Recently the ruling party released its National General Council (NGC) discussion document in view of the NGC conference that was held from 8-11 October 2015 at Gallagher Estate in Midrand. The conference was a significant gathering of the party’s executive structures, its constituency groupings and stalwarts that are attending the 3-day discussions to engage in policy debates that will shape legislation and outline governance outcomes for the next five years.
Well at least in theory this is what the NGC is suppose to do; although the hype surrounding the NGC seemed to have become distracted by issues regarding the leadership succession battles around whether the next president of the ANC will be the first female.
But as much as the NGC conference is about domestic policy impulses while notwithstanding internal organisational questions, the policy perspectives that are presented in the discussion document sets out a tone for how South Africa’s national and international politics will be informed and managed.
One such area of inquiry is in the realm of Pretoria’s foreign policy ambit.
In deliberating the country’s positioning in world politics the chapter, entitled ‘Characterisation of the world today’, the fragile financial architecture, the Africa Rising narrative with corresponding continental challenges, and the need to reform the global system towards a democratic rules based framework are analysed. The document also emphasises the overall need to guard against the manifestations of a unipolar world and bolster the foundations of South-South Cooperation in view of the “shifting balance of forces”, which is the rise of new inter-state configurations such as the BRICS as well as the re-emergence of China as a strategic global actor in a changing global landscape.
There are two immediate questions that need to be asked in relation to the emergence of these new power blocs and specifically in respect of China. The first is whether the China/BRICS provides a new construct for shaping an innovative alternate international order? The second is how does Pretoria interpret its role and identity within this shifting global architecture?
Reference to the BRICS in the discussion document is confined to a few sentences that cuts across several sections. In the foreign policy sphere where the bulk of the focus is located, most of it relates to the bloc’s role in global affairs and South Africa’s engagement with the grouping as part of its international cooperation and obligations within the strategic framework of Pretoria’s South-South policy of engagement.
From the language that is posited around the views relating to the BRICS, it is apparent that the overarching understanding of the grouping is linked to the belief that the formalisation of the bloc and the formation of the New Development Bank is seen as pushing back the prevailing trajectory of the Washington Consensus paradigm of development. More importantly the BRICS' Bank is perceived to be a leveraging tool that positions itself as an alternative policy institution to that of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
In short, according to the discussion document, South Africa’s participation in the BRICS is interpreted as working “towards building an alternative world that would create a fair, just, equitable and better environment for all the people of the world”.
A second aspect to feature prominently in the discussion is the recognition of China’s rising status in global affairs. The latter is portrayed in light of the US’ adverse reaction to China becoming a global strategic actor and the view of how Washington perceives Beijing’s increasing relations with the developing world.
Undoubtedly there is clear admiration in the discussion document for China’s global positioning and an underlying reverence in what is perceived as Beijing’s challenge to US hegemony.
While such adulation tends to be located in criticism leveled against the US’s Asia Pivot towards China in the region and opinion that Washington is exploiting Beijing’s tensions with regional neighbours to “destablise” the East Asian giant, the document itself does not really define what is going to be the real strategic orientation of the country’s foreign policy focus over the next five years. Or how such a focus will inform and strengthen South Africa’s role in a changing global system towards reaching its national interests.
At the cursory level the document renews Pretoria’s Africa agenda as a central pillar of its international affairs engagement. But the broad rhetorical issues captured in the document sometimes remain vague and contradictory.
As much as China and BRICS are seen as important drivers for how South Africa defines its foreign policy engagements, both China and the BRICS platform should viewed as part of a larger global configuration.
This is not to caution against developing ties with China or recalibrating the country’s foreign policy relations through a BRICS lens. Rather it is about suggesting that China and BRICS constitutes one strand of a broader foreign policy engagement.
With this in mind it must be recognised that in the current plurality of global politics stressing one set of relationships over others can become dogmatic. The art of foreign policy making in today’s international environment is as Lord Palmerstone (British statesman) famously quoted: Nations have no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests.
It is around these permanent interests that the party’s approach to its foreign policy engagements, and its relations with China and BRICS must be explained.
Even China and the other partners in BRICS have strategically maneuvered their foreign policy to reflect global realities based on crafting various relationships for their foreign policy interests that best serves their national interests.
Therefore the ruling party’s and by default South Africa’s foreign policy approach should consider all partnerships and relationships as strategic and not to become bogged down by issues that have very little to do with the country’s geo-political interests.
Perhaps it is constructive to consider what the eminent Chinese philosopher, Confucius, said on the art of diplomacy: Study the past if you would define the future. But this does not mean that the past should become a country’s foreign policy future.
Sanusha Naidu is a Senior Research Associate with the Institute for Global Dialogue. The views expressed here are personal.
The commentary first appeared on the SABC website: http://www.sabc.co.za/news/a/d7645b804a27edeaa2ebeba53d9712f0/ANC-discussion-documents:-Mapping-a-foreign-policy-engagement-20151010