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by Institute for Global Dialogue


Categories: [in] focus

by Institute for Global Dialogue


South African Foreign Policy through the Bureaucratic lens

A complex and multidimensional process, foreign policy decision making is influenced by a range of factors including the external or global environment, societal environment, the governmental setting, the roles occupied by policy-makers and the individual characteristics of the policy-making elites. In the context of South Africa, the level of the state includes various players such as government agencies, lobbying groups and others who play a crucial role in defining the shape and direction of foreign policy. The most significant decision-making actor, in the political environment is the President, who is also the head of state and government and president of the ruling party. Both the ruling and opposition parties play a crucial role in legitimizing the political process that facilitates the decision-making process. The political environment where the leader is operating forms the basis of rationality for the leader seeking to maximise utility by selecting the policy options best suited to realise foreign policy goals. The leader is subject to group think, which is known as an excessive form of concurrence-seeking among members of high prestigious policymaking groups, that promotes collective rationalization and an inherent belief in the group’s inherent morality. The leader, who is motivated by two primary goals, which is to retain political power and build and maintain policy content, must play a two-level game between international and domestic politics which are both taken into consideration by the leader when making decisions. This is the essence of the bureaucratic model of decision-making, involving political struggle and bargaining.

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), which is the primary foreign policy planner, does not exercise policymaking and execution separate from other government bodies. It is obliged to inform other cabinet members of foreign policy issues. Given the interconnectedness between the economy and foreign policy spheres the Department of Trade and Industry, South Africa’s ‘chief steward’ for trade and investment relations is a key factor in the foreign policy decision making process. Provided the interrelated matters addressed by each department, any trade policies concluded by the DTI inevitably affect South Africa’s foreign policy. South Africa’s economic relations with African countries have significantly strengthened over time, sustained through the countries’ banking, hotel, mining, retail, telecommunications, tourism, manufacturing and services industries, all operating under the auspices of the DTI.

Another significant actor is the Department of Defence, a prominent role-player in South Africa’s foreign policy. This department is actively involved in various forms of peace diplomacy, which uses all forms of communications, networking, and negotiations in international relations to advance not only the interests of a given state, but ideally also the aspirations of its citizens. Other departments that have variable impacts on foreign policy-making include the departments of Health, Home Affairs, Finance, Justice and Sports and Recreation. African institutions such as the SADC, the AU and even individual countries also influence South Africa’s foreign policy decision-making. Departments, agencies and the Policy Coordination and Advisory Services (PCAS) unit also play important roles.

Some of the key policy coordination and decision-making fora include the cluster system, including the Director General (DG) forum and the International Relations Peace and Security (IRPS) Cluster. The Legislative process must also be taken into account as parliament seeks to play a greater role in oversight of South African foreign policy. They also have to ratify all international agreements and treaties, including playing a key role in passing and consulting on legislation.  

Given the dominance of the ANC in the political landscape, it is important to guard against ideological rigidity as the global landscape continues to evolve rapidly. Indeed there is always a need for new perspectives, new narratives and even new personnel as foreign policy continues to evolve. While the ANC has over the years produced outstanding policymakers and diplomats that have played significant roles in shaping the foreign policy landscape in South Africa, there is need for new elements and ideologies in the South African foreign policy landscape given the changing global landscape. This calls for a more inclusive and consultative approach that involves broader society in shaping the thinking on the national interest. Indeed the national interest must draw from the perspectives contained in various state and non-state actors, and even from the different political parties. This will allow DIRCO to also better coordinate the processes and management among the actors in a multistakeholder approach that works at improving the South African society as a whole.

Ms Jesuloba Ilesanmi holds a BA Hons in Political Sciences from the University of Pretoria and is an NRF research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA.

Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.

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