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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

We live in an international environment characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

This world, the product of the clash of declining and rising empires, demands an explanation from specialists of why and how we arrived at this state and what will happen next.

Would international relations and foreign policy specialists be able to do so? For any serious African scholar, the context is important: interpreting the world and its impact requires African lenses, but which lenses precisely and to what purpose? What can Africans do to alter their most unfavourable place in the world?

To expect the subspecies of social scientist known as the international relations scholar to deliver on such high expectations would be dangerous. Don't forget, this mostly Western-orientated scholarly community (in service of the empire, some would say) actively undermined the communist project. But few, if any, of their members could predict the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Worse, their triumphalist declarations of the so-called “end of history” and the success of democracy and the free market did not do the Russians or Iraqis any good, nor did they address persistent and deepening inequalities between the global North and South. Now, here we are, at the precipice of another historical turning point. The West and Russia are at each other's throats. As Ukraine descends into hell, this scholarly community actively encourages war. How can we make sense of these “turning points”?

Humanity hardly had time to comprehend the impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic when underlying post-Cold War tensions between Russia and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) surfaced. The US intensified its intent to isolate Russia by supporting the integration of peripheral parts of the former Soviet Union into European and Atlantic institutions.

Not for the first time, Russia pushed back against what it perceived as an encroachment on its sphere of influence. After a series of crisis events, on February 24 2022, Russia unleashed a full-spectrum war on Ukraine. On this day, the world changed. Writing soon after the invasion started, a commentator noted: “History has accelerated; the impossible has become possible. Shifts that no-one imagined weeks ago are unfolding with incredible speed.”

The strategic calculations informing the US, the EU, Nato, Russia, the Ukraine government, and other influential players such as China or Turkey, are under scrutiny by experts and the public alike. The conflagration — increasingly dangerous and cruel — has severe consequences for the world at large.

What are these shifts? The Western liberal rules-based world order — meant to make the world safe for democracy and capitalism — is on the back foot, and its failures result in deepening division and conflict between and among the north and south.

Multilateral diplomacy appears unable to ensure international peace and security, manage financial stability, or act meaningfully on climate change. The most recent G20 meeting communique failed to make mention of the AU — an aspiring member. The Ukraine crisis has enfeebled the UN.

Can the system be reformed? The activities of the world's mega arms manufacturers and dealers (particularly the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) keep the world in a perpetual state of conflict, further complicated by organised crime and the trafficking of arms and ammunition.

Can this exploitive and corrupt stranglehold be broken? Will conflict escalate, mutate, and spread — to include weapons of mass destruction? Are these apparent failures a temporary setback for the “rules-based liberal world order”? Will Davos-man restore or recalibrate order? Or will the world face a Cold War 2.0? Critically, how do we calculate the impact on Africa? How do we respond to these probing questions?

The government has a sound foundation for undertaking foreign policy. The ANC worldview professes progressive internationalism, an approach to global relations anchored in the pursuit of global solidarity, social justice, joint development and human security. Progressive internationalism “envisages a just, equitable, nonracial, nonpatriarchal, diverse, democratic and equal world system”. For the fundamental transformation of the global balance of forces, advocacy is required — a radical restructuring of global governance and a progressive global movement.

However, the ANC faces a range of challenges, failures and shortcomings — especially the failure to mobilise “progressive forces” on the continent, the inability to work together and speak as one, policy drift, and capacity constraints at headquarters. If the ANC wants to renew, then this is part of the task.

Despite ambitions to play a leadership role in Africa (and the global South), SA's international relations outlook and foreign policy tools are no longer calibrated to give effect to the ambition. Much will have to change if SA is to re-emerge as a global norm-setter, regional leader, peacemaker and peacekeeper.

SA should dedicate soft and hard resources to lead on five tasks, explored below. Taken together as an agenda for deep reform, SA might be able to rediscover its self-worth and give effect to its historical imperative of contributing to Africa's peace and security, economic development and good governance.

1. Peacemaking and democracy promotion

Internationally, nothing is more important than finding a negotiated resolution to the conflict between Russia and Nato. Instead of the militarisation of societies, tension needs to be de-escalated. Ukraine needs a peace process.

Though it is naive to expect a peaceful outcome any time soon — recall the Dutch prime minister telling CNN that "... we can only stop when the war stops, with a successful outcome for Ukraine, and Russia losing the war...” — nothing prevents SA from actively exercising bridge-building diplomacy — engaging its Brics and Western partners in an effort to bring the warring parties to the bargaining table.

In Africa, sustained attention needs to be given to peace processes in Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In Southern Africa, democracy requires support in Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Madagascar. In West Africa, a peaceful and credible election in Nigeria is critical for national and regional stability. Throughout Africa, violent extremism and cross-border organised crime are on the rise and require co-ordinated responses from the AU and the regional economic communities.

2. Peacekeeping

SA has little choice but to pay attention to the volatile Great Lakes Region, particularly the eastern DRC and northern Mozambique. It has committed personnel and assets under UN, AU and the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) mandates.

About the author: Anthoni van Nieuwkerk is the professor of International and Diplomacy Studies at the Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs at the University of SA. Picture: SUPPLIED
About the author: Anthoni van Nieuwkerk is the professor of International and Diplomacy Studies at the Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs at the University of SA. Picture: SUPPLIED

Despite the enormous costs associated with managing regional conflicts with the potential for spillover, the country is expected, by its neighbours and partners, to lead. Elsewhere I argue that a precondition of such a role is a revitalised security sector backed up by a fresh national security architecture.

3. Institutional reforms

Observers of African politics opine that with the volatile international environment, its impact on African food and energy security, and a disturbing reappearance of coup d'état's in West Africa, there is a need to assess whether governance and management structures are fit for purpose.

These include the African Peace and Security Architecture, the African Governance Architecture, the AU's Agenda 2063, and, closer to home, the peace and security decision-making structures of the Sadc Secretariat.

4. Representing Africa on the global stage

To what extent can African leaders forge common positions and engage multilateral institutions of global governance to defend and promote Africa's economic, trade, developmental and peace and security interests? It is a vexing question given the low levels of continental integration — politically and economically.

Complicating the matter for our diplomats is the hypocritical behaviour of dominant powers — recall the failed attempt to get an intellectual property waiver for Covid-19 vaccine production in Africa? Or, more recently, the lukewarm response to the proposal to give the AU a seat at the table of the G20?

Reflecting on the factors that enabled the creation of the AU, the New Partnership for Africa's Development and substantive participation at the level of global governance, it is perhaps time to build another coalition of the willing — involving influential countries and leaders on the continent.

5. Security sector reform

Diplomats are meant to promote and protect the country's national interests abroad, including national security. Reforming the security sector is an imperative for socioeconomic recovery, and its role must be integrated into the country's international relations and foreign policy activities. Healthy civil-military relations and human security are two sides of the same coin and cannot be seen in isolation from regional, continental and global dynamics.

An opportunity exists to undertake the necessary national security reform to meet the expectation of the architects of our constitutional democracy, namely “the resolve of South Africans, as individuals and as a nation, to live as equals, to live in peace and harmony, to be free from fear and want and to seek a better life”.

For SA to recover and play a meaningful role in improving the lives of its people at home, those on the continent, and those in the global South — it must have a properly constructed national security edifice and mutually interlocking strategies that promote the national interest, development, and our role in Africa, and globally.

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This article was sponsored by the Thabo Mbeki School. 

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