Foreign policy observers awaited President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet announcement of May 10, 2009 with great anticipation. Given its seniority and high-profile nature the ministry of foreign affairs was arguably the most coveted government position. Eyes were set on either Tokyo Sexwale, a prominent businessman, or Lindiwe Sisulu, a close confidant who was named minister of defense and veterans affairs. Zuma’s choice of little known, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, thus came as a surprise to everyone. When asked by a journalist on the strange choice, Zuma countered that she was not strange to the ANC and the foreign policy establishment in South Africa. She had served as South Africa’s ambassador to Indonesia and Malaysia. As a political analyst I thought his preference for a lesser known figure was classic Zuma. There is something about him that is instinctively suspicious of personalities in politics. This was borne out in his constant refrain that the ANC decides on any policy matter. This serves the useful political purpose of depriving would-be political challengers a base from which to project into the world.
In perception and in reality, former President Thabo Mbeki ran South Africa’s foreign policy like his personal fiefdom. As a result it became difficult to distinguish the country’s strategic priorities from the president’s personal ideological idiosyncrasies. On the domestic front these idiosyncrasies resulted in the president’s denialist positions on HIV/AIDS, corruption, crime etc. Elsewhere I have described how Mbeki defended these positions by using a discourse of racial nativism. In this discourse if your ideas are not in agreement with government then you are either a white racist or a black sell-out. It was a damaging politics that Mbeki extended to his approach to foreign policy. In this Manichean world of good and evil we were called upon to be either with other Africans or with whites and the West. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe rode not only on the language of racial nativism but also in the knowledge that there were leaders like Mbeki who would protect him in international forums on the account of his race and history.
Given South Africa’s powerful position on the continent, Mbeki also took it upon himself – through the foreign affairs department – to stand up for the continent both in fighting the superpowers but also in determining the terms of the world’s involvement with Africa. Mbeki’s pet projects, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, came under criticism in other parts of the continent precisely because of this ‘big brother’ role. No doubt there were other dynamics in play including sheer resentment that Mbeki was receiving all the attention as Africa’s spokesperson. But to a number of scholars NEPAD was an attempt to extend South Africa’s enthusiastic embrace of neoliberal economic doctrines to the rest of the continent. In the end Mbeki’s government was distracted from developing a coherent policy that reflected the country’s strategic interests. Director of the Centre for African and European Studies at the University of Johannesburg, Gerrit Olivier described Mbeki’s frenetic activities on the global stage as part of an effort to become “Africa’s uberdiplomat and world statesman.”
Jacob Zuma is a very different man from Mbeki. His ambitions for Africa – or for changing the global world order for that matter – will most likely be more modest. He has already said South Africa’s foreign policy engagements on the continent will be constrained by the global economic crisis. This is not to say that South Africa will adopt an isolationist position with respect to both continental issues. The country will however be more selective in its engagements by bringing a greater focus on those countries with whom it seeks to build strategic relationships both politically and economically. Countries such as oil-rich Angola – with whom Mbeki had particularly bad relations- are likely to feature more strongly among the list of strategic allies. This re-orientation towards a more modest but focused role would be consistent with calls by a number of analysts. Olivier has suggested for instance that the government should focus more on developing its relations with other countries in the region as the first circle and sphere of influence in subSaharan Africa. In an op-ed article titled “Time for South Africa’s Diplomats to Get Real” (Mail and Guardian, June 08, 2009), Adekeya Adebajo argues that South Africa spent a great deal of its time at the United Nations in “unnecessary spats” with the superpowers over Myanmar, Iran, North Korea etc which were of no direct concern to South Africa. Adebayo counsels that “South Africa can have only influence and respect abroad if its leadership is accepted on its own continent.” This he believes can be achieved by what he calls a bicycle strategy of regional hubs within each subregion in an ever-expanding sphere of influence.
Where I disagree with Adebayo is on his insistence that South Africa should keep the issue of values out of its international relations. “Foreign policy is thus the art of the possible, not some monastic pastime for secular saints,” he argues. But if there is to be a “civil religion” of democracy in the continent then I do not see how that can be achieved by having secular saints. And of course to be a saint does not mean one is blind to the realities of power. But it is surely important for the world to know the kind of political morality that informs our relationships with other countries. At the very least, other countries should at least know that they cannot rely on our cover for their human rights violations. I also disagree with the idea that the president should have a hands-on approach to the implementation of this strategy. As Olivier suggests the role of the president should be to pronounce on high policy matters while leaving the actual day-to-day work to the diplomats. Otherwise we would run the risk of reverting to the Mbeki approach.
This hands-off approach is likely to be Zuma’s leadership style in any event. On domestic policy he is more likely to set out general policy propositions – flowing from ANC policies – while leaving members of his cabinet and the bureaucracy to put the flesh on those propositions. There is no reason why he should behave differently on international relations. And with his long time comrade and confidant Ebrahim Ebrahim as deputy minister, Zuma can be assured that policy implementation will be consistent with those policy propositions.
One other important shift lies in the name change from Department of Foreign Affairs to International Relations. This was meant to signal a shift from mere representation to building enduring cooperative relationships with countries. The new government inherited a department sitting on hundreds of agreements on which there was hardly anything done. The agreements were signed on the whim of a visit to a foreign country by the minister of foreign affairs or the president. Addressing the diplomatic corps on May 20th , the new minister said the new name signalled a desire to have the department’s work at home and abroad much more aligned with advancing the new government’s new policy priorities, which are mainly job creation, education, health, crime and rural development: “clearly this means while we continue to do some of the things that the Department has been doing, there is also an expectation that we will have to shift the focus in some areas. Our work, both in headquarters as well as in our missions abroad, has to reflect these priorities.”
But even more importantly the government’s approach to international relations should follow what Zuma has promised with respect to domestic policy – greater openness. No longer should our government use our name to defend dictators. It will be up to civil society organizations to hold the new leaders accountable for the fulfilment of that promise.
 Xolela Mangcu, To The Brink, The State of Democracy in South Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2008.
On April 11, Jamie Horsley spoke on a panel about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Asian development during a session of the American Bar Association’s Section of International Law 2019 Annual Conference, held in Washington, D.C.