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Department of Political Sciences

Opinion: Party Ideologues Call Shots on SA Foreign Policy

By Mzukisi Qobo

Posted on 23 March 2012

SA's policy must be in tune with the changing realities in Africa and the needs of South African companies, writes UP Political Sciences lecturer and Business Day columnist, Dr Mzukisi Qobo.

SA ’s foreign policy is crying out for leadership and innovative ideas. Our recent behaviour on the global stage has been nothing short of comical. There was the inexplicable hostility to the Dalai Lama’s visit, then an inability to provide convincing reasons for endorsing United Nations resolution 1973 on Libya and, lately, timorous fence-sitting on Syria.

We also didn’t help our case in Africa by insisting on Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma ’s candidacy for the African Union’s top job without a compelling motive.

Disturbingly, there is a growing populist rhetoric of "anti-imperialism" and "anti colonialism" in Pretoria’s posture. It is becoming fashionable to frame western countries in this mould. This 1950s-era thread runs through the ANC’s recent discussion document on international relations.

Further, the ANC castigates the Group of 20 as a legitimation of failed ideologies and as "not yet a platform for fresh new thinking on global economic governance, nor should any approach be expected out of it in the absence of proactive strategic interventions by progressives". Not only does this suggest gross ignorance of how the world has changed, but it betrays an absence of new ideas in the ruling party about advancing S A ’s place in the world.

On Africa, the ANC cautions against S A playing a leadership role. In its place, it proposes a vacuous faith: to "hold fast our continued belief that our prosperity is directly linked to the prosperity of Africa".

If this were a document produced by a fringe group of radical leftists, it would be easy to ignore. However, the ANC’s thinking has a fundamental influence on the government. Its policy documents are likely to crystallise into a "Mangaung consensus" that will be foisted on government departments.

This outmoded thinking on foreign policy reflects not only the absence of talent on foreign policy matters at Luthuli House, but also the poverty of advice around President Jacob Zuma . It is not that S A ’s foreign policy has always been perfect, but the pillars carefully constructed during the early years of democracy are showing signs of weakening.

It appears that foreign policy decisions are informed by the gut feeling of a coterie of party cadres, with the very limited involvement of technocrats. If S A wants to be taken seriously in Africa and abroad, it will need to advance its foreign policy on different and better terms than suggested in the ANC’s document. The best start is to shift foreign policy thinking from Luthuli House to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation and build sufficient expertise for effective execution unencumbered by party dogmas about the West.

SA’s posture in Africa must shift from being guilt-driven to setting out boldly how it will take advantage of the commercial dynamism of the continent. This means formulating strategies for the country to compete head to head with major emerging countries. Our foreign policy must be in tune with the changing realities in Africa and the needs of South African companies. The commercial edge of any diplomatic influence is a country’s business sector, something the ANC does not seem to grasp. One of the critical touchstones of foreign policy should be how it enhances national economic competitiveness.

Finally, S A should deepen relations with w estern countries while maintaining its diplomatic assertiveness. Recasting the West as a devil with horns will not help S A. While it is true that advanced industrial countries are experiencing anaemic growth and have a chequered past in Africa, they remain vital sources of technical expertise and investment. S A should thus be careful not to put all its eggs in the Brics basket. Its foreign policy can be enhanced by balancing its newly found relations with the Brics countries on the one hand and western countries on the other.

The closest relationships that most of the Brics countries have are with the US and the European Union, rather than among themselves. India received an endorsement for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council from the US during President Barack Obama’s visit to that country last year, rather than from its neighbour and fellow Brics member, China.

Russia prioritises energy interdependence with Europe as a centrepiece of its foreign policy. China has a strong footprint in the US banking and technology sectors, with significant investments in energy markets in the US and Canada. Brazil maintains a delicate balancing act in its bilateral relations with China and the US.

If S A is serious about its place in the world and its leadership in Africa, it will have to reorient its foreign policy. This cannot happen while the party ideologues at Luthuli House call the shots instead of a competent cadre of technocrats in the international relations department.

This column appeared in the Business Day of Friday 23 March 2012

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