Does SA need to review its foreign policy?

Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga speaking to News24 (Karabo Ngoepe)
Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga speaking to News24 (Karabo Ngoepe)

Solly Msimanga’s visit to Taiwan in his official capacity as mayor of Tshwane raises interesting questions about South Africa’s foreign policy making and our policy towards China.

Msimanga went to Taiwan to explore potential trade and investment opportunities. But the Department of International Relations and Cooperation has criticised the visit. It said it was not in line with the national government’s foreign policy towards China. 

South Africa has a “One China” policy in terms of which Taiwan is not accorded full diplomatic status deserving of a city or state visit. Such high-profile diplomatic acts are reserved for China.

"You can’t have a sphere of government [City of Tshwane] ignoring the policy of the national government; it may cause a diplomatic problem,” said department’s spokesman Clayson Monyela. “China does not take kindly to [the One China policy] being breached by anyone...”

This raises questions about South Africa’s foreign policy making process. There are two principal guidelines that should govern policy making. The first, is the constitution. The supreme law of the land vests foreign policy making in national government, particularly the executive. Although it is the leader, the executive doesn’t have wholesale exclusive control.

Some diplomatic engagements and disengagement such as signing of treaties, for example the Rome Statute, require the approval of parliament. In addition, Parliament has to be informed when the government dispatches peace-keeping troops to fulfill international obligations. 

The provinces, cities and other state entities are not barred from engaging with their counterparts around the world on cultural exchanges, information sharing, investments and trade opportunities among other things. Indeed, there has been a number of foreign visits over the years by mayors and premiers who have negotiated investment deals and other exchanges. 

In some instances, cities or provinces are best placed to handle certain international arrangements. For example, North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo is involved in serious donkey diplomacy that will result in his province breeding and exporting donkey meat to one of the provinces in China. Some Chinese find donkey meat from North West exceedingly tasty.

The second guide is cooperative governance. Various entities and spheres of government are required by law to cooperate with one another in the interest of the Republic and its people. This is to be found in the constitution itself, legislation, policy instruments and court judgments. 

But the questions arise: how cooperative is our foreign policy making at a domestic level? To what extent are cities and provinces involved in shaping our foreign policy? Are there mechanisms for the mayors and premiers to engage directly with the national executive on foreign policy issues in the interest of their regions? 

These questions can be ignored easily in circumstances where all spheres of government are governed by a one political party because we are, in the main, a unitary state. In such a scenario, political party resolutions invariably become government policy with little or no contention. But even in this scenario, there has been instances where government delegations from various spheres of government and state entities would be shocked to meet each other in another country.

As officials enjoy the perks of public office, including per diem and other allowances, they are too eager to explore the world. Coordination and extracting value for money in foreign visits are an irritation to overzealous officials who behave more like tourists than officials dispatched to represent the Republic. 

Stories of unnecessarily large delegations to insignificant international events are often the subject of private conversations among government officials. The problem of one-party scenario is mainly less about coordination than it is about the race to get the next flight. 

Not so when some cities and provinces are run by different political parties. This calls for genuine conversations about coordinating government efforts across all spheres. Without a proper coordinated foreign policy strategy, we can witness rival, confusing, chaotic, counterproductive and embarrassing diplomatic engagements. 

As the ANC weakens, new realities are emerging, spawned by the coalition governments that could soon become the norm. Political parties have a right to take different foreign policy positions. Old positions may need to be renegotiated and traditional allies have to be informed of domestic imperatives informed by outcomes of our electoral processes. 

Some political parties might justifiably question whether fearing China or treating it as Big Brother is warranted in the 21st century. Fact is, much as we need China, they need us too – and our donkeys. Why should we dislike what China dislikes? We already have substantially different political systems and that’s not a problem. Our political system is more Western than Eastern almost in every respect.

Even if Msimanga’s visit to Taiwan was meant to project an alternative policy point of view, another set of questions arise: Was it in line with the DA’s position on China? In fact, what is the DA’s foreign policy towards China? Can it be executed outside the national government’s? 

Was Msimanga’s visit well thought out or did he just feel like it was a nice trip to undertake during holidays without considering the bigger picture including the “One China” policy? What mechanisms exist within our cities and provinces for approval or disapproval of certain foreign engagements?

What is at stake is bigger than Msimanga and International Relations and Cooperations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. It’s about what’s good for our country. It calls for the review of foreign policy making and execution.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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