Mandela’s diplomacy of national interest

When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated on 10 May 1994 as the first black President of South Africa’s new democracy, the stage was set for a State identity, national interest and foreign policy fundamentally different from those of the Apartheid years.

Apartheid left in its wake deep scars within the socio-economic landscapes throughout the country, especially social trauma typically running along race lines. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s attempt to heal the country and promote unity among all South Africans lapsed before radical outcomes were possible. Hence, addressing the legacies of Apartheid became Mandela’s foremost mandate as a Head of State.

Questions of poverty and inequality needed priority attention after the first democratic elections in 1994 and the establishment of a new Constitution in 1996. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa recognizes the achievement of equality, advancement of human rights and human dignity as fundamental for a democratic state.

This meant that all the goals of the State must be consistent and relate to societal goals as Mandela affirms “out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud”. Mandela stressed the need to conduct principled and ethical diplomacy in which national interest was at the heart of every decision.

National interest refers to the vital needs and priorities that guide the decisions makers of the State in forming foreign policy. The Mandela administration regarded specific political, social and economic issues as crucial for its survival. In other words, the government showed goodwill and sympathy to the needs of a society suffering extensive poverty and unemployment.

Mandela encouraged diplomatic policies that were pro-poor; as a result government was seen as overall caregiver, thus 20 years later government is still seen as responsible for doing more and caring more of its citizens. Some of the dreams of the people in 1994 were enhanced by the incorporated of a Bill of Rights, Section 27 which provides for ‘every citizen to have a right to health care, food, water and social security. Moreover, Section 29 affords every citizen the right to education. These are some of the transformative rights that citizens have access and are entitled to.

It is equally important to question if whether the dreams of 1994 have been realized or frustrated? Has the lives of people changed since 1994, has hope been sustained?

In light of daily realities of crime, drugs, rape, corruption, xenophobia, child discipline, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, children loss of culture and lack of Ubuntu. Over the past few years the Department of Education has imported education systems to enhance the domestic quality of education.

However, twenty years into our democracy; our schools still lack teachers and infrastructure. This results to difficulty for children escaping less privileged backgrounds. It is a disgrace to allow and watch our education system to collapse, it is literally destroying a generation of children, of which could be worse than Apartheid. Consequently, the quality of education differs from geographical location; to socio-economic status and cultural capital. The Constitutional rights to education remain imperfectly realized.

Mandela’s tireless commitment to the fulfillment of socio-economic needs for the people cannot be taken for granted. In light of free education, mother tongue education, valued cultural practices, multi-racial schools, pre-school education, adult basic education, availability of higher education bursaries, child grants, school feeding scheme, free transports to school, sometimes free uniforms and the presence of community organizations from privileged parts of society. This shows the significance of Mandela’s assurance of national interest at the heart of every diplomatic decision.

Mandela ensured the implementation of foreign policies consistent with the needs and dreams of the people. Foreign policy makers were not to be in isolation and separated from the realities of the people living in poverty. This ethical consideration ensured that public servants could taste the fruits of a functional government.

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation adheres to the key goal of ensuring that South Africa is a Constitutional State governed by the rule of law and concerned with promoting the interest of its citizens in all spheres of diplomatic decision making. Particularly, public diplomacy plays a role in fostering greater trust and understanding of our foreign policy goals.

Despite the inequalities that exist in South Africa and wiping away memories of the past it is imperative that citizens can have the opportunity to be involved in conversations that influence the decision making of policy makers. Eliminating the gap between ordinary civilians and foreign policy makers is an ideal platform in creating a responsive and engaging public participation in the foreign affairs of the country.

It is thus undeniable that national interest lied at the heart of Mandela’s approach to diplomacy. Foreign policies in past twenty years have progressed in responding to the social, political and economic needs and dreams of the people. Indeed, twenty years into our democracy, South Africa is a much-transformed society but so much more can still be done. Drawing lessons from Mandela’s portrayal of principled and ethical diplomacy is our first step to transformative and interactive diplomacy.
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