A year ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa officially began his tenure as president of South Africa after the ANC, the party he led to the election in May 2019, secured a comfortable victory in one of the most highly contested polls post-1994.
Although he had been in power for just over a year when the country went to the polls, owing to the early recall of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, in February 2018, the election of the ANC was a stamp of approval for Ramaphosa to lead South Africa, here at home and abroad, through a sound domestic and foreign policy.
Under Zuma, the country’s foreign policy could be described as an “absolute chaotic disaster”, to borrow from Barack Obama describing President Donald Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Under Zuma, South Africa’s foreign policy had its fair share of embarrassments globally, including allowing a known fugitive from international justice, Omar al-Bashir, who was wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), to enter South Africa in 2015 and leave the country without arrest.
Of course that fallout was followed by the country’s backroom attempt to withdraw from the ICC, without notifying Parliament. South Africa’s foreign policy under Zuma was so bad that an international relations lecturer — who teaches at an international university in Johannesburg — told me that he refused to teach the country’s foreign policy during those years. He was too confused about what the country stood for in terms of international co-operation.
President Ramaphosa came to the job with a lot of international relations credentials, including having been a part of the team that put together Responsibility to Protect (R2P), to protect people trapped in conflict situations. The historic framework, authorises other states to intervene.
At home, he played a crucial role in overseeing South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994 through his involvement as one of the negotiators. He also played a leading role in crafting South Africa’s progressive Constitution, which is admired the world over.
Elsewhere on the continent, Ramaphosa laid the foundation for the negotiations to end the conflict between the warring parties in South Sudan after the country descended into war in 2013. He was Zuma’s first envoy, appointed in early 2014, to bring president Salva Kiir and his political rival, Riek Machar, to the negotiating table in an effort to end the war.
Now, it seems as though Ramaphosa has been too preoccupied with rebuilding the country’s ailing economy — characterised by failing state-owned enterprises such as the national power generator Eskom and the national carrier, South African Airways — and is missing an opportunity to provide the much-needed foreign policy leadership on some of the burning global issues.
South Africa’s foreign policy, as a country born from struggle against white domination and the suppression of the black majority, is people-centred and guided by its diplomacy of ubuntu (humanity). It is “informed by a desire for a just, humane and equitable world order of greater security, peace, dialogue and economic justice”.
We have often, however, turned a blind eye to some of the most horrific injustices around the world for political expediency. For example, in neighbouring Zimbabwe, we have seen an increased brutality against anyone who dares take to the street to protest the declining state of the economy and the quality of life. Baton-wielding police regularly unleash crackdowns on protesters, who gather to protest the socioeconomic conditions which are causing suffering to so many people in Zimbabwe. Opposition leaders and activists who dare speak out against human rights abuses in the country are targeted for abductions and torture. Yet, there is hardly a statement coming from Pretoria, condemning the use of violence by the state to silence dissent.
In Yemen, South African arms have found their way into the war-ravaged country through the United Arab Emirates (UAE), fuelling the conflict and causing more suffering to innocent civilians who are caught in the five-year-long violence. South Africa was found to have sold arms to the UAE which were later diverted to militias accused of war crimes in Yemen.
In Myanmar, South Africa abstained from key United Nations resolutions seeking to stand up for the Rohingya people, victims of apartheid and an ethnic cleansing campaign that has shocked the world.
During Zuma’s presidency, the Dalai Lama, was denied a visa to enter South Africa to come and celebrate the birthday of his friend, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. This happened several times as if he posed a security threat to the country. This was done to appease China, which has a deplorable human rights record. Until today, it is not clear whether the Tibetan spiritual leader will be allowed to set foot in democratic South Africa, which is founded on political tolerance.With this terrible record under Zuma, Ramaphosa cannot afford to fail. He must go back to the founding values of South Africa’s foreign policy, in Mandela’s words, that “…considerations of justice and respect for international law should guide the relations between nations”. After all, Ramaphosa is on record that his leadership is inspired by Mandela’s “values, principles and integrity”.