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Global megatrends and their impact on the making of South Africa’s foreign policy

PhilaniMthembu largeThe most recent strategic planning workshop held by the Parliamentary Committee on International Relations and Cooperation on the 9th February 2016 in Cape Town allowed for various stakeholders to share ideas and have an informed discussion on a number of aspects facing South Africa’s foreign policy and specifically the role of the committee in exercising its oversight role as mandated by section 55(2) of the South African Constitution.

Having been tasked with providing a general overview of the global trends South Africa would be confronted with in formulating its foreign policy, my presentation focused on four significant trends that would impact South Africa’s foreign policy as we head towards the year 2030; significant nationally due to the National Development Plan (NDP) and internationally due to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The first global trend is the emergence of new foreign policy actors, which exert certain pressures on the traditional foreign policy establishment. These include the increased power of the individual due to developments in information and communications technologies. Facilitated by closer contacts and transnational networks, the growing middle class would also likely begin to exert a stronger influence on the exercise of foreign policy. Sub-national foreign policy actors that have to be taken into account include provinces and major cities, which are already active in the foreign policy space through twinning arrangements entered into with counterparts in other countries. As South Africa’s responsibilities grow, the parliamentary committee on international relations and cooperation would also play a greater role in exercising its oversight role while also contributing in a more active manner to the ongoing debates on foreign policy. While in the South African case, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) would without doubt continue to be the pivotal player in foreign policy, these global trends would mean that DIRCO would have to find novel ways of coordinating, informing, and partnering with these actors in order to bring about the maximum benefits to South Africa’s foreign policy. This will also ensure greater legitimacy in defining and pursuing South Africa’s foreign policy interests.

The second condition I focused on is that of multipolarity, which would most likely continue to define the period leading up to 2030, characterised by a more diffuse power arrangement among nation states as Southern powers continue to grow and industrialised countries experience slower growth rates and aging populations. Unlike in the bipolar world order of the cold war, which made the policy of non-alignment more difficult, this may indeed be a more opportune time to turn the principles advocated by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) into reality in order to maximise on South Africa’s unique position. Given the reality that Pretoria plays host to the second largest number of foreign embassies after Washington, a formal policy of non-alignment may assist the country to navigate the multipolar world order in a manner that maximises on its own defined foreign policy goals without unnecessarily entangling itself in the conflicts of major powers.

In exercising its foreign policy, a country such as South Africa can also not afford to ignore the demographic changes taking place globally, an area that formed the third pillar of my presentation. While populations of industrialised countries in Western Europe will continue to age, one must not forget that countries such as China, Russia, and Japan would also continue to experience challenges caused by an aging population. However, the United States would mostly avoid this trend, whereas the African continent would experience something often referred to as a youth bulge as its population grows rapidly. When one adds the variable of an increasingly urban global population and major migration flows, it becomes clear that foreign policy practitioners must make calculations that take these factors into account, especially on the African continent, which is projected to double its population by the year 2050.

The final trend I focused my presentation on is growing competition over food, energy, and water, which will only be exacerbated by the global phenomenon of climate change. With the global middle class continuing to consume more in the current growth paradigm, more pressure will certainly be put on finite resources, causing countries to try to find ways to mitigate the negative effects of climate change and growing competition over scarce resources. Identifying these megatrends which affect the global community allows foreign policy stakeholders such as the parliamentary committee to identify more focused questions and debates on the exercise of South Africa’s foreign policy in a changing world in order to ensure more coherence in tackling the challenges ahead through meaningful local actions and strategic global partnerships.

Dr. Philani Mthembu is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue and co-founder of the Berlin Forum on Global Politics. The views expressed are his own, unless stated otherwise.

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