Spotlight: Giving civil society a voice on South Africa’s foreign policy


Civil society has a vital role in improving the quality and legitimacy of South African foreign policy. It can also help ensure that African voices advance the continent’s interests globally.

Throughout the country’s third term on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) provided research expertise and technical support to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO). This work revealed the need to create a more productive dialogue between civil society and foreign policy decision makers – one that could shape and strengthen South Africa’s future priorities and actions.

In 2020 it became clear that the country would face a critical year in its multilateral engagements. On the UNSC, South Africa learned hard lessons as it navigated an increasingly volatile international system. As the African Union (AU) chair, President Cyril Ramaphosa led the continent on the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 while contending with growing domestic economic and political pressures.

Public engagement around South Africa’s foreign policy positions has in the past been inadequate – a shortfall that DIRCO has acknowledged and sought to address. To help bridge the gap, ISS brought together 25 local and international civil society groups and DIRCO officials to develop recommendations used as South Africa prepared for its UNSC presidency month in December 2020.

‘These sorts of interactions are important to allow civil society organisations and think tanks to comment on government’s work in a safe space,’ said roundtable participant Steven Gruzd from the South African Institute of International Affairs. ‘They also allow CSOs to understand government perspectives and policies better.’

The interactive social media campaign reached over half a million people during the six-month project

ISS also encouraged public debate about South Africa’s achievements and failures during its UNSC term. An analysis of civil society perspectives was shared with senior government officials and can contribute to DIRCO’s official reflection on its UNSC membership.

Together with other civil society organisations, ISS stimulated discussions about a range of decisions, such as South Africa’s controversial vote on a draft resolution that Russia presented on women, peace and security. The public reaction encouraged DIRCO to clarify its position on the issue.

ISS expertise on Africa’s role in global peace and security and its wide networks enabled researchers to create platforms for DIRCO, civil society and academia to discuss and shape South Africa’s term on the UNSC. An ISS documentary video featuring lessons for other African UNSC members was also widely circulated as part of an interactive social media campaign. With support from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, the campaign reached an audience of over half a million during the six-month project.

Speaking at an ISS seminar in February 2021, Zaheer Laher, Acting Chief Director: UN Political, Peace and Security at DIRCO, said the department has developed a dynamic working relationship with civil society organisations, including the ISS. The goal, he said, is to promote an understanding of South Africa’s positions in the UNSC.

‘The ISS’ relationship with DIRCO has grown in leaps and bounds, but the work is only starting,’ said ISS Senior Researcher Gustavo de Carvalho. ‘ISS will continue working to advance civil society’s role in strengthening South Africa’s contributions to the UN, the AU and other multilateral organisations.’

For more information contact:

Gustavo de Carvalho, ISS: +27 794 257848; [email protected]

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