After President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address, one commentator called foreign policy the governmental stepchild, referring to its scant coverage of foreign policy engagements.
Save for the mention of SA’s plan to accede to the Tripartite Free Trade Area and the Continental Free Trade Area and the utility of the Brics group in the promotion of value-added trade and intrastate investment, domestic issues and economic diplomacy constituted the bulk of the president’s speech. Yet this year will be a hive of activity for SA’s foreign policy enterprise. Apart from chairing the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Brics and the Indian Ocean Rim Association and wrapping up its co-chairing of the Forum for China-Africa Co-operation, SA will be the sole African member of the Group of 20 (G-20).
Looking ahead to 2019, it seems to be all systems go for SA’s third tenure (2019-20) as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Closer to home, as the Ramaphosa administration finds its feet on the diplomatic front, SA will have to take stock of its positioning in the African context and whether its moral and political capital will demand a repurposing, not only in diplomatic momentum but also of priorities and strategies.
For instance, will we see an African agenda 2.0, distinct from the Nelson Mandela era (focused on SA’s credentials of good international citizenship), Thabo Mbeki’s overdrive into institutionalising and finetuning SA’s foreign policy, or Jacob Zuma’s thrust in economic diplomacy, albeit of the "Look East" variety? While the state of the nation address resonated deeply with economic development and foreign economic strategy, Ramaphosa’s exposition pointed to the oft-overlooked dynamics underpinning the entanglement of domestic politics and international relations. There is a bold recognition of the delicate balancing act between national interests and international engagements, and the centrality of structural factors that underpin sound policy decisions, such as a strong, capable state and an efficient bureaucracy, including a professional diplomatic service.
In the context of foreign policy analysis, the interaction between the domestic sphere and the global arena has been depicted as a two-level game in which leaders seek to achieve negotiated outcomes at the international level that gain domestic approval. As such, these outcomes or win-sets at international level are shaped by preferences and coalitions, inputs by domestic political institutions and actors seeking to influence outcomes, and bargaining strategies employed by the foreign policy elite at the international level.
In pursuit of basic foreign policy goals — security, autonomy, wealth and a reorganisation of global power — it is imperative that SA goes back to the drawing board, garnering lessons from past triumphs and blunders and injecting strategic direction to foreign policy. The profiling of SA as a pluralist middle power and the prioritisation of multilateralism as a key pillar of its foreign policy demands solid normative consistency between SA’s domestic political framework and its objectives in the global arena.
An examination of the core business of the multilateral forums SA is participating in 2018 reveals consistency with domestic priorities: The Indian Ocean Rim Association 2018 theme is ‘Uniting the Peoples of Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Middle East through Enhanced Co-operation for Peace, Stability and Sustainable Development’. As chair, SA will seek to align the activities of the association with the 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy in maritime security, capacity building, skills development and technology transfer in the ocean economy.
The SADC 2018 theme is Partnering with the Private Sector in Developing Industry and Regional Value Chains, in line with the SADC Common Agenda and regional plans. The Brics 2018 theme is Inclusive Development Through a Socially Responsive Economy, prioritising economic prosperity and inclusive growth; science and technology; conflict resolution, peace and social justice; and revisiting the global commons by strengthening responsible forms of strategic co-operation and sustainable development. In the Forum for China-Africa Co-operation, SA is overseeing the implementation of the Johannesburg Plan of Action (2016-18).
SA is co-chair of the G-20’s development working group as well as the Africa advisory group on the G-20 Compact with Africa. These priorities reveal an overlap in thematic and strategic focus that dovetails the priorities set out in the National Development Plan as well as Africa’s Agenda 2063.
It remains to be seen whether SA will be able to connect the dots on the foreign policy agenda while proving adept at playing the two-level game in diplomacy and domestic politics.
Ms. Faith Mabera is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) associated with UNISA.
The article was first published in the Business Day, 01 March 2018