Diplomacy is in a time warp when economy needs all hands on deck
The department fails to position nation so that its businesses can fully benefit in a world of cut-throat mercantilism
Hardly any aspect of SA’s national existence causes deeper concern than the parlous state of its economy and the perilous consequences that may follow. With domestic demands spiralling and policies failing, the country may soon run on empty.
Of urgent importance is dealing with the vast discrepancy between economic inputs and outputs, the escalating demand overload exacerbated by a capacity deficiency and inept policy making.
A hopeful sign was that in his first message to the nation, newly elected ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa committed himself to fixing SA’s shattered economy as a first priority. The early favourable market reaction to his election is positive but will dissipate soon in the absence of implementation of workable plans and sustained progress.
Ramaphosa will face a daunting task in an environment stunted by a plundered economy, a deeply divided ANC, rampant corruption and forbidding ideological prejudices. In the absence of brave reforms, this leaves scant hope for the type of economic transformation SA’s main business partners and the ratings agencies want to see and South Africans expect.
Fortunately, everything need not to be doom and gloom.
President Jacob Zuma is on his way out and is no hard act to improve on. Of immediate importance is to fend off mounting national pressure of redistribution and demand overload, leaving the country short of going bankrupt and slipping into a populist spiral mode.
Luckily, Ramaphosa need not look much further than the National Development Plan as a road map for the future. This erudite, comprehensive blueprint for a better future for all South Africans was allowed to gather dust for some years, while the Zuma administration muddled along in its destructive mode.
Foreign policy is not a topic of general public discourse in SA, as it is not regarded as a bread-and-butter issue. But this parochialism comes at a price. In these times, national wealth creation should be a primary objective of foreign engagement, but this is not the case.
Given the urgency of improved domestic delivery and the exorbitant cost of SA’s foreign policy operations, is it not high time its citizens ask "where’s the beef"?
Among the wise recommendations of the National Development Plan, chapter 7 — which deals with foreign policy — is particularly important as a potentially powerful instrument to contribute more effectively towards solving SA’s economic dilemma. But the Department of International Relations and Co-operation ignored most of the plan’s recommendations and critical paragraphs seem to have been removed in the internet version.
Its foreign policy lodestar is the ANC’s international relations committee discussion document of 2017, an arcane pseudo-Marxist tract garnished with hackneyed clichés and dividing the world simplistically into saints and sinners. The authors of such rhetorical twaddle seem to ignore the fact that times have moved on in the past two decades.
The document blandly ignores the profound impact of economic and security interdependence of nation states, as well as the role of globalisation in contemporary world politics. It ignores the basic fact that there is no altruism in competitive world politics, that winning states only follow their own interests, almost in Darwinian fashion.
Ignoring all of this, it defines economic diplomacy as "building relations with former liberation movements, fraternal parties and progressive forces and opposing the West". In true Walter Mitty fashion, it propagates a foreign policy aimed at profoundly changing the global order despite not having the clout and no longer being taken seriously as an actor of consequence.
That SA follows an Afrocentric foreign policy is the right thing to do. So too is promoting global equity. However, a government that tries to do this in the context of a zero-sum view of world politics is shooting itself in the foot
Hypocrisy runs thick and deep when the document states: "We need an Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law", while the government sided unfailingly with oppressors like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and war criminal Omar al-Bashir and refused entry to the country to the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
That SA follows an Afrocentric foreign policy is the right thing to do. So too is promoting global equity. However, a government that tries to do this in the context of a zero-sum view of world politics is shooting itself in the foot. These policies need not be pursued at the expense of beneficial relations with states of all stripes in the world (as China has successfully demonstrated).
No wonder SA’s beneficial economic engagement with the rest of the world is nowhere near its intrinsic potential. It signals failure rather than success, slipping inexorably down the scales of international ratings agencies, disappearing from the international radar screen, getting poorer, less respected and becoming a high risk country for foreign investors.
Mainstream international media (notably The Economist recently) portray SA as a failing, captured state with a broken economy, riddled by corruption and bad governance, and with no moral authority. SA lost the bid to host the Rugby World Cup and Commonwealth Games mainly because of domestic unpredictability.
In her most recent budget speech (and previous ones) International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane waxed enthusiastically about the department’s role in promoting "phenomenal" growth in trade with African and eastern countries (most of it is generated by private business and without the department’s intervention), and failed to mention the huge unfavourable trade balances with those countries. SA’s main foreign trading partner is the EU (at about R660bn a year) and individual countries — particularly Germany, the US, UK, China, Japan and Spain.
This trade pattern manifests despite ideological fault lines in the foreign policy articulated and promoted by Nkoana-Mashabane. The West is officially being kept at arm’s-length, although not refusing the benefit of the low-hanging fruit trade, investment, tourism). This policy is certain to generate negative consequences over the longer term.
In 1994, SA joined the Non-Aligned Movement, a Cold War relic based on an anachronistic zero-sum view of world politics. Although presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have not (yet) revived the Cold War, they transformed existing coalitions and loyalties.
Many western governments have turned against Trump, leaving world politics more divided and pluralistic. In this new global configuration, the Non-Aligned Movement makes little sense, except perhaps to nostalgic ideological dinosaurs. Obviously, SA’s national interests are no longer served by being in that group.
A pragmatic, independent and competitive foreign policy based on universalism, neutrality, moral dignity, exceptionalism, equality and respect would do much to restore SA’s role and image in world politics and help rescue the economy. The diplomacy of ideological struggle politics has reached the end of its shelf life.
SA should move with the times to a new foreign policy. Diplomats should learn the art of modern mercantilism and promoting trade and investment as a first priority. Most of SA’s embassies are dysfunctional and floundering. This happens while SA runs one of the biggest and most expensive diplomatic services in the world (second only to the US). Missions abroad cost about R3.2bn annually and staff earn between R600,000 and R1.3m million a year.
An anecdotal survey I conducted showed that South African businesses find our embassies generally unhelpful if not inaccessible. Requests for assistance to facilitate business in host countries are mostly turned down, even ignored.
There are competent and well-trained professional South African diplomats who can turn the foreign policy ship around. What is sadly lacking is vision and leadership.
• Prof Olivier is with the department of political sciences at the University of Pretoria and is a former South African ambassador in Russia and Kazakhstan.