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The State of the Nation and the External Environment

zondiFresh after re-election, the South African president addressed the joint sitting of the houses of parliament on 17 June 2014 on the mandate of the new government in response to challenges the country faces and aspirations its people have.

Consistent with five annual state of the nation addresses he has given the focus has been on domestic imperatives, especially complex and deep challenges of poverty, unemployment, inequality, corruption, violence and crime. The focus on international dynamics that impinge on this and the country's response to this therefore receives much less attention and emphasis.

The address focused on economic transformation with a view to unlock the potential of the economy to grow higher and faster in order to help expand employment opportunities, increase economic activity broadly, and thus assist in shrinking inequality between the rich and power.

As a result, the president's outline of the implementation of the National Development Plan focused mainly on dealing with constraints to growth like infrastructure backlog and unreliable energy supply, and constraints to development in the form of skills, training and education, and health care. Opportunities in growing sectors like tourism, small entreprises and agriculture were also underscored as due for accelerated tapping. Because of their negative impact on the economy, issues of crime, general violence in society and crime also received attention.

Read from a bird-eye view, the NDP is itself heavy on domestic imperatives, but it is very conscious of the international environment that must enable the achievement of prosperity and stability on the domestic front. As a result, right from the onset the NDP locates both the complex problems and the solutions in the context of what happens to Africa and the world. It goes into great detail about the impact of inadequate regional and continental integration as well as the potential benefits of a peaceful and prosperous Africa and a reforming world.

When President Zuma's address extended to the international environment, it was mainly in relation to national economic interests. This is why reference was made to Africa becoming a particularly important 'trade partner' for South Africa, underscoring the increase in outward investment from 5.5 billion rand in 2002 to 32.3 billion rand in 2013.

Then, the president commits to champion regional integration through the Southern African Customs Union, Southern African Development Community and the imminent Tripartite Trade Area. For a change in what has become a tradition these mentions happen quite high up in the address, suggesting the importance that the Zuma administration places a strong emphasis on economic diplomacy component of foreign policy.

There is a particular emphasis on deepening economic partnerships with the BRIC countries through the BRICS Contact Group on Economy and Trade. Again, the idea is to harness economic opportunities for the South African economy.

Of course, the speech goes quickly over the usual commitments: support for continental and regional activities to promote peace, security, sustainable development and intra-Africa trade. Of course, missed here is the mention of Africa's external relations that has been an enduring element of South Africa's African agenda, but which has become even crucial in the aftermath of growing external military interventions linked to the scramble for natural resources and an ever-growing demand strategic partnerships from emerging global powers. The AU Commission under Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has given a lot of attention to improving the strategic framework within which the continent establishes and executes these partnerships, and should expect express support from South Africa.

Another usual commitment is to promote south-south cooperation through memberships of formations dedicated to enhancing the agency of the south in international affairs.

Zuma also mentioned the continued pursuit of mutually beneficial relations with countries of the North, which are almost always significant for trade, investment and increasingly development cooperation in the form of trilateral cooperation in assistance to African countries in need.

One important and unusual mention was the country's commitment to do concrete things meant to show the domestication of the International Convention on Disability.

So, this being the first state of the nation address of the new term of government ending in 2019, we must infer from it the likely foreign policy/international relations outlook of the Zuma government going forward.

Three observations are worth noting. The first is the intention to refocus foreign policy to bring it firmly into line with the NDP, which leads us to the second point:there seems to be a stronger influence of domestic imperatives, especially those of economic/development nature on the orientation with which established foreign policy priorities will be approached. Also related is the point that, therefore, economic diplomacy will be the main expression of the country's international outlook.

This means that there is going to be continuity in the broad framework of the country's external relations, but adjustments to how interests are understood and advanced.

The implications of this are many and mixed. One of them is an accusation that the country has mercantilist approach to diplomacy, that as has been said it harbours sub-imperialist agendas linked to global capital. If not handled with care, this posture may stoke fears in African countries about South Africa's self-interests under the veil of lofty values and goals of its foreign policy.

Dr Siphamandla Zondi is the director at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA.

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