In desperation about SA’s economic free fall, President Cyril Ramaphosa turned to the outside world for help in 2020. It was no doubt a wise, if belated, step. SA had a golden opportunity to become something along the lines of Africa’s Singapore after dumping apartheid, but soon wasted it in an orgy of myopic ideological arrogance and economic incompetence.

With wayward domestic and foreign policies dominating after Nelson Mandela stepped down as president, goodwill on the part of potential foreign investors made way for disappointment and scepticism. Foreigners were particularly discouraged by the ANC’s struggle-fundamentalist, Western-sceptical foreign policy, which favoured authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia for special relations while ignoring moral rectitude. No wonder that after being cold-shouldered, would-be benefactors and investors, particularly from the West, simply lost interest. They stayed away while SA’s international and regional Africa status and prestige declined to new lows.

The main failing of the ANC’s official foreign policy is that it simply ignores our innate national interests, as dictated by the country’s pressing domestic socioeconomic needs. This is exemplified by a boastful statement by then ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who said: “SA doesn’t need the West.” This attitude all but nullified Ramaphosa’s current efforts to solicit new foreign investments for the country.

As the dictum goes, foreign policy begins at home. Foreign engagement could therefore be an important contributor to SA’s national wealth and welfare, which is not the case now. What is needed in the place of the present ideologically obsessed partisan pursuits is a more sensible and pragmatic “SA First” approach, anchored in a truly nonaligned international foreign posture without permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.

The main custodian and driving force behind this wayward ANC foreign policy is the department of international affairs & co-operation, which is failing our critical national interests. It has done nothing to instil a more realistic approach, giving no leadership and direction despite being empowered by a mammoth annual budget of about R7bn and operating about 120 missions (embassies and consulates) across the world.

Ideologues simply took over the top echelon of the foreign policy establishment and packed it with economically illiterate generalists and mostly redundant ANC “deployed ambassadors”, leaving the country with a dysfunctional foreign service and  neither fish nor fowl foreign policy for the past decade.

Lacking in ability

Clearly, the department lacks the ability and savoir faire to drive SA’s economic diplomacy, a situation we can ill afford in these troubled times. The president fired a shot across the ministry’s bows by overlooking it in his drive to lure foreign investments, appointing special local emissaries to do the job and interfacing with business leaders. Under such reduced circumstances SA is now forced to turn back for help to nations it previously spurned.

Predictably, so far the external response to the investment drive has been disappointing. Pledges of only R109.6bn were registered in the last round, way below the R290bn and R363bn of the two previous summits. This adds up to R762.6bn overall, only about 64% of the conference target of R1.2-trillion for 2020. Various investment projects and aspirational targets were announced by the president, but several of these have been put on hold because of the Covid-19 pandemic, exacerbating the disappointing economic growth. On top of it all, the country suffered yet another body blow through the November credit ratings agency downgrades.

The fixed-investment spending  SA needs to achieve higher and more sustained economic growth and job creation declined in eight of the 10 quarters leading up to June 2020. Domestic threats such as runaway unemployment of 30%, deliberate radicalisation and mobilisation of the have-nots, debilitating national economic decay and the collapse of municipal service delivery, compounded by a government house divided and close to ungovernability, painted a highly discouraging picture for would-be foreign investors.

To turn the ship around is a tall order, well nigh a mission impossible. As well intended as they might be, Ramaphosa’s efforts cannot stop the rot. It is like sticking a finger into a leaking dam wall to stop it from breaking. They are plainly inadequate, worsened by the government’s incompetence, reluctance and inability to effect meaningful domestic and foreign policy changes.

A new, bold message needs to go out to convince the outside world that SA is not on the brink of becoming a failed state. Something as dramatic as the Marshall Plan for Europe after World War 2 is needed, accompanied by fundamental domestic and foreign policy reforms and strategies.

Sadly, this would seem a bridge too far for the ANC. South Africans therefore have no choice but to bite the bullet, placing their last hope on helter-skelter patchwork rescue efforts, which might over time evolve into a self-correcting process under the guidance of a pro-reform leader.

Turning to the outside world for support was no doubt a wise choice, but we must make the most of the goodwill that still exists towards SA. The country has the intrinsic capacity to regain the aura of exceptionalism, status and respect it enjoyed during the Mandela presidency — provided we make the right foreign and domestic policy choices.

As far as would-be investors and partners are concerned, credibility would require a powerful, convincing statement from the government that it really means business.

Obviously, the department of international affairs is not up to the job as it stands. It should therefore be restricted to what it is best at: consular, protocol and representational duties, but with a far smaller budget. The saved money could be used to establish a high-level crisis management system of economic ambassadors, a virtual engine room of managers, experts and leaders capable of implementing and managing, at a formal and institutionalised level, the various national and economic turnaround and restructuring plans that have already been codified to a satisfactory level.

Why can’t the government replicate its Eskom rescue plan by infusing foreign policy decision-making with competent, skilled individuals unfettered by ideological loyalties? If Eskom is considered worthy of being saved, how come the country as a whole is viewed as less important? It doesn’t make sense. Perhaps our success in the 2019 Rugby World Cup could serve as a metaphor: strong and intelligent leadership made the difference between losing and winning. The same is needed in our national diplomacy to secure substantial foreign investment and regain respect and prestige.

• Olivier, former SA ambassador to Russia and Kazakhstan, is emeritus professor at the University of Pretoria.

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