Be that as it may, Pretoria’s intentions in Africa continue to be viewed with deep suspicions in the continent, not necessarily because they are inherently wrong, but partly because of the foreign policy context in South Africa, which is muddled in historical “baggage” and ambiguities in the country’s cultural and national identity. One just has to take stock of the extremely polarised domestic discourse on even the most fundamental elements of the country’s foreign policy to appreciate the difficulty that African audiences sometimes face in trying to decipher the true intentions of Pretoria in the continent. In this context, an important foreign policy challenge for South Africa is how to assist critical audiences in Africa to sift through the maze of domestic and foreign (mis)interpretations of the country’s foreign policy in order to appreciate its Africa policy for what it’s worth.
A foreign policy instrument that lends itself to such a task is academic diplomacy, expressed through formal or semi-structured courses, research and publication, student exchanges or academic seminars and conferences. If designed and executed properly, academic diplomacy could play two crucial roles in support of South Africa’s Africa policy. In the first instance, it could assist in creating an informed understanding of South Africa’s foreign policy among targeted and attentive African audiences. More importantly, academic diplomacy could serve as a tool for setting the African Agenda on the basis of depoliticised and critical dialogue with African audiences, thus also assisting in generating the shared vision needed to advance the continental agenda. This is vital in circumventing the need to resort to strong-arm tactics, which South Africa has been accused of using to secure the chairmanship of the AU Commission.
Unlike other foreign policy instruments, academic diplomacy can better serve this purpose because of the trustworthiness and objectivity that is associated with academic processes. Academic diplomacy programmes must thus be designed and implemented in the context of maximum academic freedom and with no unnecessary political interference. The strength of academic diplomacy as a foreign policy tool also lies in its ability to target younger generations of African leaders and thus create a lasting positive impact on diplomatic relations between South Africa and the rest of the continent, both at the bilateral and multilateral levels. It can also prove to be a resource-efficient strategy in the sense that, although substantial funding is required to successfully run targeted programmes, the overall project can sustain itself through the life-long professional and personal bonds formed in the course of academic exchanges.
As home to some of the best academic institutions in Africa, as well as host to a large number of scholars from other African countries, South Africa already has sufficient resources with which it could develop a concerted academic diplomacy strategy for Africa. All that is needed is to harness the available resources and integrate them into the country’s foreign policy architecture, most preferably as part of the forthcoming development partnership agency.
Fritz Nganje is a researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.
The article first appeared on SABC news online on 21 September 2012