International diplomacy isn’t high school

2012-03-16 08:37

If international diplomacy were high school, South Africa would be one of those Grade 7 kids who saw themselves as deserving to hang out with the matrics during break time.

This is the theme running through the international relations document released by the ANC last week. While the “African agenda” – to put Africa’s interests on the global agenda – is still the name of the game, there are signs that South Africa seems to have outgrown its African brethren and wants to play the big game. Moreover, it feels it is being held back by the embarrassing family at home.

The document will form the basis of South Africa’s foreign-policy making for the next few years, especially because the international relations subcommittee of the ANC – which was responsible for drafting this document – is not impressed by the White Paper on foreign policy released last year by government, members of the ANC committee say.

The document makes it clear that South Africa is pretty fed-up with having to spin the failures of Africa.

In an irritated tone the document states: “The slow response by the African Union and its inability to get its point across cannot be excused ... and poses a serious challenge for South Africa as a member of the UN Security Council dedicated to pushing an African agenda.”

Read between the lines: Africa, we are trying to do something for you, so stop making our lives difficult!

But this is not just an irritation for the sake of it. The lack of pragmatism in Africa – evident in the continent’s tendency to stick to untenable positions in the face of a changing environment – has had real influence on South Africa and its ambitions in the world. It delayed reform in the United Nations Security Council.

To this end the document suggests a relook at the Ezulwini consensus.

This consensus spells out what Africa wants from the UN. In short – two permanent seats with veto powers. This proposal was submitted to the UN reform committee, and that is where it ended. Africa never heard back.

South Africa knows that some permanent members countries in the Security Council, notably France and the United Kingdom, are open to reform and would support an African country to be part of the high table of foreign diplomacy, but they feel two permanent seats with veto rights is too big a request.

And given that Africa is not going to get much support from its old allies China and Russia on this issue either, the matter has deadlocked in New York.

The ANC is careful to make suggestions as to how it wants to see the consensus changed but it is obvious. The UN bigwigs would settle for one permanent seat with veto rights allocated to an African country and obviously South Africa, as the continent’s over-achiever, feels it deserves it most.

But the African agenda will remain the basis of South Africa’s foreign policy because being upgraded to platinum status in world affairs means you get faced with new bullies and need your homeboys.

The ANC document harps on about neo-colonialism, but this time it is not the old and tired story of the former colonialists scrambling for Africa again. The list of neo-colonialists is long. Russia, South Korea, India, Brazil, Turkey and “particularly China”, the document points out.

Although the ANC had done its best to become China’s diplomatic BFF, it is now faced with the dark side of the Asian powerhouse.

While they have been preparing the ground for years to gain access to lucrative infrastructure contracts in conflict-ridden African countries, South African companies pitch up and find the Chinese there.

China has been playing the long game and it is now picking the fruits of it. South Africa might have the historical ties to fall back on with other African countries, but China can do the job quicker and for much less money. And often they put up the money themselves as well.

So in Facebook-speak the relationship status switched to “complicated”.

But international diplomacy is not high school, it is a university. And South Africa will need to match its ambition with carefully crafted strategy and competence to ensure it graduates first class.

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