Home|[in] focus|Scoping South Africa’s 2018 Foreign Policy
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by Institute for Global Dialogue


Categories: [in] focus

by Institute for Global Dialogue



On the 22nd of February the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with the University of South Africa teamed up with the Human Sciences Research Council to convene a roundtable on South Africa’s crowded foreign policy agenda in 2018. Never had there occurred such a jam-packed diplomatic agenda in the country’s recent post-apartheid history and at such a critical juncture in the nation’s domestic politics centered within the governing party. The convergence between South Africa’s heavy diplomatic agenda and the change-over, first within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and then in the Presidency itself, from the scandal-ridden Jacob Zuma administration to that of his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa could not have been a more dramatic statement of the post-apartheid cross-road the country had arrived at.

When factoring in how Tshwane (Pretoria) had regionally assumed the rotating chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) at a time when  neighbouring Zimbabwe was also to experience the post-Mugabe transition within its ruling liberation movement ruling party, it began to dawn on many that the country reputed to ‘punch above its weight’ was facing a cascading ‘cup runneth over’ of other responsibilities it had to navigate and juggle while the incoming Ramaphosa administration was finding its footing.

At the end of 2017, Tshwane had assumed the two year rotating chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) at a time when, in 2018 it would also be taking on the Presidency of BRICS (to take place in July) while offloading later in the year, the chair of SADC and the rotating co-chair of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). South Africa, as Africa’s only member of the G20 would also have to preparing for its summit, set for the first time in a global South country, this time, in Argentina (not to mention the current Commonwealth summit that was not factored into our discussion which President Ramaphosa is currently attending in London). Then, one cannot leave out Tshwane’s continental agenda within the African Union (AU) family of nations. And here, one can begin discerning Ramaphosa’s strategic sense of direction in how his foreign policy is to take shape: Economic Diplomacy.

It was no accident that in a State of the Nation Address (SONA) almost devoid of foreign policy content, Ramaphosa specifically targeted for mention the eastern and southern Africa ‘Cape to Cairo’ mega-Tripartite Free Trade Area and the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) for which he was recently present at its Kigale Declaration launch in Rwanda. These will be major priorities on an African agenda likely to be focused heavily on Africa’s regional and continental integration linked to Ramaphosa’s Number One concern: South Africa’s post-Zuma economic recovery involving trade and foreign investment promotion as in the team he led to the World Economic Forum at the beginning of the year and his just launched heavyweight team of envoys including former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel. Within SADC itself, he has already made the rounds in the region with courtesy stops in Angola, Namibia (which is to succeed in chairing SADC) and Botswana where SADC is headquartered.

It is against this fast unfolding backdrop that the IGD/Unisa-HSRC roundtable took place, the proceedings of which are available on the IGD website: https://www.igd.org.za/. Besides IGD panelists, roundtable participants included former South African deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad, IGD’s founding executive director, Dr. Garth L le Pere and Dr. Gilbert Khadiagala, former Wits University International Relations Head of Department, currently heading up the newly launched African Center on the Study of the United States. HSRC’s director of Democracy and Governance, Dr. Narnia Bohler-Muller who is in charge of the IORA Research Group during South Africa’s IORA tenure, and who arrange the roundtable was also among the panelists.  As chair of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation consultative review body, the South African Council on International Relations (SACOIR), former deputy minister Aziz’s lead-off helped set the tone of reflections. He noted “we had reached a very difficult period in the global world order and therefore our discussions cannot be business as usual” especially in terms of global trends affecting Africa and how Africa must respond.

Follow-up observations to Aziz’s opening re-emphasized the economic diplomacy thrust of the incoming Ramaphosa presidency with its emphasis on strengthening international economic engagement. This was seen as a departure from foreign policy references from previous SONAs where emphasis was more on mapping out external political landscapes South Africa would have to contend with. Noting that South Africa was politically stable and returning to policy certainty, with international markets receiving Ramaphosa’s pronouncement positively, it was time for analysts to begin exploring the nature of the country’s strategic vision that should be forthcoming over the next year, moving into the 2019 national elections. Into this calculus was introduced the VUCA effect as South African diplomacy will have to navigate Vola internationtility-Uncertainty-Complexity-Ambiguity.

This suggested that the global order had become highly fragmented compounded by a series of serious global challenges. In this environment, South Africa would have to re-design and rethink its post-Zuma posture. Agnostically, a more sceptical perspective on BRICS was in order with the world entering what was seen as a post-BRICS era of emerging markets as Ramaphosa charts economic diplomacy. Indeed, BRICS countries would have to contend with geopolitical fluidity and possible realignments that might complicate the BRICS agenda. Moreover, Africa was being sucked into the vortex of these VUCA challenges with particular concern raised about the dynamics of instability in such critically strategic members of the ‘Cape to Cairo’ mega Tripartite FTA, Ethiopia and Kenya. Although not elaborated on, challenges in these countries implicate how much momentum will/can be generated along Africa’s Indian Ocean littoral and extended hinterland in contributing the potential of an Indian Ocean economy. To this is to be added the DRC turmoil.

Taken all together, this fraught landscape was seen as presenting a challenging inter-African peace, security and stabilization agenda on top of South Africa’s more developmental-oriented SADC chair priorities elaborated on. This cooperation agenda, in turn, overlapped into Tshwane’s co-chairing with China of FOCAC. This is to conclude in 2018 in what South Africa had launched two years ago as the 2016-18 Johannesburg Plan of Action in Sino-African relations alongside its broader G20 co-chairing of the G20 developmental working and advisory group on the Compact with Africa. Meanwhile, it was also pointed out that South Africa’s chairing of IORA over the next two years is considered strategic given IORA’s Blue Economy emphasis and Tshwane’s domestic Blue Economy initiative launched by former President Zuma as Operation Phakisa. However, apart from the domestic utility of IORA in terms of Phakisa, there is little indication of a broader South African Indian Ocean vision in consonence with the eastern and southern African mega-trade calculus. Meanwhile, South Africa’s South Atlantic agenda viz-a-viz Latin America is similarly underdeveloped apart from the focus directed toward Argentina’s hosting of the G8.

In the final analysis, the discussion and exchanges generated wide-ranging speculation on the prospects facing South African diplomacy in the months ahead, on into 2019. The purpose of this roundtable kicking off IGD’s 2018 agenda was to set the stage for assessing where this journey has taken South Africa by the end of the year when we reassemble to revisit the terrain covered. By year’s end, the Ramaphosa era in South Africa’s diplomacy may emerge more sharply into focus as the ANC seeks a new electoral mandate in 2019.  


This article was first published by Journal of the Indian Ocean Region


Francis A. Kornegay, Jr. is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA, a member of the JIOR international editorial board and Global Fellow of The Wilson Centre in Washington. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent IGD/Unisa policy.

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