Do­mes­tic co­her­ence needed to strengthen our flip-flop­ping for­eign pol­icy

Sunday Times - - Opinion - BAR­NEY MTHOMBOTHI

Aquar­ter of a cen­tury af­ter the dawn of democ­racy, and South Africa is still strug­gling to craft a co­her­ent for­eign pol­icy. It has nei­ther suc­ceeded in as­sert­ing it­self in any mean­ing­ful way in world af­fairs nor has it been able to mas­ter the forces that shape the in­ter­na­tional agenda. Its pol­icy is nei­ther fish nor fowl.

While it can be ar­gued that for­eign re­la­tions is al­ways a mov­ing tar­get, re­quir­ing con­stant reviews and ad­just­ments, a coun­try has to de­velop its own per­sona — in­formed by its val­ues and prin­ci­ples — which should not eas­ily be swayed by pre­vail­ing winds.

A cam­paign by South Africa a few years ago for a per­ma­nent seat on the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil pro­voked ex­cite­ment in for­eign pol­icy cir­cles. Then the coun­try was handed the ro­tat­ing chair­man­ship of the coun­cil and pro­ceeded to make a hash of it, sup­port­ing re­pres­sive regimes in Myan­mar (Burma) and the Mid­dle East. It aban­doned its own val­ues, what it stood for. South Africa is now keen to rekin­dle its cam­paign, but no­body seems in­ter­ested. Amer­i­cans be­lieve in their own ex­cep­tion­al­ism — a big, brash, in-your-face, take-it-or-leave-it at­ti­tude. They can af­ford to. They have the big­gest armed forces known to man. Their econ­omy is the en­gine room of in­ter­na­tional cap­i­tal­ism. Old be­he­moths such as Coca-Cola and Gen­eral Elec­tric have colonised the globe. New com­pa­nies such as Ap­ple, Google and Ama­zon have, in a short time, be­come ti­tans of the world econ­omy. They have there­fore in­ad­ver­tently be­come in­stru­ments of US for­eign pol­icy; be­cause the world, it seems, can­not do with­out Amer­i­can in­no­va­tion.

We can ar­gue all we like, but they dic­tate terms. They will bomb a coun­try if they feel like it, as they did in Iraq, Syria and count­less other places.

The Brits have be­come a wan­ing, if not a wast­ing, power. Brexit is merely the man­i­fes­ta­tion of the Lit­tle Eng­lan­der men­tal­ity that took hold a while ago. The small is­lands that colonised and dom­i­nated the globe for cen­turies and gave the world a com­mon lan­guage are with­draw­ing to their shell. Apart from the UN and its agen­cies, Bri­tain’s in­ter­na­tional rel­e­vance now hangs largely on the US and other for­mer colonies through the Com­mon­wealth, of which South Africa un­nec­es­sar­ily re­mains a mem­ber.

Although never bluntly stated, South Africa set out with a clear in­ten­tion never to be an­other failed African state. It’s a con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy with a hu­man rights ethos, moored by in­sti­tu­tions such as a fiercely in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary, a free press, an ac­tivist civil so­ci­ety.

Un­der Nel­son Man­dela, the coun­try’s for­eign pol­icy was ini­tially guided by its val­ues. It didn’t sell arms to op­pres­sive regimes; it was harshly crit­i­cally of hu­man rights abuses ev­ery­where in the world.

Af­ter Man­dela, South Africa’s for­eign pol­icy seemed to de­pend on the per­sonal pref­er­ences of the man at the top. Thabo Mbeki, a for­eign pol­icy fundi, sought to po­si­tion South Africa as the pre­em­i­nent spokesman or mouth­piece of Africa and its di­as­pora. Val­ues or prin­ci­ples, so crit­i­cal in the Man­dela years, were tossed aside. We were not ap­palled by the Robert Mu­gabes of this world. We em­braced them en­thu­si­as­ti­cally and de­fi­antly. Warts and all. They were African, and that’s all that mat­tered. That sul­lied our rep­u­ta­tion. A coun­try viewed as a bea­con ex­pended its cur­rency to as­suage and com­fort bru­tal regimes.

Un­der Jacob Zuma’s pres­i­dency, for­eign pol­icy was as woolly as the man him­self. He fol­lowed the money, or where he thought he could find it. His per­sonal friend­ship with Vladimir Putin was driven by the nu­clear deal from which he and his cronies stood to ben­e­fit hugely.

From Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa’s few months in of­fice, it seems the sin­gle­minded pur­pose of his ad­min­is­tra­tion will be job cre­ation. His es­capade at the re­cent Com­mon­wealth sum­mit was all about at­tract­ing for­eign in­vest­ment. His so­called in­vest­ment en­voys are about bring­ing in the money. These ac­tions or de­ci­sions will bring in­flu­ence to bear on for­eign re­la­tions. If we want other peo­ple’s money, we will have to lis­ten to them and take se­ri­ously what they say.

For­eign pol­icy can­not be de­cou­pled or dis­en­gaged from do­mes­tic pol­icy. And it’s not al­ways or only about what your diplo­mats tell the out­side world. It is also about what po­lit­i­cal ac­tors in­side the coun­try — be they in­side or out­side gov­ern­ment — say and do. For in­stance, Aus­tralians now want to of­fer white farm­ers easy en­try to their coun­try be­cause of what they un­der­stand to be a mur­der­ous cam­paign against them in this coun­try. AfriFo­rum are in the US as we speak sell­ing the nar­ra­tive of an on­slaught on white farm­ers, if not white so­ci­ety as a whole.

Un­like coun­tries such as the US, South Africa — be­sides be­ing a rel­a­tively small econ­omy — does not have too many levers, ei­ther hard or soft, to pull in its con­duct of for­eign re­la­tions. It can’t threaten or wage wars at will. It doesn’t have multi­na­tion­als that can in­flu­ence per­cep­tions in its favour. Its rep­u­ta­tion is all it has. And that should be dic­tated by our value sys­tem.

Our strug­gle to forge a sin­gle or uni­form South African iden­tity is there­fore the source of our itin­er­ant for­eign pol­icy. And we there­fore get swayed by any wind which seems to be the strong­est at any par­tic­u­lar mo­ment.

One can­not, for in­stance, launch into bat­tle with a dis­jointed army or with­out the sup­port of the en­tire pop­u­lace. The co­her­ence or the agree­ment needs to first come from in­side.

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