[in] focus

South Africa’s 2018 foreign policy agenda: in pursuit of the national interest

saforpolThe beginning of 2018 came with what is possibly South Africa’s busiest diplomatic calendar year since 1994 as the country finds itself at the helm of various international and regional groupings that have strategic importance.  It thus chairs the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) group, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), while set to relinquish its rotational co-chairing of the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and participate in the Group of 20 (G20) meeting as the only African representative.   South Africa assumes these leadership roles at a time when domestic politics are recovering from a leadership transition in the governing party, leading to the question of whether South Africa will be able to advance its national interest within both the African and global contexts.   

While trying to pursue its national interest of being people centred, including promoting the well-being, development and upliftment of its people, protecting the planet for future generations and ensuring the prosperity of the country; its region and continent as whole, South Africa’s post 1994 foreign policy has faced a number of challenges.  It has at times been characterised by inconsistencies and controversy, although there has been some continuity between the Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma administrations regarding their African agenda and international cooperation. Under Nelson Mandela, the focus was on championing human rights and re-joining the international community after South Africa had been isolated during the apartheid years. However, despite the more elevated human rights discourse during the Mandela years, he was also not immune to close scrutiny by various state and non-state actors about his choice of friends, which included close relations with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Palestine’s Yasser Arafat, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Indonesia’s Suharto.  When questioned about their human rights records, Mandela would often say that he was free to choose his friends. 

South Africa’s contradictory actions in relation to championing human rights have continued since the Mandela administration as the democratic government was confronted with the realities of global politics, where the pursuit of the national interest is not always aligned with one’s own internal values as a nation state.  In September 2014, the Dalai Lama’s application for a visa was denied, largely seen as South Africa putting its economic interests above human rights. Moreover, South Africa turned a blind eye to the widespread human rights violations in Zimbabwe leading up to the 2002 elections. A SADC Parliamentary Forum Observer Mission report on the Zimbabwe elections was suppressed by the Mbeki administration; the report had declared the elections unfair and unfree. From Mandela to contemporary times, all the administrations have been grappling with the complexity of advancing national interest and championing a human rights agenda that emanates from South Africa’s own internal struggle.

The Thabo Mbeki administration chose to elevate the African agenda, strengthening ties with other African countries and pushing for more recognition and benefits for Africa while promoting a more equitable global order. The Jacob Zuma administration was a continuation of this focus on South-South cooperation with South Africa’s membership of the BRICS grouping being a major accomplishment in advancement of the Global South agenda.

Furthermore, South Africa's position on the reform of the UN including its interest in a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and its participation in the G20 has added to the projected image of South Africa being the corporate and institutional gateway to the continent.  However, South Africa’s efforts in becoming a prominent power in the global South, such as its BRICS membership, its G20 participation and its UNSC ambitions, have also added to the negative perceptions of African countries about South Africa’s hegemony. African states have been sceptical of South Africa’s declarations that it will use its international representation to advocate for the issues plaguing the continent, as they do not necessarily share the view of South Africa as a continental leader.  Contradictions to the African agenda as a core tenet of South Africa’s foreign policy, including the outbreak of xenophobic attacks and its quiet diplomacy approach to the crisis in Zimbabwe, have also cast a shadow on its Afrocentric foreign policy orientation.

South Africa has stated that its Chair ship of IORA will be used to promote and attain its priorities including the African Union’s 2050 African Integrated Maritime Strategy (AIMS) and Agenda 2063.  National interests will also benefit from the IORA Chair ship as the Association’s seven priority areas align perfectly with South Africa’s own objectives under Operation Phakisa, which aims for the development of an ocean economy.

A key question remains whether South Africa has the capacity, both in financial and human resources, to meet all the stated foreign policy objectives or has South Africa bitten off more than it can chew, especially considering the many domestic challenges that need to be addressed before attempting to address external ones? This then highlights the importance of the consultations on the Foreign Service bill, which is meant to build a professional and competent foreign service that will be able to represent South Africa in the desired manner, pursue national interest as well as translate South Africa’s diplomatic presence into tangible results for both the country and its sub-region.

Although the election of the new president has ushered in what is being called a new dawn, it remains to be seen how President Ramaphosa will utilise these various multilateral leadership roles in addressing domestic challenges. In his State of the Nation Address, the President clearly articulated the importance of improving economic growth by increasing business confidence, wooing investors and expanding trade, which will translate into job creation and poverty reduction and making it clear that these objectives require a professional and dedicated foreign service that will promote and represent Brand South Africa internationally. The President also spoke on the need for an economically independent African Union that has competent institutions that will be able to try gross human rights violations and war crimes. This is important given the recent shielding of leaders accused of violations such as Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and DRC President Joseph Kabila.  If obtained, these objectives will see South Africa being able to use its 2018 foreign policy agenda to advance the national interest within both the African and global contexts.  

Ms Remofiloe Lobakeng holds a BA Hons in International Politics from UNISA and is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD

BRICS: what role for civil society?

BricsroleforcivilsocietyElites and industry specialists, for example government departments, academic institutions, top businesses and other recognised organisations, as well as renowned individuals,  are the most common actors spreading information about BRICS, giving the partnership an allure of exclusivity and at times restriction. While the partnership indeed was created by governments to strengthen their cooperation in international relations, over the years, the growing need to focus on translating economic gains into human development has expanded and evolved the BRICS agenda. The continued expansion into varied areas of cooperation has been accompanied by the institutionalisation of Track II Diplomacy channels that incorporate think tanks and businesses, and the establishment of Track III Diplomacy that focuses on civil society. The growing focus on people to people relations, the inclusion of think tanks, businesses, civil society and now potentially labour, adds more supportive qualities to the partnership while deepening cooperation beyond the traditional state to state relations.  This was particularly evident during China’s chairship of the BRICS in 2017, whereby China included think tanks, academics, civil society, political parties, and combined these groups on several platforms.

Previously, civil society convened on the side lines of BRICS summits in a BRICS from Below counter movement since the 2013 Durban Summit. The movement advocates for critical societal inputs that acknowledge socio-economic, political and civil rights violations, and has argued that the BRICS partnership has overlooked these aspects in a bid to attain most enterprising trade, investment and development cooperation deals. Foreign policy scholars and practitioners have argued that this realm of international relations is still very restrictive in nature and content, and therefore civil society should not necessarily have such an input. However, the increasing interest from civil society to engage with foreign policy and in international relations, shows that there is an awareness and capacity to mobilize and drive foreign policy from a bottom-up approach. While civil society may not be vested in the ultimate international relations political process, their intent is to impact communities and contribute to a stronger country-system, which impacts on the country’s capacity in international relations.

Through their lobbying efforts, civil society was included in the BRICS proceedings through the Civil BRICS forum, which first convened in 2015 at the Ufa Summit. Currently, the Civil BRICS forum is still working towards attaining a formalized or institutionalized status, which would allow them to have a greater input in their programmatic inputs in the various tracks of diplomacy. The agenda of BRICS from Below is still pertinent to the forum discussions. Actors use those points, namely individual rights, welfare, cooperation, sustainability, inclusivity and others, to explore more people- and environment-centred options that promote the development of the partnership through the focus on the development and empowerment of human capital. However, a significant challenge that the Civil BRICS contingent is facing in the partnership is that civil society is interpreted differently among the BRICS members; Russia and China’s civil society is focused on solutions based formalised organisations that implement societal change for improvements, while India, Brazil and South Africa’s civil societies are predominantly grass-roots based that provide critical input and advocate for policy changes that provide unique solutions fitting distinct issues.

Traditionally, elites have been favoured in the decision-making process and often mass public opinion has been taken for granted, thus portraying civil society as a reactive factor, not a partner, to government and business sector decisions. It is important for civil society to contribute to the BRICS forums as it sets a precedent for the mode of cooperation that the world could employ.

BRICS has an ambitious agenda, each year adding innovative items to its agenda. While the actors seem to have a large capacity to achieve their projects, there is a concern that too many new items can shift the attention away from existing issues. The proposed BRICS Labour forum will add a facet of cooperation that reminds the partners to act in favour of workers’ rights, which would be a favourable development in the partnership and an example to other international investors. However, BRICS partners need to be cognizant of their commitments. This would be a good opportunity for South Africa’s contribution to its 2018 presidency and South Africa may use its strong civil society as a reminder for what it has pledged to achieve in terms of sustainability and developing human capital and incorporate forth coming policy recommendations into an active strategy for its geostrategic placing in the BRICS partnership. As the BRICS partnership approaches its second decade, the role of civil society could be a sobering voice for the partnership to balance its geostrategic aspirations while maintaining the inclusive development of societies through consultation and participation.

Ms Arina Muresan holds a Masters in Political Science from the University of Johannesburg and is a researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2018, Brexit, and the Imperial (Re) Turn

Commonwealth Heads of Government MeetingThe 25th biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) takes place from 19-20 April in London, United Kingdom, under the theme “Towards a Common Future”. South Africa and other nations from the global south will accordingly be in attendance. Under the new stewardship of President Cyril Ramaphosa, it is still unclear as to what the country plans to table at this important international platform. And from a continental vantage point of Africa, no unified position has been articulated for this critical meeting, after all not all members of the African Union (AU) form part of the Commonwealth. Delayed by a few months and fortuitously rescheduled to be hosted by the United Kingdom following a natural disaster in the pacific island of Vanuatu, the original designated host, CHOGM 25 occurs in a different world for Britain and the Commonwealth nations broadly. The “Common Future” theme for the summit is doubly apposite for the limping Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May, which has suffered several setbacks and embarrassment at home and abroad. A seemingly generic agenda for the meeting has been forthrightly mapped out by the host, neatly prioritising the following four goals:

  • Prosperity: boosting intra-Commonwealth trade and investment;
  • Security: increasing cooperation across security challenges including global terrorism, organised crime and cyber-attacks;
  • Fairness: promoting democracy, fundamental freedoms and good governance across the Commonwealth; and
  • Sustainability: building the resilience of small and vulnerable states to deal with the effects of climate change and other global crises.

Instead of settling for the four stated priorities, South Africa and the continent should be proactively and directly contemplating a bespoke trade and immigration deal with the United Kingdom. More importantly, for President Ramaphosa, this juncture is well-timed to lead the repositioning of Africa’s relations with Britain even though the President of South Africa does not automatically carry a direct mandate from the AU in this regard. At this occasion, Africa is arguably better poised than ever before to strike better deals with their weaker and vulnerable former coloniser. Currently the Commonwealth does not have a multilateral trade agreement. One may also argue that Britain needs Africa and the Commonwealth nations more as they are a significant market of 53 nations and an estimated 2.4 billion people. On the other hand, Commonwealth nations in general stand to benefit more from their trade relations with the superior European Union market than with the stand-alone Britain.

The 2016 European Union (EU) membership referendum, popularly dubbed “Brexit”, whereby 52% of British voters opted for leaving the EU as well as the early general election in June 2017, which left the Conservative Party with a reduced majority forcing it into the so called “confidence and supply” agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have notably scarred Theresa May’s tenure at Downing street. From a continental Europe perspective, the UK’s decision to leave the EU has spelled an uncertain future for the British economy as trade relations are bound to be reconfigured. Brussels seems to have assumed an adversarial stance that is likely to punish London and conjure up regret for the withdrawal. With the decision for leaving the EU due to be finally executed by March 2019, the United Kingdom is busy negotiating possibilities of a new deal with Europe whilst also looking at the Commonwealth as a potential trade alternative to Europe. However, the eyeing of the Commonwealth market as a ready and captive audience for British goods and services is poised to resurface the contentious issue of immigration. The latter seems to be on the blind spot for the gleeful and optimistic government of Theresa May, especially given that accessing overseas markets for goods and services is inseparable from the movement of people.   

One may strongly argue that following the uncertainty brought by Brexit and the snap election, Britain naturally and strongly counts on her relations with the Commonwealth to salvage her trade relations. This rare feat of a former coloniser looking down south for help has been witnessed before in the case of Portugal reaching out to Angola after the 2008 global recession. The story of global trade is never complete without factoring-in immigration. As Britain prepares to welcome Commonwealth nations this month the prejudice and anti-immigration sentiments at the heart of Brexit remain latent and cannot be wished away by pomp and ceremony at Buckingham Palace. It certainly bears mentioning that the very emotive issue of immigration that was instrumental in tilting sentiments of British people towards leaving the EU remains unresolved. The very people that the Brits were unhappy with coming onto their shores most likely originate from most of the developing nations which form part of the Commonwealth edifice.  One may conclude that the British people selfishly wanted a deal that allows the movement of goods and services sans people. The reality however is that in the world of modern global trade and economic integration people, goods, and services become entwined making it difficult for one to cherry-pick. It is this message that should be hammered by South Africa, Africa, and other developing nations to the Conservative government and Britain as a whole. As Africa has regressed into higher levels of indebtedness since the global recession of 2008, going forward the continent should aim for nothing less than balanced and fair trade deals that accommodate their priorities and provide opportunities for knowledge exchange to catalyse the beneficiation of goods domestically as well as the free movement of people. These are the ideals that should characterise Africa’s economic diplomacy not only when engaging the United Kingdom but also other potential parties such as China and North America.

Dr Mabutho Shangase is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) associated with UNISA and a Lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD

Iranian protests: What do they mean for Iran as an emerging power?

Iranian protestsIran was in recent months rocked by its largest wave of protests since the 2009 Green movement, when millions demanded the re-run of a disputed presidential election. From December 28, 2017 tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets in a number of cities, to protest against economic hardship and political repression. These protests resulted in 21 deaths, hundreds of civilian arrests, blocking of social media apps and retaliation from the Iranian government. As evident, Iran has been projecting itself as a regional power in the Middle East region, however for years the country is facing significant domestic challenges. Thus, the question that should be asked, is: what does this turmoil mean for Iran’s emerging power position?

There is a long history of political protests in Iran. Generally, these protests are triggered by economic and other grievances, such as price inflation, the imposition of new taxes and duties. However, there have been instances where protests have occurred due to, the nationalisation of oil resources (1952) and land tenancy (1963-1978, “White Revolution”). The frequent nature of protests occurring in Iran can arguably be viewed as the Iranian people refusing to accept the legitimacy of the regime. In this regard, where people’s freedom of expression is restricted and retaliation ensues, the government has responded through violent means.

The recent protests in Iran have an economic and political dimension to it. Demonstrations were at first about the failure of President Hassan Rouhani's government to “revive Iran's struggling economy, address high unemployment, [inequality], inflation, and combat alleged corruption”. Under Rouhani there has been a few successes with regard to reducing inflation and improving economic growth. However, this has not been enough as he has failed to deliver the most pivotal change - reducing unemployment. According to the World Bank, unemployment is about 12.6% (roughly 3.2 million are unemployed), and in other parts of country it is more than 60%. Young and highly educated individuals are severely affected by this. In addition, under Rouhani poverty has increased along with gas prices, and in the past year prices of basic goods have increased by at least 40%.

Under Rouhani, the nuclear deal made in 2015 with the US, UK, Russia, France, China, and Germany, was perceived as a prospect to improve Iran economically. Sanction relief was supposed to benefit Iran domestically; however, it seems that the short-term benefits of the deal was used to assist Syria’s regime and fund groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, instead of using this money to address the countries domestic issues. In turn leaving Iranian civilians suffering.

This above factor leads to the political dimension of the protests. Demonstrators were challenging leading figures, chanting “Death to Ayatollah Khamenei” (Supreme leader of Iran), “let go of Syria, think about us”, others have been burning the supreme leaders picture and some woman have removed their hijabs. This clearly exemplifies the dissatisfaction individuals have towards the regime, and some have even lauded the monarchy overthrown in 1979. As a result, the Iranian government has responded in violence and has even blamed outside powers such as the US for the recent protests.

Essentially, under Rouhani there has been a slight improvement in the country, however it is not what the Iranian people have hoped for. The country is plagued with high rates of unemployment, inflation and poverty. With the money the government does receive, it rather invests in strengthening its position in the Middle East. Therefore, the protests can be largely viewed as a result of Iran’s ambitious foreign policy in the region at the expense of its domestic needs.

The protests are unlikely to change the current regime or have an immediate political shift, and resentment towards the regime will remain and remerge again. With these protests, Iran’s’ position in the Middle East and the international arena will undoubtedly change. Time and again, the Rouhani regime has proven unrelenting, and now with the recent protests the government realises that it needs to change in order to remain in power. Therefore, it could be said that a change in system could occur in Iran in the future. Iran can be considered an emerging power, but does this hold any significance if the domestic needs of civilians are compromised?

Ms Negar Fayazi holds a BA Hons in International Relations from the University of Pretoria and is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) associated with the University of South Africa (UNISA). Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.

SA’s leadership roles on global stage track its domestic agenda

Faith MaberaAfter President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address, one commentator called foreign policy the governmental stepchild, referring to its scant coverage of foreign policy engagements.

Save for the mention of SA’s plan to accede to the Tripartite Free Trade Area and the Continental Free Trade Area and the utility of the Brics group in the promotion of value-added trade and intrastate investment, domestic issues and economic diplomacy constituted the bulk of the president’s speech. Yet this year will be a hive of activity for SA’s foreign policy enterprise. Apart from chairing the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Brics and the Indian Ocean Rim Association and wrapping up its co-chairing of the Forum for China-Africa Co-operation, SA will be the sole African member of the Group of 20 (G-20).

Looking ahead to 2019, it seems to be all systems go for SA’s third tenure (2019-20) as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Closer to home, as the Ramaphosa administration finds its feet on the diplomatic front, SA will have to take stock of its positioning in the African context and whether its moral and political capital will demand a repurposing, not only in diplomatic momentum but also of priorities and strategies.

For instance, will we see an African agenda 2.0, distinct from the Nelson Mandela era (focused on SA’s credentials of good international citizenship), Thabo Mbeki’s overdrive into institutionalising and finetuning SA’s foreign policy, or Jacob Zuma’s thrust in economic diplomacy, albeit of the "Look East" variety? While the state of the nation address resonated deeply with economic development and foreign economic strategy, Ramaphosa’s exposition pointed to the oft-overlooked dynamics underpinning the entanglement of domestic politics and international relations. There is a bold recognition of the delicate balancing act between national interests and international engagements, and the centrality of structural factors that underpin sound policy decisions, such as a strong, capable state and an efficient bureaucracy, including a professional diplomatic service.

In the context of foreign policy analysis, the interaction between the domestic sphere and the global arena has been depicted as a two-level game in which leaders seek to achieve negotiated outcomes at the international level that gain domestic approval. As such, these outcomes or win-sets at international level are shaped by preferences and coalitions, inputs by domestic political institutions and actors seeking to influence outcomes, and bargaining strategies employed by the foreign policy elite at the international level.

In pursuit of basic foreign policy goals — security, autonomy, wealth and a reorganisation of global power — it is imperative that SA goes back to the drawing board, garnering lessons from past triumphs and blunders and injecting strategic direction to foreign policy. The profiling of SA as a pluralist middle power and the prioritisation of multilateralism as a key pillar of its foreign policy demands solid normative consistency between SA’s domestic political framework and its objectives in the global arena.

An examination of the core business of the multilateral forums SA is participating in 2018 reveals consistency with domestic priorities: The Indian Ocean Rim Association 2018 theme is ‘Uniting the Peoples of Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Middle East through Enhanced Co-operation for Peace, Stability and Sustainable Development’. As chair, SA will seek to align the activities of the association with the 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy in maritime security, capacity building, skills development and technology transfer in the ocean economy.

The SADC 2018 theme is Partnering with the Private Sector in Developing Industry and Regional Value Chains, in line with the SADC Common Agenda and regional plans. The Brics 2018 theme is Inclusive Development Through a Socially Responsive Economy, prioritising economic prosperity and inclusive growth; science and technology; conflict resolution, peace and social justice; and revisiting the global commons by strengthening responsible forms of strategic co-operation and sustainable development. In the Forum for China-Africa Co-operation, SA is overseeing the implementation of the Johannesburg Plan of Action (2016-18).

SA is co-chair of the G-20’s development working group as well as the Africa advisory group on the G-20 Compact with Africa. These priorities reveal an overlap in thematic and strategic focus that dovetails the priorities set out in the National Development Plan as well as Africa’s Agenda 2063.

It remains to be seen whether SA will be able to connect the dots on the foreign policy agenda while proving adept at playing the two-level game in diplomacy and domestic politics.

Ms. Faith Mabera is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) associated with UNISA.

The article was first published in the Business Day, 01 March 2018





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