WE NO LONGER have a department of foreign affairs. Following some discussion at the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007, the Government’s foreign relations are now conducted by the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, a mouthful that must present difficulties for those overseas protocol people making name plates for meetings.
New governments – having failed to divorce themselves from the old one, or to show the public they mean to be different – often change titles of departments. We’ve had our fair share of this. The problem that arises with long titles is how to shorten them. Up to last year it was quite easy to say “foreign affairs”. Even the Minister, in her budget speech, didn’t refer to “the department” – which would have sufficed – but renamed her department with the inelegant acronym DIRCO!
I thought some journalist or other might have referred to that, following the Minister’s budget vote last month. Not at all.
Instead of celebrating what the previous administration had achieved in foreign affairs, the Minister twice made what seemed at first to be a somewhat obscure reference to “… experiences whose lessons we cannot ignore”. However, she subsequently did refer to many achievements in our country on the foreign policy front. One newsworthy statement by the Minister concerned the support we have obtained from the African Union for SA’s attempt later this year for a nonpermanent seat on the Security Council for the three-year period from 2011 onwards.
I’d describe the content of the Minister’s speech as a work in progress, since a White Paper on foreign policy is promised in the future, after consultation with civil society.
But what are the factors or policies that currently drive our foreign policy? Nelson Mandela, in one of his first speeches, referred to that estimable philosophy that the pursuit and protection of human rights internationally would form a central focus of SA’s foreign policy, reflecting our attachment to the internal values of the Bill of Rights. But he was let down by the murderous policies of the Nigerian dictator Abacha when the rest of the Commonwealth put their need for oil before the life of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Our fingers were badly burnt and the future direction of our policy paid more attention to the need to work collectively with Africa and other countries.
But no other country enjoyed SA’s esteem in the eyes of the world. Major international conferences dealing with the environment, racial prejudice, HIV/Aids, coupled with the meetings of the non-aligned movement and the Commonwealth – not to mention international contests in cricket, soccer and rugby – kept the spotlight on SA. For a small country, the vision articulated by Thabo Mbeki enabled SA to play a leading role in mediation in various parts of Africa.
Now, the Minister’s vision (as reflected in her budget speech) comprised statements that we shall build on the foundation of our foreign policy and constitutional values, as we should continue to bring into full view our national interest in our African communities and our role and responsibilities in the world. Neither the Minister nor Deputy Minister Van der Merwe mentioned the words “human rights” in their speeches.
Lord Palmerston, that old but literate reactionary, once said when he was foreign secretary that the United Kingdom didn’t have permanent allies but that it did have permanent interests.
It would be both graceful and educational if our Minister were to unpack Palmerston’s words and tell us (i) whether national interest in its crudest form is the sole determining factor in our foreign policy, or (ii), that Palmerston is cynical as only powerful countries can behave like that, and (iii), that SA will be different, as (iv) we will live up to the title of her department, which combines international relations with co-operation.
Is there a middle way between Palmerston and Madiba? I shall look forward to the White Paper.