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Advancing the African Agenda through Academic Diplomacy

As the dust settles in Addis Ababa after the fallout from the election of a new head of the African Union (AU) Commission, it is time for foreign policy drivers in South Africa to extract important lessons from the diplomatic showdown and formulate appropriate interventions. One area that begs for serious attention relates to the ingrained tensions on the continent around South Africa’s Africa policy, which seem to be nurtured by divergent diagnoses of Africa’s challenges and the corresponding difficulty by its leaders to articulate a shared vision of how to move the continent forward. As one of Africa’s de facto leaders, South Africa’s attempt to give direction to the continent by articulating and promoting an African Agenda would be better served if a conscious and well-targeted effort is made to complement traditional diplomatic processes with societal-level approaches that encourage constructive and sustained dialogue among critical stakeholders in the continent. This is where academic diplomacy, seen as an official diplomatic strategy that seeks to create understanding about a country or its policies through institutionalised academic cooperation, becomes relevant in addressing misperceptions about South Africa’s posture in Africa.

Contrary to what some observers would want us believe, South African policy makers’ reading of the current challenges confronting Africa, especially as they relate to the continent’s engagement with the outside world, does indeed resonate with the concerns of a substantial constituency in other quarters of the continent. In fact, one can argue that concerns about France’s continued neo-colonial influence in Africa, as well as the new scramble for the continent’s resources involving both established and emerging powers are stronger in other parts of Africa than is the case in South Africa. This is particularly true if we take into account the fact that it is the African people we are referring to and not just their leaders.


Be that as it may, Pretoria’s intentions in Africa continue to be viewed with deep suspicions in the continent, not necessarily because they are inherently wrong, but partly because of the foreign policy context in South Africa, which is muddled in historical “baggage” and ambiguities in the country’s cultural and national identity. One just has to take stock of the extremely polarised domestic discourse on even the most fundamental elements of the country’s foreign policy to appreciate the difficulty that African audiences sometimes face in trying to decipher the true intentions of Pretoria in the continent. In this context, an important foreign policy challenge for South Africa is how to assist critical audiences in Africa to sift through the maze of domestic and foreign (mis)interpretations of the country’s foreign policy in order to appreciate its Africa policy for what it’s worth.

A foreign policy instrument that lends itself to such a task is academic diplomacy, expressed through formal or semi-structured courses, research and publication, student exchanges or academic seminars and conferences. If designed and executed properly, academic diplomacy could play two crucial roles in support of South Africa’s Africa policy. In the first instance, it could assist in creating an informed understanding of South Africa’s foreign policy among targeted and attentive African audiences. More importantly, academic diplomacy could serve as a tool for setting the African Agenda on the basis of depoliticised and critical dialogue with African audiences, thus also assisting in generating the shared vision needed to advance the continental agenda. This is vital in circumventing the need to resort to strong-arm tactics, which South Africa has been accused of using to secure the chairmanship of the AU Commission.

Unlike other foreign policy instruments, academic diplomacy can better serve this purpose because of the trustworthiness and objectivity that is associated with academic processes. Academic diplomacy programmes must thus be designed and implemented in the context of maximum academic freedom and with no unnecessary political interference. The strength of academic diplomacy as a foreign policy tool also lies in its ability to target younger generations of African leaders and thus create a lasting positive impact on diplomatic relations between South Africa and the rest of the continent, both at the bilateral and multilateral levels. It can also prove to be a resource-efficient strategy in the sense that, although substantial funding is required to successfully run targeted programmes, the overall project can sustain itself through the life-long professional and personal bonds formed in the course of academic exchanges.

As home to some of the best academic institutions in Africa, as well as host to a large number of scholars from other African countries, South Africa already has sufficient resources with which it could develop a concerted academic diplomacy strategy for Africa. All that is needed is to harness the available resources and integrate them into the country’s foreign policy architecture, most preferably as part of the forthcoming development partnership agency.

Fritz Nganje is a researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.
The article first appeared on SABC news online on 21 September 2012

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