Zuma racks up voyager miles

Thabo Mbeki had a reputation for being out of the country a lot. There was a joke in newsrooms during his presidency that it was more newsworthy to report his arrival back in South Africa than when he went on a foreign visit. People think of Jacob Zuma as more of a homebody. But appearances can be deceiving.

Zuma is not far behind Mbeki when it comes to Voyager miles. He got off to a slow start in his first year, but he is catching up fast.

The average number of foreign visits a year is: Mbeki 28, Zuma 25. This comes after analysing media statements issued by the department of international relations between 2004 and 2013, the last five years of Mbeki’s presidency and the first five of Zuma’s.

Last year was a particularly busy one for Zuma (31 foreign visits). Only once, in 2005, did Mbeki travel more.

Quantity does not imply quality, though. The number of visits alone is not a measure of the impact of a president’s travels. In terms of the net result on South Africa’s image and influence, it is important to be strategic about which countries to visit, said Professor Shadrack Gutto of Unisa’s Institute of African Renaissance Studies.

Nelson Mandela was a hard act to follow. He had the moral high ground. With him as president, apartheid’s Western-centric approach was replaced by pan-Africanism and South-South solidarity, say international relations experts. Human rights would guide the country’s foreign affairs, he told the world.

It was under Mbeki that an ideological shift in foreign policy came into play. Mbeki’s approach was markedly more Afrocentric, and his favouring of emerging countries and opposition to Western dominance was seen at times as animosity towards the West.

Gerrit Olivier, a former South African ambassador to Russia and professor extraordinary at the University of Pretoria’s department of political sciences, said: "He no doubt had the intellectual and philosophical qualities to become a role player in the world of high diplomacy and was taken seriously by his peers, particularly posing in the role as Africa’s über-diplomat and speaking for the global South in world forums."

Although Zuma has continued with this line, he does not seem to have had the same impact, experts say.

"He assumed office as a foreign policy novice. Hence his foreign policy lacks depth and intellectual sophistication when compared to Mbeki’s. He is no innovator, a very weak orator, acts reactively and broadly follows the Mbeki foreign policy line," Olivier said.

In his last five years as president, 68% of Mbeki’s foreign trips were to African countries and, in his first five years, 63% of Zuma’s were.

Mbeki’s role as a peace negotiator can be seen in the countries he visited most: Zimbabwe, Sudan, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), each of which he visited at least seven times.

Zimbabwe was a neighbour in crisis, experiencing violent elections; Sudan was undergoing a transitional period and South Africa was doing a lot of capacity building for what was to become South Sudan. In the DRC, South Africa was helping the country to run elections and clean up the public service; also, the DRC is a wealthy country and Mbeki would have been opening avenues for trade and investment.

Tanzania and South Africa, meanwhile, have close ties because it was a home to the ANC during the struggle. Ethiopia was another regular stop on Mbeki’s itinerary. As the seat of the African Union (AU), this is no surprise. The only two African countries Zuma visited more than five times in his five years in office are Ethiopia and Angola. He visited Ethiopia nine times compared with Mbeki’s six. It was during this time that Zuma was campaigning to get a South African AU chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, elected.

Angola chaired the Southern African Development Community between 2011 and 2012 and, like Tanzania, has strong ties with the liberation struggle. Similar to the DRC, it is extremely rich in resources. Angola is one of South Africa’s major trading partners on the continent; almost 90% of Angolan exports to South Africa are petroleum-related, according to the department of international relations and co-operation.

Meanwhile, Zuma’s intervention in the Central African Republic last year was described as a "foreign policy debacle" after 13 South African soldiers were killed there and questions were raised about why the troops were stationed in that country in the first place.

Last year, Zuma put a big dent in his diplomatic image when, during a speech about e-tolling in Johannesburg, he made a controversial "Don’t think like Africans" statement, saying the highway between Johannesburg and Pretoria was "not some national road in Malawi".

"[He is] in Africa, yet not African," said Gutto. "On the other hand, "Mbeki’s ‘I am an African’ speech vibrated all over the continent."

Joining the Bric (Brazil, Russia, India, China) grouping of the largest emerging economies in 2010 was a major diplomatic coup for Zuma. But this membership is both positive and negative, said Gutto.

"South Africa is tiny both economically and militarily compared to the other member states. And, when it says it is championing Africa’s agenda to Brics, it has not discussed this with African countries, so it doesn’t have an agreed-on agenda. This creates tensions and suspicions with other African countries," he said.

The term "gateway to Africa", which was used to get Brics membership, should be used with caution, said Gutto. "A gateway for whom, for what?" he asked. It harks back to the colonial era. "Who are these outsiders and what is their interest?"

Rest of the world
Unsurprisingly, the Brics member states feature more in Zuma’s travel agenda than they did in Mbeki’s.

"During Mbeki’s time Europe/the West was still viewed as the site for most potential for foreign direct investment. The European Union during Mbeki’s time was South Africa’s largest trading and investment partner," said David Hornsby, a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand. "Now, during Zuma’s time, the emphasis is on Brics and other emerging economies.

"The conditions for loans, investment and trade are far more favourable in the South as opposed to the North."

China has been South Africa’s main trading partner since 2009. South African exports to China in 2012 totalled $10.1-billion, according to an Industrial Development Corporation report from August 2013. Exports to Brazil and Russia were relatively low at $0.8-billion and $0.4-billion respectively, although their overall value has been rising. Russia is the only Brics country with which South Africa has a trade surplus.

Zuma went to Russia twice last year, once in September to attend a G20 summit and once in May on a working visit that included a delegation of Cabinet ministers. Two months before that, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin visited South Africa and agreements and contracts were signed, according to the department of international relations.

Russia is also one of a number of countries, including France, China, South Korea and a joint US-Japanese consortium, that are in the running to bid for South Africa’s trillion-rand nuclear build tender.

Despite rumblings about how Nigeria’s economy could overtake South Africa’s as the continent’s biggest by 2028, South Africa still attracts the most foreign direct investment in Africa, according to EY’s (formerly Ernst & Young’s) recent Africa by Numbers report.

Be that as it may, it is clear that South Africa has been slipping from the international radar screen. "With Mandela now gone, the trend will continue. Our foreign policy under Zuma presents a veritable flea market, lots of blue-sky aspirations and strategies, but little achievement on the output side," said Olivier.