What national interest?

2013-04-17 00:00

THE province’s MEC for Economic Development and Tourism, Mike Mabuyakhulu, asks (The Witness, April 10) a very relevant question following the tragic consequences of our military adventure in the Central African Republic (CAR) — what are South Africa’s national interests and how should they be expressed in terms of this country’s foreign policy?

Having asked the question, however, he provides very little by way of a substantive reply other than to complain about how no one in the media believes what his government has to say, so let me provide some suggestions.

National interest can be defined in narrow economic terms, and diplomacy so understood would seek to provide foreign investment, and therefore jobs in this country, and investment in other countries where we can grow bilateral trade and therefore, indirectly, wealth and jobs back in South Africa. This, after all, is what our relationship with Brics is supposed to be all about, and it is a perfectly normal part of our foreign diplomacy. Some commentators would go so far as to equate foreign policy with promoting foreign investment, but that is a very narrow approach.

So what economic benefit did our presence in CAR actually produce? CAR is hardly a source of direct foreign investment in SA and the only answer thus far provided in the media suggests that some ruling party cronies may have business interests in that far-away country, but we have still to hear a proper explanation in Parliament for this foray.

One can also define national interest in terms of promoting good relations with political friends and allies. In this context, we have the Brics alliance, although whether this relationship is more than one of short-term convenience will be tested by the first major spat between Brics countries over their control of natural resources and preferential trade deals in their client countries.

Under the Nelson Mandela government, much was made, and quite rightly so, of South Africa’s need to engage in multi-lateral diplomacy, a principle which was consolidated through our strong links with our regional neighbours and the AU. Again, does the CAR deployment meet this criterion of promoting regional and continental multilateralism? So far, all that has emerged is that SA had a government-to-government relationship with the former CAR president, which seems to be more to do with propping up an illegitimate regime than strengthening our influence on the African continent.

National interest, finally, can be seen as value- or principle-driven — a theme much advanced by Hilary Clinton in her time as U.S. Secretary of State. Again, we had a strong commitment under Mandela to promoting human rights and constitutionalism as central to our national interests. This commitment was completely reversed by the Thabo Mbeki government when it chose to keep the corrupt dictatorship of Zanu-PF going in Zimbabwe, but it remains a principle worth pursuing.

A different view of South Africa’s national interest would still maintain the priority of engaging with Africa, but expand it to include promoting our regional and continental partnerships, and to promoting, where possible, constitutionalism, the rule of law and human rights for all in the governance of African states. In the long run, this is the only way to promote peace and prosperity in Africa.

• Mark Steele MPP is a member of the DA in the KZN Legislature.

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