-making in Pretoria — an area he says has been ignored by most students of South African foreign policy — he also gives the reader some understanding of the thinking in government and ANC circles on controversial issues such as defending human rights in Africa.

One of the main criticisms of South Africa’s policy in Africa over many years has been its reluctance to speak out about human rights abuses and issues that are clearly contrary to South Africa’s own values and Constitution. Whether it is Zimbabwe or Sudan, Cameroon or Uganda, never a word is heard from South Africa on any public platform in support of the millions of activists fighting for their freedom and rights on the continent.

Maloka treats this issue in an extensive chapter that foreign diplomats will find particularly interesting. For Maloka, human rights are about foreign meddling in African affairs. He argues that “the purported promotion of human rights in international relations is a geopolitical exercise used by powerful countries to justify their intervention in the internal affairs of weaker nations for regime change”.

He says foreign powers are able to exploit the lack of co-ordination between the international relations department and Luthuli House for their own benefit. Maloka emphasises that in all cases South Africa’s national interest should come first — either with not allowing the Dalai Lama to visit South Africa to please China or the controversial 2015 decision to allow former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, wanted for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, into the country.

In the case of al-Bashir, who came to attend an AU summit, Maloka says the AU is not inferior to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and says the court order for al-Bashir to be arrested was “weird and incomprehensible”. He says that when South Africa approached The Hague to find a solution before the summit, they “played hardball” and wouldn’t compromise. He believes Parliament’s decision to ratify the Treaty on the Rome Statute and make the country’s laws inferior to those of the ICC was a mistake.

The actions of international institutions such as the ICC, which he says target of Africa and ignoring abuses elsewhere, is indicative of the “untransformed nature of the international system”.

Maloka’s assessment of South African foreign policy is fair and even if one doesn’t agree with his viewpoints, the book gives insight into some of the thinking by foreign policy actors.

With the start of the Ramaphosa presidency many analysts and observers surmised that he would now move back to a “principled” foreign policy where the values of the Constitution will be adhered to. The disciple of Nelson Mandela, who stood up to the Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha all those years ago, would stick his neck out for what is right on the continent.

But as Maloka rightly states, the cost of such actions are enormous. And in a context where South Africa has its back against the wall because of the xenophobic attacks, one shouldn’t expect too much of South Africa in this regard.

Rather, there is an expectation that the country will continue to work behind the scenes and pour non-negligible amounts of money and resources into trying to make peace in places such as South Sudan, Lesotho and elsewhere.

But first, as per Maloka’s assessment, the international relations department must get its house in order and both the department and the presidency should work together to make South Africa’s tenure at the AU a success.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran is a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies

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Liesl Louw-Vaudran
Liesl Louw-Vaudran
Liesl Louw-Vaudran is an independent journalist and Africa expert. She lived in Senegal for many years and has reported from over 20 African countries. She is a regular commentator on African issues in the local and international media. From 2002 to 2008 she was the Africa Editor at Media24 newspapers in South Africa and still contributes to newspapers such as the Mail&Guardian in Johannesburg. Liesl also works as a consultant for the Institute for Security Studies, notably as editor of the African Union Peace and Security Council Report.

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