Given the forthcoming national and provincial elections, this year will inevitably be dominated by domestic politics. But 2019 should be a year in which SA capitalises on new international opportunities and carefully repositions itself as a credible and legitimate voice in global affairs.

Earlier this month SA rejoined the UN Security Council for a two-year term as one of the 10 non-permanent members. This alone will put the country’s foreign policy under greater scrutiny — internationally, if not at home.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s public postures in the final months of 2018 provided insight into how the sixth democratic government will position itself globally after the elections. They have set out to recapture SA’s moral authority and reacquire strategic global influence. The recent reversal at the UN General Assembly from abstaining to voting to condemn human rights abuses in Myanmar signals a decided reorientation of SA’s foreign policy.

International relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
International relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

Ramaphosa’s promise of a “new dawn” transcends the preceding era and introduces a dynamic approach to policy. His active engagements at multilateral organisations and with international partners present a renewed opportunity to advance SA’s interests through international means and ways. The president’s charm offensive to garner foreign investment is clearly aimed at bolstering the domestic economic project, tactically advancing his electoral drive.

Ramaphosa’s diplomatic and rhetorical skills were on full display during his maiden visit to the UN. He tactically deployed SA’s most potent diplomatic weapon: the legacy of Nelson Mandela. The president sought to assert international influence by unveiling a statue in commemoration of the global icon.

As the principal guest of a one-day “peace summit” convened by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres on the eve of the annual general assembly in September 2018, Ramaphosa evoked the overlap between Mandela’s values and that of the UN — a clear attempt to reposition SA as a responsible global citizen committed to the international rule of law, after the eccentricities of the Jacob Zuma era.

In doing so, Ramaphosa leveraged Mandela’s gravitas as an international statesman, advocating a “more representative, equal and fair UN”. His call that “we must resist any and all efforts to undermine the multilateral approach” is a calculated, internationalist response to a global order that is threatened by the US’s change of strategy towards unilateralism.

Ramaphosa’s endorsement of principled multilateral reform claims an authoritative, independent vantage. It is from this vantage that SA has the most to gain. Unlike his predecessor’s pursuit of national and continental interests through narrow anti-western tactics, Ramaphosa can truly advance the national interest as well as representative global governance by presenting a sovereign embodiment of international norms and values.

Increased discord among the security council’s veto-bearing powers has opened significant influence for non-permanent members. SA rejoins the security council at a precarious and opportune time. It must enact a judicious and coherent programme. Its seat at the table lends it the opportunity to help steer ongoing matters that have for too long simply been managed. The situation in Yemen and South Sudan, for example, requires decisive leadership.

The volte-face on the Myanmar vote is an encouraging sign that signals active responsibility. Sisulu has announced that votes will henceforth be cast individually and upon direction from the executive. This circumvents an often recalcitrant diplomatic establishment and advances an active foreign policy that serves the national interest.

Sisulu made it clear: “We want to usher in a new era where SA can lift itself out of poverty and inequality and regain its stature in the world … We want SA to be once again a moral compass and a voice of reason in a world increasingly overcome with selfish, narrow interests.”

To do so she will have to streamline her bloated department, improve institutional capacity and offer clearly defined policy objectives. A review panel has been established, including experienced hands such as Aziz Pahad and Ayanda Ntsaluba, which bodes well for a meaningful turnaround strategy.

One big strategic question that will need to be answered by the Ramaphosa administration is how it will seek to benefit from the Brics grouping. SA’s influence and role within this informal grouping may appear to be waning. Yet Brics is a potentially potent tool that has been misperceived and underutilised. Instead of an anti-western mechanism, Brics is a cogent, co-operative regime engendering representative global governance. It is reformist, not revolutionary. As a member of this exclusive group, SA holds leverage to shape its perception, direction and execution.

Responding to global instability, Brics is building beyond its rhetorical form. Dubbed Brics Plus, this novel concept heralds a distinct, expanded platform to embody and sustain what has become a precarious multilateral order. Brics Plus remains poorly defined. SA, which initiated the Brics outreach mechanism, a precursor to Brics Plus, has the opportunity to inject it with its constitutional values and diverse and reconciliatory ethos.

Brics Plus provides an indirect means to charge regional, continental and southern relations from a position of power, securing influence from the south and recognition from the north. SA’s seat at the security council and its membership of Brics must be used to counter Zuma’s Manichean foreign policy and the false narrative obliging a choice between sides in a new cold war.

By taking an independent, normative stance SA could assume greater regional and global power, accelerating the tide towards an imminent multipolar world order. SA should aim to be one of the many “poles” in this complex, fractured global disorder — on the one hand seeking to defend multilateralism where it can be defended on a principled or reformed basis (such as on the UN security council), while on the other hand finding new opportunities to exert influence (such as through Brics Plus or as an independent player).

In 2019, this strategic approach should be developed and then clearly articulated and executed. Such a sovereign strategy cannot only promote SA’s international interests but also serve the campaign to reclaim the captured state — joining the dots between domestic and international policy.

• Kotzé recently completed his PhD at the University of Cape Town's Centre for Rhetoric Studies, on the subject of the Brics grouping and its strategies of persuasion.