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Looking back to look forward: DIRCO’s annual review 2012-2013

dr lesley mastersOctober saw the release of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) Annual Report for 2012-2013. As a record of what the Department has achieved over the course of the previous year, it also provides an opportunity to look forward in addressing challenges and opportunities in a world of changing geo-political and economic dynamics as well as growing threats from transnational challenges such as climate change, terrorism, and the global financial crisis.

While the 131 page 2012-2013 Annual Report may have a rather un-inspiring cover, the contents make for an interesting read, not just for what is says, but for what it does not. What is does present is a vast array of activities undertaken in supporting the Department's mantra - 'A better South Africa. A Better Africa. A Better World'. This includes positive gains made across the key focus areas of: 1) the African Agenda (including a regional focus on SADC) 2) strengthening South South Cooperation, 3) strengthening North South Relations, 4) participation in the global system of governance, and 5) strengthening political and economic relations.

When it comes to the African Agenda the Annual Report presents a lengthy list of achievements, from the focus on regional integration through discussion on the Tripartite Free Trade Area, infrastructure development, to the success of Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's election to the position of Chairperson of the African Union, and the country's commitment to a number of peacekeeping and security on the continent. It also points to the strengthening of the section focused on Africa Multilateral relations to accommodate this increasing role on the continent.

Nevertheless, a gap remains on building an understanding of what the African Agenda really is. In other words, questions on the relationship to a pan-African agenda, the impact of sovereignty, or the link to the African Renaissance and African agency internationally have not been answered. This makes any measurement of achievements in the promotion of an African Africa Agenda or a South African Africa Agenda particularly difficult.

With foreign policy focused on an African Agenda there are also questions of whether there is sufficient capacity to support this pursuit, particularly in promoting peace and security on the continent and in lights of the bottlenecks in the implementation of infrastructure projects. The importance of balancing the political and economic agenda will also come increasingly to the fore. As news headlines celebrate South Africa as one of the larger investors of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Africa, attention will need to be given to the impact of uneven levels of development and an imbalance of trade as a potential source of resentment.

When it comes to the focus on South South Cooperation, numerous forms of engagement are highlighted, from the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Trilateral cooperation, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), to the hosting of the 5th BRICS summit in Durban in March 2013. This contrasts with the somewhat smaller section on North South relations with its focus primarily on South Africa's engagement with the European Union (EU).

Although the Annual Report enthusiastically highlights South Africa's engagement in a growing number of South South Cooperation initiatives, this burgeoning participation should raise a flag of caution. The potential for a 'spaghetti bowl', or overlapping uncoordinated engagement, across forums such as BRICS, IBSA, BASIC, NAM, the Indian Ocean Rim – Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) and CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Venezuela, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa), looms large. This will become even more challenging given stretched capacity, which may go some way to explaining a loss of momentum on IBSA where there has been very little engagement with stakeholders celebrating the tenth year of its existence. Effective management of South Africa's South South cooperation will need to consider an approach that does not stretch the Department further than it already is.

Despite the small section on North South Relations, countries in the geo-political North continue to provide substantial trade opportunities and FDI for South Africa, yet the heterogeneity of these relations is not always appreciated in terms of Pretoria's approach. South Africa's relationship with these countries continues to change, something which needs a deeper reflection including the implications of the decision to stop 'traditional aid' support to South Africa.

When it comes to participation in the global system of governance, the Annual Report highlights South Africa's success, as an elected member of the UN Security Council (2007-2008 and 2001-2012), in getting an agreement on closer cooperation between the UN Security Council and the African Union Peace and Security Council (Resolution 2033). This section also highlights the on-going work in climate change negotiations, South Africa's hosting of the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE), the country's role in a number of UN agencies and engagement at the G20.

When it comes to global governance, however, there has not been any significant move towards reform of the UN Security Council (UNSC) despite the best efforts of a number of countries, including South Africa. In light of the lack of progress there is scope for a considerable re-think on the approach towards, and engagement with the organisation. This includes re-visiting the Ezulwini Consenus, or the African position on UN reform. Given that African states make up approximately a third of the UN General Assembly there is room for furthering and supporting this organ.

On global governance the South African voice is heard loudly in calls for democratisation and inclusivity within international organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This sits in awkward juxtaposition with South Africa's inclusion in the small international diplomatic 'clubs' such as the BRICS and the G20. While it may be argued that it is better to have a voice at the table then not be represented at all, this is a position that needs further consideration in the pursuit of the democratisation of the global system of governance

In terms of the activities in the final area of strengthening political and economic relations, the Annual Report reviews a range of activities from the signing of a tourism agreement with Lesotho, to the Declaration on Strategic Partnership between South Africa and Russia. In dealing with this multiplicity of relations the Annual Report points out that South Africa now has 125 missions internationally (with a particular focus on Africa), an economic diplomacy training programme, and has trained some 1 848 officials both from South African and from Africa. Nevertheless, a number of challenges remain. Firstly the attempt to quantify qualitative activities. The Annual Report presents a list of the events hosted, conferences attended or events participation in, but there is no translation of their true value in supporting a better South Africa, Africa and world. In other words what is the impact and outcome of these meetings for the person in the street? The 'so what' question needs to be answered in demonstrating the value of foreign policy for domestic policy and vice versa – setting out what exactly an agreement on tourism with Lesotho is doing for the people of South Africa?

While the Department continues to face challenges it terms of capacity, it also faces increased pressure from the growing phenomena of paradiplomacy, or the international engagement of subnational actors such as provinces and cities in parallel to the national government as they too seek to compete on the international stage. Not only will this require more training and outreach across all levels of government, but needs further understanding in how this can complement activities at a national level.

There are three key areas identified within the Annual Report that have not met with success, all of which are critical in supporting the work of our officials as they promote South Africa internationally. The first is the failure to adequately upgrade the information and communication technology (ICT), something critical in an information age. The second is the failure to establish the South African Council of International Relations (SACOIR), which would allow more sustained engagement by a range of stakeholders. Finally, at the time of printing, there has not been a full operationalization of the South African Development Partnership Agency (SADPA), neither has there been public engagement on how this agency will support South Africa's foreign policy in building opportunities for a better South Africa, Africa and world through international development assistance.

In looking forward to next year there are a number of areas for further consideration. This includes the importance of research, strategic focus and effective and efficient implementation. Research will not only support officials in the field on current events, but plays a critical role in looking forward to where South African can most benefit through its international engagement. Linked to good research is strategic engagement, which is critical in maximising the benefits of international engagement on a tight departmental budget. Here greater attention could be given to the changing practice of diplomacy itself. There is also the importance of understanding the role of public diplomacy as more than just marketing, and its role not just for DIRCO but for other subnational actors engaged in international relations.

Finally, research and strategic focus need effective and efficient implementation. While there has been a greater focus on outreach to the public in linking domestic and foreign policy under the Zuma administration, the link between the domestic and the foreign has yet to be adequately translated for South Africans, something which a future annual report could do.

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