The long-awaited foreign policy review commissioned by President Cyril Ramaphosa and submitted to government last week doesn’t offer a new South African foreign policy nearly as much as it proposes, implicitly, a return to the foreign policy of the Mbeki era.
The interim report of the review, in particular, raises again the rather battered banner of African Renaissance, rues that South Africa has lost influence on the continent over the past (Jacob Zuma) decade, and urges the Ramaphosa government to recover lost ground.
This nostalgia for the Thabo Mbeki years isn’t surprising, given the composition of the panel that wrote the report. The chairperson was former deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad and the panel includes other close Mbeki allies.
The report fondly recalls South Africa’s activism on the continent during the Mbeki era, particularly Pretoria’s role in shaping the transformation of the Organisation of African Unity into the African Union and in launching key AU programmes such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the African Peer Review Mechanism. It recalls how South Africa forged strategic relationships with other key African countries such as Nigeria, Senegal, Algeria and Egypt to win continental support for such initiatives.
Since then (by implication since Zuma became president in 2009), the report laments, South Africa and other countries like Nigeria, which previously played leading roles in Africa, ‘vacated the political leadership on the continent’, and ‘there emerged other countries that occupied the vacuum’. These countries, it says, were then able to lead on many issues on the continent and with relations ‘with outside regions and countries’.
The report insists that this isn’t an indictment of those other countries, but rather of South Africa, and that this is a reminder that leadership is earned and isn’t an entitlement bestowed on stronger countries.
The report doesn’t identify these other countries, so we are left to guess who they might be. Rwanda, perhaps? Indeed President Paul Kagame has been calling many of the shots in Africa over recent years, including through his leadership of the reform of the AU and his drive to launch the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.
The panellists seem to have had other countries in mind too, including perhaps the largely Francophone countries that promoted the return of Morocco to the AU in 2017, which South Africa opposed. The report implicitly blames this defeat on the loss of Pretoria’s influence on the continent. As it does the fact that ‘more outside countries are making some concerted diplomatic incursions into [Africa], receiving warm and encouraging receptions from a number of countries’.
Here the panel seems to have had in mind countries like Israel, which has been strengthening relations with countries such as Togo, Kenya and Ethiopia, and perhaps also Turkey and India. Among other remedies, the panel urges the new administration to forge strategic alliances with ‘specific’ (though unnamed) African countries.
Wistfulness for the Mbeki years – which have clearly acquired a rather rosy glow in the eyes of the panellists – is understandable, given the often misguided foreign policy of the Zuma years. It’s certainly true that South Africa should and could play a much more active leadership role in Africa.
The report also sensibly addresses many of the more practical critiques of foreign policy which have accumulated over the past decade. These include the excess of political appointments to key diplomatic posts, the disciplinary and low work ethic problems among South Africa’s diplomats, and the need for greater focus on economic diplomacy.
It also stresses the importance of not neglecting the country’s critical relationships – particularly economic – with development countries of the North, while advising some necessary caution in relations with the BRICS countries, which the Zuma administration was inclined to fawn over.
Pahad’s panel is nonetheless clear that South Africa’s appropriate ideological home is with the global South, and so it offers, but doesn’t elaborate on, a rather tantalising suggestion that Pretoria and other developing countries find ways of ‘tactically exploiting’ the divisions currently opening up among members of the traditional Western alliance.
But to return to Africa, if the panel is right in recommending that South Africa resume its Mbeki-era leadership on the continent, the question must be asked, to what end?
If such leadership would principally be intended to fend off the likes of Morocco and Israel from strengthening relations in Africa, as the report in places implies, that would surely be misdirected energy.
One is left with a sense that while invoking the Mbeki era, this panel hasn’t really wrestled with some of the real dilemmas of contemporary South African foreign policy. Like the one around the recent elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the government knew that former president Joseph Kabila had rigged the outcome in favour of his ally Felix Tshisekedi, yet accepted the result.
Apparently this was because it felt that suspect countries like France and Rwanda were attempting regime change. Or was it simply out of pragmatic necessity? Was this the best option for the long-suffering Congolese?
Or, going beyond Africa, similar issues arise around a crisis like that in Venezuela. After nearly a year of deliberation, perhaps the review panel might have made some suggestions about what South Africa should do to help ordinary Congolese, Venezuelans, Zimbabweans and others, in Africa and beyond, when their own governments abuse them?
Is it enough in such cases merely to defend national sovereignty and dismiss it as ‘regime change’ when the international community proposes applying pressure to such governments? This has been an important question ever since the ANC took power in 1994, and is still a critical one.
Pahad objected to the characterisation of his party’s foreign policy as ideological when he presented the panel’s report last week. He said the ANC government’s foreign policy decisions had never been founded on ideology, but instead on South Africa’s constitution and other guiding principles such as those in the Freedom Charter.
Whether you call it ideology or principle though, it is surely necessary for a country that still aspires to be punching above its weight in world affairs, and especially in Africa, to do not just the right thing, but the effective thing.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant
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