Foreign friends

2009-06-30 00:00

THE change of leadership from Thabo Mbeki to Jacob Zuma has raised many ­expectations of change in the general direction that the country takes. The transition was ­accompanied by intense power struggles within the ruling African National Congress alliance.

Polokwane two years ago was part of the build-up to the intense battles for the soul of the ANC that date as far back as 2000. The conference witnessed much less ­debate on the issues than intense views on who should lead the party to the 2009 national elections. As branch delegates arrived at the former Turfloop universities, they were ready to fight for turf relating to national leadership. Indeed, during the meeting ­emotions went up and proverbial daggers were drawn.

These contests and political developments that preceded the elections resulted in a larger than usual turnout, especially by young adults during election-related activities. With a large pool of new voters, parties made even more promises of change. For this reason, the focus was mainly ­on domestic issues of service delivery and economic reform.

No political party promised ­serious change in foreign policy, even though we know that to ­deliver better services we need to increase trade returns and foreign investment. This is why foreign policy is a crucial instrument for addressing national interests or meeting domestic needs. The neglect was partly ­because there was hardly anything of substance to improve on under Mbeki. But it was also because political parties failed to realise that the strength of our economy is largely an outcome of the sound foreign policy decisions that were taken under Madiba and Mzizi.

Many foreign policy developments in the past year should have led to creative ideas about how to improve our foreign policy decision-making. These include the election of Barack Obama and the new attitude to multilateralism in Washington, the ruthless punishment of the people of Gaza by Israel, the release of an Internation Criminal Court ­arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the controversy over the divisive ­effect of the European Union’s Economic Partnership Agreements in Africa, the spotlight on Zimbabwe’s Government of National Unity, South ­Africa’s refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a visa to attend a peace conference and others.

Political parties simply picked on two issues and focused on them alone, namely Zimbabwe and the Dalai Lama. But they failed to elevate their whines or praises to a deeper debate about foreign policy practice.

However, the matter of whether South Africa’s foreign policy has veered away from being ­human rights-based has been in the public discourse since South Africa voted against United States and United Kingdom-led draft resolutions in the United Nations Security Council in 2007-2008. South Africa reasoned that these big states were abusing their power to bring onto the agenda of the security council that they dominated matters that belonged elsewhere. These included motions on Myanmar, Zimbabwe, climate change, rape as weapon of war, and Iran. But we allowed the world to think that this meant that we were more concerned with the abuse of institutions of global governance than about the suffering of women in war and the ­oppressed people of the countries mentioned.

As is common in the government for the past decade, South Africa issued lame press statements re-iterating our objection to the conduct of the powerful nations at the UN and affirmed our commitment to human rights. But we simply did not emphasise the last point enough.

The new deputy ministers of International Relations and Co-operation, Susan van der Merwe and Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, have come out strongly to correct this. They both used their speeches in Parliament last week to spell out South Africa’s intention to speak out against human rights violations all over the world. They have said that while we are aware of the our limitations as a small state in the world, we will not refrain from taking firm positions against those who violate our constitutional values and principles elsewhere.

They thus suggested that values will have a much more prominent influence on our foreign policy positions. This should please human rights activists. Already, the executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, who is in the country to argue the case for a human rights-based foreign policy, has welcomed these statements. But we should caution against expectations that we will revert to our romantic pursuit of human rights that Nelson Mandela tried and failed to implement in his first two years in power. The realities of ­international relations mean that foreign policy decisions are an outcome of a mixture of considerations, but national interests tend to dominate.

So we will be well advised to pursue international relations and co-operation that benefit our economy and our image rather than to maintain our moral high ground. We need to make friends who advance our interests rather than pursue a crusade for human rights. No state does this because this is a sure way to increase the number of enemies rather than making friends. We need the latter.

• Dr Siphamandla Zondi is director: Southern Africa at the Institute for Global dialogue

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