Thursday, 01 January 2015 00:00

The Missing Beef In South African Foreign Policy

On the New Year’s Eve, the highly driven DIRCO minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, offered some reflections on South Africa’s foreign policy. She made a number of points, many of which were aspirational. Most notably, Nkoana-Mashabane affirmed the National Development Programme as a framework that “guide our actions and set priorities for our international relations mandate aimed at creating the South Africa we want by 2030.” Beyond rhetoric it is difficult to find evidence of this being the case.


Some time at the close of 2014, during break at a conference hosted by my former university, a veteran international relations scholar interrupted our informal conversation with a pointed question: “Where is the beef in our foreign policy?” A long silence followed. He then explained his difficulty in figuring out how our overextended foreign policy is delivering material benefits to South Africa, especially in the tough economic times we live in.


This fleeting conversation brought to mind a bullish assertion made by John D Rockefeller in 1880 about his country’s international exploits in the decades following the Civil War. This pioneer of America’s industrial revolution stated boldly at the time: “Our ambassadors and ministers and consuls have aided to push our way into new markets to the utmost corners of the world.” This was the time when relationship between political power and commerce was gradually co-reinforcing to build national economic prosperity.


To be sure, there is more to foreign policy than opening markets abroad. But if we are to measure the benefits of foreign policy, concretely, we need to place greater weight on building national economic prosperity. This is more important in the 21st Century when other countries are using diplomatic tools to expand their commercial footprint, while South Africa pursues a vaguely defined goal of creating “a better Africa in a better world”.


Our foreign policy should be framed in a more focused manner – to promote clearly defined national economic interests, while contributing to a more secured world. With 126 diplomatic missions abroad, and a total expenditure by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) at roughly R6bn, there is surely an imperative for greater, and more measurable economic returns for the country.


Giving his first foreign policy speech 5 years ago, William Hague the then British Foreign Secretary pointed out that, working jointly with the United Kingdom Trade and Industry department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will: ‘...use our global diplomatic network even more to support UK business in an interventionist and active manner.’ One does not need to mimic foreign policies of other countries to be effective. However, there are lessons to be learned from countries that have a clear purpose about their place in the world, and intent on using foreign policy to improve the quality of life of their citizens.


Beyond aspirations, there remains an unanswered question regarding where exactly is the beef in South Africa’s foreign policy. In the two successive administrations of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki there were at least clear ideas on what South Africa’s foreign policy represented or sought to achieve, even if this was not always well coordinated.


It is difficult to assert the same with regards to Zuma. There is a lot of drive and activity, often directed in the wrong direction, but not much clarity of ideas. In his book, the Zuma Years, Richard Calland characterises Zuma as a “vacant space” in “both ideological and policy terms.” The National Planning Commission (NPC) has also lamented this vacancy of ideas.


In 2012, the NPC report dedicated a chapter to South Africa’s foreign policy. It made a number of critical observations. The NPC decried what it regarded as South Africa’s “relative decline in power and influence in world affairs”. It went on to state that South Africa’s foreign relations are becoming ineffective, with the country experiencing a “decline in its moral standing”.


The NPC also made some positive recommendations. First, it called for foreign relations to be driven by the country’s domestic economic, political and social imperatives, if challenges such as eradicating poverty, lowering inequality and creating jobs are to be achieved.


Second, it asserted that South Africa should aggressively expand trade and investment in the region, on the continent, and globally. Third, it underlined the importance of closer interaction between DIRCO and the corporate sector and research institutions. Three years later, there is no sign of change in the conduct of our foreign policy.


In the year ahead, our foreign policy should be solely preoccupied with generating benefits for the country’s citizens.


This article was first published in the Business Day, 16 January 2015