Zuma's Foreign Policy Drift

2014-03-05 21:02

It is a curious thing that President Jacob Zuma’s tenure should be marked by a foreign policy that can at best be described as being schizophrenic.

On one hand, South Africa has led major international environmental gains (at the Durban Climate Change Conference), integrated itself into a powerful group of emerging states (BRICS) and extended its reach to notionally dominating the African Union (since the election of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to head the AU Commission).

But, the success of these events are qualified by equally calamitous foreign policy exercises: the failure to get Dlamini-Zuma elected in Round 1, the Central African Republic debacle, the Malawi gaffe and, more worryingly, the shut-down of the SADC Tribunal are all indicative of just how poor, at times, our foreign policy can be. That’s without even having to mention Zimbabwe, Libya and Syria.

While many may shrug off these events being attributable to the uncertain nature of the international community, others would suggest that South Africa’s seeming inability to navigate such anarchy is an indictment of our foreign policy. When you compare this presidency to that of Mandela’s ‘Rainbow Nation’ doctrine and Mbeki’s ‘African Renaissance’ agenda, the lack of definition, clarity and purpose is chilling.  In essence, the Zuma drift is real.

That is not to say that neither the Mandela nor the Mbeki administrations would have faced foreign policy set-backs. In truth, it is quite the opposite. In the absence of absolute hegemonic power within the region and internationally it is likely that South Africa will not always achieve its foreign policy interests. What is notable about those instances however, especially when contrasted to this one, is that South Africa’s actions on the international stage could rationally be tied to an agenda, whatever its merits, that it was pursuing. It is questionable whether the same can be said now.

And this is not merely an inconsequential matter of nomenclature, definitions or labelling. The entire conduct of our foreign policy – from the President right down to our consular and diplomatic officials representing us abroad – depends on a clearly defined agenda that underpins our decisions. The danger of not understanding what our purpose is abroad, particularly when that is appreciated in light of domestic policy questions, is that we make decisions in an incoherent, ad hoc and defragmented manner. The lack of policy certainty and dependability not only hurts our reliability to partners abroad but also undermines South Africa’s long-term ambitions of becoming more of a global player.

This was particularly evident in the way in which the Zuma administration has responded to Uganda’s anti-gay laws.

Whatever Sandy Kalyan’s motivation to move a motion in the House calling on the government to condemn them, the ANC’s flat-out refusal to do so betrayed its understanding of its own goal: namely to become a global player that also serves as a permanent UN Security Council Member.

Naledi Pandor’s paltry defence that it was not the policy of the government to comment on the internal affairs of another state shows just how poor the Zuma administration’s understanding of holding a UNSC seat is.

Firstly, by its very nature, UNSC Members are inclined to comment on and be concerned with affairs of other states – even where their impact is indirect at best. This is owing to the fact that the UNSC is charged with protecting world order and so must involve itself in the affairs of states where they threaten global peace and security. While Uganda’s persecution of gays has not escalated to an international security crisis, the initial observation of how the state is targeting (allegedly) gay people is cause for concern. Should it become any more systematised than it is at present, it would not be mistaken to consider them a crime against humanity.

Second, while Pandor reaffirmed our government’s commitment to equal rights, the fact that South Africa has failed to push a human rights agenda as part of our foreign policy is telling. In the first case, it shows that our commitment to human rights, especially in light of loyalties that exist among Africa’s Big Men, is questionable. In the second instance, it shows that for all South Africa’s hot air about being a regional power, our ability to exercise that power and bring about policy change in other countries is limited. This is particularly alarming when you consider that the one thing most UNSC Members have in common is their ability to exercise soft and hard power in order to bring actors within their region and influence into line. In sum, both of these make it questionable whether South Africa should be the beneficiary of UNSC reform.

Third, as I have written elsewhere, Pandor’s aversion of the topic by hiding behind sovereignty is unfortunate.

‘For let’s not forget that during Apartheid, frontier states were praised for making South Africa’s internal issue of ‘separate development’ very much their concern. And the ANC had no shortage of harsh words for the UK and the USA’s respective leaders, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan, and their supposed failure to act accordingly. It is deeply disappointing that a party who advocated for and relied on international support to overcome racial segregation at home cannot lend their voice in support to those who face similar denigration abroad. At worst it is callous negligence and at best it is rank hypocrisy.’

The Zuma administration continues to do itself no favours by failing to adopt a comprehensive foreign policy agenda. Even if that agenda were to be more classically realist and avert any discussion of human rights at all it would be better than operating in a policy vacuum. As a pretender to the role of regional hegemon, South Africa would greatly increase its standing by defining that policy and acting in accordance with it. Even where that involves difficult decisions like commenting on the internal affairs of other states. To drift in an unknown and anarchical sea is merely asking for trouble.


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