Renewing friendships

2009-08-04 00:00

THIS week South Africa will host United States secretary­ of state Hillary Clinton­. This will be preceded by a review of the U.S.’s African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) in Kenya,­ to which South Africa will send its minister for International Relations and Co-operation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. President Jacob Zuma will officially visit Angola­ before heading for the Africa­-South America summit in Venezuela. There will also be a flag-lowering ceremony as part of the withdrawal of South Africa’s men in uniform from the now peaceful Burundi.

There is resurgence of interest in SA among important global actors such the U.S. The country is also rediscovering key partners in the global south. This suggests that far from minimising its international engagements, South Africa is actually consolidating. This country is such a significant actor internationally that it cannot scale back its foreign policy­ commitments as some people­ feared.

Domestic issues of government services, poverty eradication, rejuvenation of rural life and employment creation dominated the recent elections. Zuma devoted less than 10% of the State of the Nation address to issues of creating a better Africa and a better world. Nelson Mandela was a reconciliation­ president and Thabo Mbeki was a foreign policy president. We are told that in a period­ of economic­ depression and social upheavals, Zuma is bound to be a domestic president.

But cutting back on our international commitments is not an option. South Africa has never been on the periphery of international affairs since the establishment of the minority-ruled Union government in 1910. The liberation struggle benefited immensely from international solidarity, which was the basis on which the Mandela government built its intensive international engagements. For this purpose, Mandela drew from both the diplomats of apartheid government and the ANC’s international representatives. Mbeki’s government did a sterling job in putting South Africa firmly in international politics and economics.

The fact that there is a solid foreign­ basis does not mean that there is no scope for refocusing our international relations agenda. There are many areas that need change and others that need a complete overhaul, even though foreign policy under Mbeki was a resounding success on the whole.

The biggest change needed is ensuring that South Africa’s foreign policy commitments are directly linked to its national interests, especially domestic economic development, peace, stability and regional development. This means that South Africa needs to define a lot more clearly how its foreign policy decisions realise a better life for all, while advancing a better Africa­ and a better world.

It also means that we need to take a lot more seriously strategic relations that have the highest rate of return for us as a small and developing economy. SA’s relations with the U.S., which remains the biggest economy in the world and an influential superpower, soured in 2002 over differences on the Zimbabwe problem. Even though George W. Bush and Mbeki exchanged official visits and their ministers interacted frequently, the relations virtually froze. Bush blundered by dismantling binational commissions with most countries, including South Africa. His Africa policy was a disaster, except in the provision of aid towards the fight against HIV/Aids.

With the open-minded Barack Obama in the White House and a shrewd Zuma in the Union Buildings, the U.S.-SA relations can be revived. But this does not mean that SA must subordinate itself to the whims of the superpower in a desperate hunger for more aid and investments, as Moeletsi Mbeki recently argued. It does mean that the two countries must begin a serious­ diplomatic engagement based on a realisation that both countries need each other and that working together they can do a lot to advance common interests, such as the strengthening of trade relations, the transfer of technology, research and innovation, and agricultural development. They must also agree on a structure to manage their partnership. The same approach must apply to SA’s relations with the United­ Kingdom, Russia, Canada, Australia and Japan­, which took a knock in the past decade.

The state visit to Angola is significant because SA has neglected this very crucial partner in the region, in spite of Angola’s role in support of the struggle. Mandela failed to visit Angola early in his world tour. SA also insisted on treating the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the Unita rebels on an equal footing, thus alienating the Angolan government­.

Both Mandela and Mbeki’s governments failed to cultivate a strategic relationship with Angola, thus allowing China to benefit immensely from the country’s economic resurgence. Angola should have been a key partner in the strong African agenda in the manner in which Nigeria was. But SA’s relations with Nigeria have since degenerated too. This also needs Zuma­’s­ urgent attention.

SA’s provinces must also be encouraged­ to review their twinning agreements to bring them into line with national priorities and to bring life to defunct relationships.

SA cannot ignore these challenges because the domestic imperatives are pressing. In fact, overcoming some of them will contribute significantly to poverty eradication and economic development. It will keep SA in the league of distinguished nations, a position that is critical for its ability to attract investments.

South Africa needs to be vigilant to see to it that the government does not squander any more precious opportunities in international relations or waste resources maintaining strategic level relations­ that are actually non-strategic.

• Dr Siphamandla Zondi is Director: Southern Africa at the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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