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How will SA’s new coalition government steer foreign policy?

The challenge of decision making by consensus may see South Africa adopting more middle-of-the-road policies on pressing global challenges.

South Africa’s political landscape has changed dramatically since the African National Congress (ANC) lost its parliamentary majority on 29 May, compelling it to form a Government of National Unity (GNU). This new political reality could have far-reaching implications for the country’s international relations over the next five years.

The recent appointment of Ronald Lamola as Minister of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) may signal that the broad contours of South Africa’s foreign policy will remain unchanged. International relations will continue to be guided by the Constitution and underpinned by the ANC’s ideological adherence to Pan-Africanism and progressive internationalism.

However, questions concerning the nature and trajectory of South African foreign policy under the coalition government may be far trickier to determine.

An ANC minister at the helm of DIRCO (coupled with two ANC deputies) cannot gloss over the deep and glaring foreign policy fissures between certain GNU parties – particularly the ANC and Democratic Alliance (DA).

Can DA officials square their positions on South Africa’s responses to the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, for example, which have been largely framed under the ANC’s overarching commitment to progressive internationalism? Can the GNU remain faithful to the ANC’s framing of Pan-Africanism while the Patriotic Alliance (PA) persists with its hardline approach to illegal immigration?

There can be no glossing over the deep and glaring foreign policy fissures between certain GNU parties

These predictable schisms are perhaps less important to the day-to-day functioning of DIRCO or the Presidency’s international relations activities. But they are critical in determining the broad outline of South African foreign policy over the next five years.

If the GNU doesn’t present a united front on pressing global developments, political opposition forces could easily attack and undermine the country’s international relations. A lack of consensus could also lead to a less decisive, incoherent approach – especially if the institutional links between the executive and legislative arms of foreign policy making are subject to the GNU’s principle of sufficient consensus.

This could be avoided if GNU parties recognise these potential pitfalls beforehand, and agree to ringfence major foreign policy decisions as the sole preserve of a single party, based on the Cabinet minister’s political affiliation.

This could be done in exchange for party-specific influence in other policy domains, which would minimise internal GNU squabbles and prioritise action and expediency over constant consensus-making. Such an arrangement could be bolstered by a clear agreement detailing Cabinet's prerogatives and executive powers in the realm of foreign policy. The likelihood of either scenario playing out, however, remains to be seen.

Opening up foreign policy to an eclectic mix of actors may entrench a culture of political pragmatism

The GNU’s internal governance arrangements could also lead to a reordering and rationalising of the working relationships between different nodes of the foreign policy-making establishment. This includes the Office of the Presidency, DIRCO, the ANC National Executive Committee’s (NEC) international relations sub-committee, and the National Assembly’s Portfolio Committee on International Relations and Cooperation.

Depending on how the GNU works to achieve sufficient consensus, the ANC’s NEC sub-committee may need to consistently engage with the worldviews of the DA, Freedom Front Plus and PA, among others. Many of these parties hold diametrically opposing positions on how the country should respond to pressing international developments.

This trade-off between the internal coherence and sustainability of the GNU versus party-specific pressures may be the single greatest factor informing continuity and change. That means the seventh administration’s international relations may depend less on who occupies key executive positions, and more on how governance and GNU party structures work together in formulating and implementing foreign policy.

This won’t be easy, as the recent national election results have pushed these structures into uncharted territory. The ANC’s 71-seat loss in Parliament will also undoubtedly reshape power dynamics among members of the International Relations and Cooperation Portfolio Committee, and its subsequent utility in law making, oversight and budget allocation.

GNU parties should incentivise consensus building, rather than simply being compelled to do so

The net effect of this new governance arrangement may well be that more middle-of-the-road foreign policy outcomes consistently win the day. That is not an inherently bad thing for the country’s international relations.

In fact, an approach that opens up foreign policy to a more eclectic mix of actors who are compelled to achieve consensus, may help to temper the country’s international relations. Over the longer term, this could entrench a culture of greater political pragmatism as South Africa navigates an increasingly volatile and uncertain global environment in pursuit of its national interest.

As the fortunes of the GNU parties become increasingly intertwined, this new composition of foreign policy actors should actively incentivise consensus building, rather than simply being compelled to do so.

The GNU’s stability and effective functioning – at least until the next national elections – could provide this incentive, as all members risk losing support if they fail in their collective governance efforts. Hopefully the GNU parties arrive at this conclusion sooner rather than later.

ISS is hosting a panel discussion on SA's foreign policy future under the GNU on 4 July. Register to attend online or in Pretoria.

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