One of the first initiatives of South Africa’s new minister of international relations, Lindiwe Sisulu, was to announce a review of the country’s foreign policy. This was a wise move in the wake of the nine years of erosion of national purpose and institutional damage under former president Jacob Zuma.
The country emerged from Zuma’s presidency greatly reduced in international stature, with perhaps the only concrete gains being its membership of the BRICS bloc and its second term on the UN Security Council in 2011/12. (South Africa has just been elected to a third term, to be served during 2019/20.)
The questions that come to mind when reviewing South Africa’s foreign policy are: does the country still have a role on the continent? And is there an opportunity for reviving “the golden decade of African diplomacy” that declined after former president Thabo Mbeki’s demise in 2008.
The proposed foreign policy review will be conducted against the background of continued economic stagnation in the country, growing inequality, rising unemployment, and continuing civil unrest amid poor and often non-existing service delivery.
These problems might tempt the review panel to focus almost exclusively on the domestic arena, and on ways in which foreign policy could address the socio-economic woes President Cyril Ramaphosa has inherited. But South Africa also needs to reflect on its role on a bigger canvas and whether it can find a role that will enable it to recover lost ground.
There are opportunities if South Africa wishes to find them given that the global landscape is changing, particularly in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s drive to withdraw America from the role it traditionally played as the leader of the liberal international order.
Deciding on what role to play
Given its domestic challenges, one option would be to accept that its era of aspiring to the status of an emerging power has come and gone. It could decide instead to focus on stabilising its social and political environment and simply settling down to being just another small to medium power.
On the other hand, the country could seriously consider whether it still sees a role for itself as an activist for the South in efforts to restructure global governance institutions such as the United Nations Security Council, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to better reflect and address global South concerns. It might also consider whether it’s still an agent for promoting an African agenda on the world stage.
Both questions need answering against a background of dramatic change in the international system – and in Africa. Gone are the days when South Africa could proclaim itself the gateway to Africa and a bridge between the North and the South.
Africa is opening up through a number of continental nodes, particularly along its eastern seaboard. Kenya and Ethiopia are serving as gateways into the continent’s hinterland. They’re also connecting Africa to the world through their international airlines and ambitious road and rail infrastructure projects supported by Chinese financiers.
Another aspect to be kept in mind is the rise of new actors in Africa. Interest and involvement is no longer just coming from superpowers like the US and China. Several middle Eastern and near Eastern countries, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have become players in their own right.
This carries the danger of conflicts associated with these countries being played out on the continent as in the days of the Cold War.
An increased interest in establishing a military presence is already becoming clear. Several countries are setting up military bases in Djibouti which now hosts a US military base as well as Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian and (in progress) Saudi Arabian bases.
Old actors also still continue to hold sway, such as France on the continent’s western seaboard where it largely determines responses to regional conflicts leaving the African Union with little influence.
South Africa needs to consider the new – as well as the old – power politics on the continent in positioning itself, especially in light of its recent election to a third term as non-permanent member of the Security Council.
Does it see the continent as important mainly as a target for expanding its own economy? Or do South Africans still believe they have a role to play in promoting the continent in global affairs?
What South African foreign policymakers need to keep in mind is that its manoeuvring space is contracting.
The renewed interest in Africa is playing out against bigger power shifts and changing roles.
The Trump factor
Trump’s aggressive policies are threatening to undo decades of consensus building on issues such as trade and the environment. This has provided China with an opportunity for a much more assertive global role.
Realpolitik – the narrow pursuit of interests over ideals – seems to be back with a vengeance. Experience would seem to indicate that under such conditions, second tier states such as South Africa can, at most, play a middle power role within the international system.
Traditionally, this role was to support the reigning powers. It also involved contributing to building global consensus around rules and norms on issues such as trade. And, finally for taking responsibility for peacekeeping once the “big five” nations in the Security Council had decided where peace should be made and kept.
As the US retreats, the lines are no longer as clear cut leaving space for new power alignments to be established.
There’s a role to be played by countries like South Africa in this new world order. For example, it could make a meaningful contribution to designing new norms and values affecting issues with direct impact on Africa’s development aspirations. But to do so, it would need to define what kind of international order would best serve its interests and values. It would also have to consider which avenues and capabilities it could use in contributing to the post-American epoch.