DA's confusion over Israel highlights SA's foreign policy chaos

Minister of International Relationships and Cooperation Lindiwe Sisulu. (Jan Gerber/News24)
Minister of International Relationships and Cooperation Lindiwe Sisulu. (Jan Gerber/News24)

Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba's decision to suspend a member of his executive committee who had declared that the city was a "friend of Israel" raises questions about South Africa's foreign policy making.

Mashaba suspended Health MMC Dr Mpho Phalatse, saying that in her remarks she had failed to take into account the "complexity" and "sensitivity" of the conflict in Israel. He was referring to public outrage against a recent Israeli attack on Palestinians that left more than 50 dead. 

Phalatse's comments, Mashaba said, have caused "confusion". Interestingly, in his statement Mashaba made no reference to South Africa's foreign policy on Israel and the City of Johannesburg's relationship with that policy. 

Foreign policy is typically and primarily the domain of the national government. But in practice, regional governments – cities and provinces – do conduct region-to-region or city-to-city diplomacy. 

Some of the sub-state diplomatic relations could have far-reaching implications. For example, Tshwane Mayor Solly Msimanga visited Taiwan in December 2016 to honour an invitation and sell his city as an investment destination in an effort, he said, to create jobs. 

But his diplomatic efforts were interpreted by the national government and the ANC as a violation of South Africa's official "One-China" policy in terms of which only the mainland is given full diplomatic status. South Africa does not recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state.

President Nelson Mandela's administration cut ties with Taiwan, which once enjoyed good relations with the National Party, in favour of mainland China. This marked the beginning of strengthening relations between what would be the world's second largest economy and South Africa. 

South Africa's diplomatic ties with China are so deep that we wouldn't even dare allow the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to visit our shores for fear that it might send a wrong message that we support secession plans by Tibet. China claims sovereignty over Tibet. 

While the controversy around Msimanga's visit to Taipei has died down, the matter has not been fully settled and it remains unclear whether and how the national government intends to synthesise the interests of provinces and cities into its foreign policy making and implementation process. 

The role of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation in facilitating diplomatic forays of regional governments has to be clearly defined. Is it purely logistical or strategic? It should intelligently combine the two. 

In circumstances where the national governing party does not govern a province or a city, foreign policy making and diplomatic engagements can become complex and incoherent. It could be worse where there is a coalition government either at national or provincial/city levels where different parties have contradictory foreign policy preferences. 

The remarks by Phalatse at an event in which she spoke on behalf of the government of the City of Johannesburg could be a symptom of this grey area in our foreign policy making. It could suggest she was clueless about South Africa's foreign policy towards Israel. South Africa's frosty relations with Israel was best illustrated by Pretoria's decision to downgrade our diplomatic status in Tel Aviv.

If Phalatse was well-versed, her conduct could mean she thought it was not her responsibility as a leader in the government of Johannesburg to articulate South Africa's foreign policy. Or she differs completely with the national foreign policy towards Israel and therefore felt the need to object publicly. 

It could also mean that within the City of Johannesburg Mashaba hasn't thought carefully how his government intends to communicate with constituencies such as the Friends of Israel in SA, whose main areas of interests might have foreign policy implications for the city or the country. 

Phalatse's conduct could also suggest foreign policy confusion on the part of the Democratic Alliance, her leading party in Johannesburg. DA leader Mmusi Maimane conducted his own diplomacy in Israel last year. He was pictured all smiles with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

When questioned about the visit, Maimane said he did not agree with Israeli's stance on Palestine. But he criticised South Africa's foreign policy which he said needed to be reviewed because other African countries were having relations with Israel. "Now I want to understand; is our foreign policy updated or have we just assumed a historical position?" he asked. 

It is apparent from Maimane's question that unless domestic political players have reasonable consensus on foreign policy, it would be difficult for them to act in unison on matters that require coherence in international relations. The problem was best illustrated by DJ Black Coffee who performed in Israel in April to wide condemnation in South Africa. The ANC went to the extent of issuing a statement criticising the popular DJ. 

In response to the criticism, Black Coffee reportedly tweeted: "Like everyone else I have a right and free will and, no Black Coffee is not a political party. I work as an entertainer to feed my family."  

South Africa's foreign policy towards Israel is a classic case of domestic incoherence that leads to contradictory messages in the international arena. The response to Israeli and other cases of human rights abuses require national consensus on the home front.

The Phalatse controversy comes at a time when International Relations and Cooperation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has launched a review of South Africa's foreign policy. In her inaugural budget vote speech last month, Sisulu said she wanted to reverse the regression of South Africa in international relations and reclaim its position. 

She has her work cut out. And, as international relations experts would say, foreign policy begins at home.

- Mkhabela is a political analyst with the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa.

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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