Elections say SA is generally navel-gazing?

2014-06-17 06:11

Pundits agree that the recently held South African general elections were the most contested of all post-1994 polls.

Not only did it witness the emergence of an energetic, youth-driven party to the left of the mainstream, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), pushing for radical economic transformation, but the governing African National Congress (ANC) fought elections without a fully functioning alliance.

The main alternative party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), presented itself as a major challenge on the basis of racially-diverse leadership and strategy renewal with focus on black middle classes.

This helped generate new focuses or sharper focus on certain issues such economic transformation and clean governance. While South Africa's international role and position is one of any government's major responsibility, it having assumed major positions in the United Nations, international negotiations, south-south cooperation and African multilateral diplomatic forums and given its membership of growing global platforms like the BRICS and IBSA, issues of international relations did not feature on the public discourses surrounding elections. The question is why?

Now, although South Africa is a major actor in international relations, foreign affairs issues did not feature prominently in the election period and seems not to have influenced the choices made at all. The country's re-admission in international affairs after several decades of isolation under apartheid was one the most dramatic seen in recent decades. From under 20 relations, the country established warm diplomatic relations with over 130 countries and over 50 international organisations.

It became recognised as a key role player in UN diplomacy and other platforms for international diplomacy and negotiations. It would be among the drivers of enhanced south agency through new clubs like IBSA and BRICS that challenge the hegemony of the west in international affairs. Hardly any key legitimate international decision is taken without South Africa's participation. its role in the renaissance of Africa, an on-going process of rejuvenation and regeneration of African states, regional institutions and Afrcia's voice in the world, is matter of great interest to other states in the world.

This is the reason why the elections were watched very closely in major centres of the world, covered fully by the western and eastern media. There were discussions about the elections and its meaning for the future of South Africa in some countries.

It was internationalized by external interests both in the politival meaning of the polls, the possible ramifications for economics and lessons to learn regarding electoral democracy in Africa. African countries took such keen interest that the majority of electoral observers came from the continent and over 30 heads of state and government attended the inauguration of the re-elected president, Jacob Zuma.

Three reasons can be put forward to explain the absence of international relations in the electoral process and discourses in South Africa. The first is the fact that opposition parties that worked hard to set the agenda for elections have generally weak appetite for areas of foreign political and economic relations. Even as they pushed for jobs, they did not notice that this relates directly to how you make the country attractive for investors.

While the formal manifestos of major parties mentioned international dimensions, they did so scantily and largely as dictated by templates.

The second is that while the ANC has always had a strong internationalist orientation and has a lot more on foreign policy in its manifesto than other parties, it too got bogged down in purely domestic imperatives. No attempt was made to step back and force the country to see its opportunities and challenges as related to the world and African environment.

It has been said for a while now that the ANC in its own internal debates and its voice into the political community has shown a progressively diminishing appetite to maintain an energetic focus on international relations.

The third is the failure of the media and us political analysts to sharply raise the international implications and opportunities in the public discourses surrounding the elections. The media, which covered international developments like the Ukraine conflict, the crisis in South Sudan, the disappearance of the Malaysia airline, the political fracas in Thailand, and the post-MDG discussions, just did not make connections between this and domestic imperatives.

Parties were not forced to explain how they would approach the international environment.

The implications of this neglect of international relations are many; key among them is to diminish the political importance and accountability in international affairs as a major area of public policy. The huge bearing that world prosperity or crises have on the outcomes of domestic public policy choices is thus under-estimated and overlooked.

Thus, we also miss the opportunity to cultivate a healthy domestic constituency on foreign policy, ready to hold government and parties to account for their positions on international relations. We therefore fail to popularise public policy on international affairs.

The sooner the parties, media and civil society force society to discuss foreign policy and international affairs, the sooner we have a fuller understanding of governance, public policy and the state.

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