David Maimela

About David Maimela

David Maimela is researcher at Mapungubwe Institute and a student of International Relations. He writes in his personal capacity

The realm of foreign policy and international relations is inherently fluid and complex. Unlike domestic policy, which is primarily the preserve of policy-makers within our borders, foreign policy is impacted and influenced by external actors and issues.  However, with heightened globalisation even domestic policy is increasingly becoming globalised and consequently state sovereignty becomes a contested concept.

Global citizens and observers do not concern themselves with what countries profess in national policy documents, but with what they do in reality. For instance, it matters not what Barack Obama said in his inauguration address on the Palestine/Israeli question, what counts is what he does. The same principle applies to foreign audiences a country seeks to influence.

Informed by this understanding, since 1994 South Africa has demonstrated a mixture of value-driven and interest-driven foreign policy. It is no secret South Africa’s foreign policy crystallised during the Mbeki years. During this period, South Africa pursued a foreign policy of redress and development and at the centre of it was the African Agenda in all its guises.

Despite the introduction of the Draft White Paper on Foreign Policy which simply codifies what has been foreign policy practice since 1994, there is not much continuity between the Mbeki years and the period from 2009 up to now. It is also unclear as to whether South Africa continues with the presidential-driven foreign policy practice of earlier years.

There is a difference between acting contrary to your stated foreign policy in pursuit of realpolitik and being inconsistent and hazardous to your own national interests. The latter I find to be the case with South Africa since 2009.

In order to understand what happened during Monday’s elections for the African Union (AU) Commission Chairpersonship, we need to understand what motivated SA to contest the election and why the continent reacted the way it did.  This demands an analysis of SA’s foreign policy practice, rather than its policy on paper.

Some of the analytical questions could be: What (mis)calculations informed the decision to contest in the first place? Was it in the best interest of South Africa to contest? What does the outcome say about the decision to contest in particular and South Africa’s foreign policy in general? How is South Africa perceived in the continent today? How should we judge the foreign policy decision of South Africa in this interesting case?

Some have argued that the vote illustrates the colonial divide between Anglophone and Francophone African countries. Implied in this logic is that Monday’s vote reflects a proxy war being fought on behalf of former colonial masters. This argument is also used to explain why South Africa lost the elections. In other words, the French did not want an Anglophone candidate to win.

Can it be true that for decades Africans fought against colonialism, imperialism and white domination and forged solidarity and unity only to turn around and serve their former colonial masters? Yes, we still have African leaders with business cards that show dual residence in Africa and Europe but, can we explain what happened on Monday purely on this ‘colonial divide’ and ignore regional dynamics and the absolute fact Africa is now free?

Others have also argued that the very process of a contested election is a sign of disunity in the AU and on the continent. Implied in this logic is that a democratic process to vote according to agreed rules and norms perpetuates disunity and is therefore not good for the AU and the continent. The less said about this argument, the better. What can be said though is that subjecting the AU to temporary leadership for six months is not healthy.

Others have argued that South Africa contested because there was a need to redeem the country’s image and standing on the continent after the serious foreign policy blunders of 2011 in respect to the Ivory Coast and Libya. This appears plausible. The official reasons (drawn from the Draft White Paper) given by Minister Nkoana-Mashabane at the Cabinet Lekgotla are a good exercise of politics. The problem is that the decision to contest is not consistent with what the Draft White Paper purports to be the continuity of the ‘African Agenda’. In fact, instead of redeeming its image, South Africa has further blundered and alienated itself on the continent.

That South Africa was going to lose this election was clear from the outset. The loss reflects negatively on South Africa and says more about its foreign policy than it does about the nominated candidate. The belief that the stalemate represents victory is not plausible. Even more damning is the fact that our diplomats did not see defeat coming. The stalemate represents both a defeat and the rejection of South Africa’s foreign policy and thus renders our claim as champions of the African Agenda questionable.

The core reasons for why South Africa lost lies within South Africa itself. South Africa has broken the ‘unwritten convention’ that ‘powerhouses’ should steer clear of the AU Commission. Other contending regional powers like Nigeria could interpret this as rogue behaviour and concentration of too much power in SA.

Even if SA felt the need to break with this ‘unwritten convention’, the timing was spectacularly wrong given the Libyan and Ivorian blunders. Also it reflects a miscalculation of the enormous power and influence that SA already enjoys on the continent and the world.

Perhaps, in search of hard power, South Africa forgot the real power it has as the only African country in the G20 bloc, and with membership of the IBSA and BRICS.  Perhaps it forgot its privileged position of serving on the United Nation’s Security Council twice in a short space of time, and the enormous conflict resolution leadership role it has on the continent including even the prominent role it plays in the Peace & Security Council, hosting the Pan-African Parliament, the 2010 Fifa World Cup, leading the Infrastructure Programme of NEPAD and so on.

All of this combined speaks to the confidence that Africa has in South Africa. Indeed all of the above interests are coincidentally what Minister Nkoana-Mashabane articulated in Bela-Bela before the elections. Does SA need the AU Commission chair to pursue interests? Would it not be in SA’s national interest to consolidate the AU and close ranks against what could be described as a real threat of ‘a new colonialism’ from outside the continent rather than focusing narrowly on positions? Could it be that SA cherishes more the symbolism that comes with the position than the real power that lies in the roles above?

This inconsistent foreign policy does repeated damage to South Africa’s national interest and image. In the end, what people remember is not what is written but how you act out foreign policy. The Draft White Paper speaks of consolidating the African Agenda and yet so far, we have seen a disintegration of that Agenda through South Africa’s policy choices. In Lilongwe Malawi in six months time, South Africa would do well to support a small country for the AU Commission chair. This will not entirely redeem South Africa’s image on the continent but will be the beginning of a long journey towards restoring it.

Having said all of this, we must remember foreign policy is also informed by the domestic context. It is plausible that South Africa will persist with the candidature of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as a continuity of the play of domestic politics in foreign policy. It is reported that Dlamini-Zuma is touted for a high position in the top six of the ANC at its forthcoming elective conference and therefore political displacement could be the best way for the party to minimise what is likely to be a fierce leadership contestation in December.

In the end, the loss in Addis Ababa is a failure to appreciate that foreign policy is the art of managing the desirable and the fluid. If we continue on the path of emphasising the desirable at the expense of the fluid, we will continue to see the continuity of inconsistency and the discontinuity of the African Agenda and that cannot be in SA’s national interest!

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