South African Foreign Policy at a Crossroads

By Published On: 3rd July 2018


Members of the Security Council stand for a moment of silence before the start of the United Nations Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question at United Nations headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 20 February 2018. 

By Professor Tim Murithi

South Africa’s election to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has once again bestowed upon it, an onerous responsibility of articulating a cogent voice of reason in a world morally adrift. In his speech during the State of the Nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa, called upon South Africans to uphold “ethical behaviour” and pursue “ethical leadership”. South Africa’s membership of the Security Council will put this normative agenda, of pursuing ethical behaviour, to the test at the global level. The liberal international order is coming apart at the seams, as the tensions between Washington and its erstwhile allies in Europe, begins to unravel to precarious attempts to pursue an “America First” ideology at all costs.

South Africa was elected onto the Security Council following a decision of the African Union (AU) to collectively propose and back Pretoria’s membership of the decision-making body. In effect, South Africa made an appeal to the AU to “Thuma Mina” and Addis Ababa responded in unison with an over-whelming endorsement of Pretoria’s nomination to the collective security body.  On the basis of the AU’s appointment of South Africa as one of the instruments of its voice in New York, where the Council sits, it remains to be seen whether the politicians and technocrats of South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) will uphold this important responsibility for articulating Africa’s collective agenda. The natural instinct may be to revert back to pursuing self-serving parochial national interests, rather the advancing a Pan-African world-view, which will ultimately negate President’s Ramaphosa’s appeal for “ethical behaviour” and betray former President Nelson Mandela’s legacy of pursuing solidarity to achieve a common continental agenda.

South Africa’s appointment to the UNSC comes at an opportune moment because the government is currently undertaking a thorough review of South Africa’s foreign policy. Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, who assumed her role at the helm of DIRCO as part of the “New Dawn” cabinet reshuffle, has convened a panel of former elder statesmen and women, chaired by Aziz Pahad, a former deputy foreign minister under the Mandela and former President Thabo Mbeki administrations. This foreign policy review panel is composed of senior officials who have foreign policy credentials, and other experts, with the mandate to undertake a comprehensive review of South African foreign policy. Sisulu has even floated the idea of re-engaging with Mbeki’s notion of African Renaissance, as part of the “recalibration” of the foreign policy agenda. However, the jury is still out on whether a rebranding of the notion of African renaissance, which is a mimicry of the nineteenth-century enlightenment notion of European renaissance, will gain traction and recapture the imagination of African people now, when it failed to do so under Mbeki’s tutelage of South Africa’s foreign policy agenda. Perhaps the seeds of its own demise are inherent in its overt cutting-and-pasting of a European idea and seeking to transplant it onto the African continent. This predilection for colonial continuity is at the heart of the African’s continent’s malaise and self-doubt when it comes to asserting itself on the global stage.

It may be more worthwhile for Sisulu, her foreign policy review panel, and her team at DIRCO to redefine and draw upon an ideology that is most likely to galvanize people not only across South Africa, but also across the African continent, given the African Union’s over-whelming endorsement of its ascendancy to the Security Council. The task of developing a powerful slogan which can mobilize and galvanize African people across the continent is one that the foreign policy review panel can contribute towards. The notion of a Pan-African Revival is one that can embody the aspirations of African nation-states to assert themselves on the international stage and to carve out a permanent seat at the table of geo-political decision-making. Pan-Africanism has at its core a commitment towards solidarity, freedom and self-sufficiency, which are important ideals necessary to drive the revival of the African continent. Pan-African revivalism resonates with both Ramaphosa’s and Sisulu’s appeal to re-energise South African policy because at its core, is a recognition that no single African nation is an island unto itself, and that Pretoria needs the rest of Africa to pursue its own interests, just as much as the African Union constituency needs South Africa to play its part in advancing its Agenda 2063 and its pursuit for a peaceful and prosperous continent. The South African policy review process will also need to consider how civic mobilisation can be harnessed to contribute towards such a programme of Pan-African revivalism.

The stars are now aligned for South Africa to take the global stage and contribute towards steering the world away from the path of increased geo-political polarisation and factionalism, which does not augur well for our collective security as human beings, in a fourth industrial age which has developed even more advanced weapons of mass destruction. South Africa also has an onerous task across the African continent, and as part of its ethical leadership calling within the African Union to push back against creeping authoritarianism, which is threatening to tear the fabric of a number of countries across Africa. South Africa also has a moral responsibility as part of its foreign policy, based on its continued adherence to constitutionalism, to proactively, and without fear or favour, boldly call out and name the insidious rising tide of fascism beyond Africa’s borders in western Europe, the America’s, Asia and Latin America. This is an issue that South African can work collectively with other African countries, given DIRCO’s infrastructural capacity through its designated departments, to undertake an informed analysis and proffer advice to these non-African regions.

South Africa’s foreign policy is at a cross-roads and the process of “recalibrating” its world-view, and aligning it with a civic mobilisation agenda to revive Pan-Africanism, should stand it in good stead to respond to its historic mission and calling. Given South Africa’s difficult past of deep divisions and persistent socio-economic divisions, it has an important role to play in contributing towards the empowerment of all African people, so that they can in turn play their part, as the United Nations Charter states, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, and … to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another.”

Professor Tim Murithi is Head of the Peacebuilding Interventions Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Cape Town, and editor of the Routledge Handbook of Africa’s International Relations, @tmurithi12

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