2011 is the year of South African Foreign Policy

Mar 04, 11 2011 is the year of South African Foreign Policy

This year South Africa is enjoying membership in two major international organisations: The UN Security Council and the BRIC regional body. Combined with international affairs surrounding or impacting on South Africa, and this is the best, and perhaps last, chance we’ll have to employ a meaningful foreign policy beyond generic, misguided DIRCO-babble.

With Northern Africa and the Middle East snowballing in demand for real democratic reforms, the post-recession importance of making the most of our relatively decent trade position, and the SAS Mendi deployed to the Mozambique Channel to fight pirates (a first for a post-apartheid Navy), the really crucial responsibility for DIRCO is to follow a coherent and meaningful foreign policy in accordance with our station and actions. But are they capable?

Our international relations have historically been a bit of a mixed bag. While we ostensibly advocate good governance, human rights and the promotion of international law, South Africa’s foreign policy has traditionally been marred by contradictions in our own practices. From blithely ignoring the legitimacy of Outtara’s electoral victory in the Ivory Coast despite internaitonal and regional approval to the otherwise, through to our god-awful track record at the UN during out first stint at the “big boy” table of the Security Council, once has to question our ability to remain steadfast in the tenets of what foreign policy we have. However, with a rare deployment by the Navy into a more aggressive role, combined with Mbeki’s relentless diplomatic visits, the country is projecting more soft (and potentially hard) power than ever seen since Mandela’s presidency. With the combination of foreign relations events occuring worldwide which see South Africa as playing a major role reaching a high water mark in 2011, we would be foolish to ignore the potential for meaningful change our foreign service can play.

But the Department of International Relations and Cooperation is not incompetent, and have made useful and valuable contributions to humanitarian affairs in Sudan, elections in Central Africa, and as mediators in Southern Africa in brokering the Zimbawean power-sharing agreement (albeit amidst heavy criticism for again failing to respect legitimate defeat of a despot.) Moreover, South Africa is blessed with a robust international relations community operating in the public sphere. DIRCO itself is merely an implementing agency of various governmental departments, which goes a long way in explaining the disjointed manifestion of foreign policy. More competent departments such as the Treasury or defense secretariat will invariably inform policy far greater than, say, DTI pushing for greater trade relations with despots. This is not DIRCO’s fault, but they would do well to tread carefully around major advisory hiccups during 2011.

With organisations such as the South African Institute of International Affairs, the Institute of Security Studies, and several others producing valuable advice on the conduct of South Africa’s International Relations, it would be prudent of DIRCO and indeed of the presidency, who hitherto has largely ignored foreign policy in favour of domestic politics, to involve them more heavily in the policy-making process. Without a decent strategy for moving forward into 2011, South Africa will lose a rare opportunity to make a profound global footprint through its foreign policy. That being said, however, all indicators in the first two months of South Africa’s international relations point towards this year being a major feather in our foreign relations cap. The opportunity is merely there for us to lose.

Image By John Stupart