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by Philani Mthembu


Categories: [in] focus

by Philani Mthembu



Following its tenure on the UN Security Council and as rotating chair of the AU, South Africa will have to continue to engage in the conduct of strategic geopolitical power diplomacy if it is to regain the “punching above its weight” momentum on the international scene it once enjoyed. The challenge here continues to be compounded by a global pandemic in the form of Covid-19 and South Africa’s weakened domestic economic predicament. If the country does not act decisively, it will find itself in a disadvantageous diplomatic position on the continent and internationally for years to come as the ground continues to shift beneath its feet.

This is because of the unfavourably aligned global balance of forces working against progressive internationalism and how this anti-progressive alignment is unfolding on the continent, including within the Southern African Development Community (SADC). In an increasingly complex landscape, South Africa will have to adopt a geopolitical risk analysis approach to preparing for the unknown and planning for multiple scenarios in the region and beyond. This would allow the country to devise well balanced strategies and actions with available resources at a bilateral level as well as within continental bodies.

Despite an economy faced with various challenges, the country still possesses various diplomatic assets to drive its overall foreign policy objectives. However, in order to increase the impact of the various diplomatic tools available, there will have to be better coordination at the national and sub-national levels, including how the country uses its development finance instruments through structures such as the Development Bank of Southern Africa, the Industrial Development Corporation, and the African Renaissance Fund.

It will also have to better coordinate the international relations work of provinces, cities, and various state agencies. This requires an approach that proactively works with non-state actors operating at track two and track three diplomacy to ensure that foreign policy and the strategic orientation of the country is discussed and implemented by a broader section of society.

While going through a process of trimming the number of foreign representatives through embassies, high commissions, and consul-general offices, the country still has a large diplomatic footprint in the world, and this can be used to good effect in navigating a global order that challenges many of South Africa’s values and aspirations. South African foreign policy actors will have to contend and formulate strategies for the interrelated diplomacies of Morocco, Israel and France interacting with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt in navigating a changing international and continental strategic landscape.

They will also have to contend with Russia’s re-engagement with Africa and an increasingly confrontational relationship between China and the US. It will also have to factor in the Biden administration either being unable or unwilling to reverse some of the key foreign policy decisions made during the Trump administration, particularly on moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognising Morocco’s claim of autonomy over Western Sahara.

This changing balance of power in Africa is also evident in the recent decision by the AU chairperson to grant the State of Israel observer status in the AU, a decision which SADC has disputed formally. Diplomats in Tshwane and abroad will thus have to ensure that the general shift in the strategic landscape does not continue to place progressive forces on the defensive. In responding to the changing global and African strategic landscape, the country will have to consolidate its role in southern Africa as part of an attempt to recalibrate a broader Africa strategy.

Having recently assumed the position of chairperson of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security, South Africa faces the task of coordinating regional efforts in building the conditions for peace and security. Mozambique is facing a terrorist threat in the northern parts of the country, and the SADC Standby Force has been deployed, alongside a deployment from Rwanda. The Kingdom of eSwatini also finds itself facing political and social unrest as political parties, labour unions, and civil society stakeholders continue to call for democratic reforms and an inclusive dialogue in the country, with many lives already lost.

Zimbabwe, once a breadbasket for the region also finds itself under continued economic strain in the midst of ongoing, albeit reduced sanctions from the US and its European allies, which are not likely to be removed before the next elections in the country. Its economic and political challenges have also had a regional impact in the form of increased migration flows. Lesotho also continues to be an area for close monitoring as the country works with SADC to resolve its political challenges.

In chairing the SADC Organ, South Africa will likely seek a holistic approach to peace and security, one that recognises that in the absence of sustained development initiatives on the one hand, and good, effective, transparent governance on the other hand, the region is likely to be held back from contributing positively to shaping Africa’s development programme. The country will thus have to take an approach that encourages dialogue processes driven by the affected parties in order to reach sustainable solutions while ensuring the implementation of development programmes that improve people’s lives and create the conditions for long term peace and security.

The country will also have to promote dialogue initiatives at different diplomatic tracks between South African stakeholders and their regional counterparts in order to avoid a crisis driven approach and to ensure sustained and ongoing dialogues amongst regional actors. SADC identifies peace and stability as the foundation for the achievement of all its other goals, whose ultimate aim is to see SADC citizens live in a safe and prosperous environment. And for this reason, the SADC Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan 2020- 2030 and SADC Vision 2050, approved in August 2020 both place peace and security as a strategic priority.

South Africa’s objectives bilaterally and through SADC must thus be to achieve development, economic growth, alleviate poverty, enhance the standard and quality of life of the peoples of Southern Africa and support the socially disadvantaged through regional integration. The country will also have to work closely with the Democratic Republic of Congo as the current AU chair and incoming SADC chairperson to guarantee the voice of southern Africa within continental structures while ensuring continuity with SADC. It will also have to work closely with Namibia as the incoming chairperson of the SADC Organ to ensure continuity.

Dr. Philani Mthembu is Executive Director at the Institute for Global Dialogue. This article was first published in the Independent Online 06/09/2021


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