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International relations and co-operation minister Naledi Pandor. Picture: ALON SKUY
International relations and co-operation minister Naledi Pandor. Picture: ALON SKUY

SA’s response to the Ukraine war, especially statements by the foreign affairs ministry and the presidency, has brought our foreign policy sharply into the limelight.

While foreign policy should be guided by principle, such as SA’s commitment to what has been referred to as “jaw, jaw, not war, war”, an alternative approach is argued by Richard Calland, public law associate professor at the University of Cape Town, that “sometimes you just need to be on the right side of history as a matter of principle, regardless of pragmatic considerations”.

The problem with this argument is that being on the “right side of history” would have meant SA joining the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which, even by US accounts, was based on false premises and turned out to be a costly disaster.

SA’s foreign policy is shaped by three centres: Luthuli House, the Union Buildings and the OR Tambo Building, headquarters of the department of international relations & co-operation.

Given the ANC’s deep experience in international affairs, harking back to its days in exile and the global fight it led against apartheid, Luthuli House has a large group of cadres seasoned in diplomacy.

The relationship between the Union Buildings and foreign affairs, which addresses questions of sovereignty and independence, is probably as important as that between the president and the finance minister over the impact of the budget on the economy.

Three decades of democratic history have shown that a president gets the foreign minister he deserves: think of the cerebral and Africa-centric duo of Thabo Mbeki and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, or the less well-endowed combo of Jacob Zuma and Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.

The Ramaphosa-Naledi Pandor team is, in itself, an interesting combination of principled leadership and intellectual depth, whose political pedigree is untainted by the wasted years of state capture.

This will mean being guided by the mantra of ‘fewer, but better’, when we cut our diplomatic suit according to the cloth of available funding

However, a third element has been missing — sheer, dogged attention to management and organisational capacity, which characterised foreign affairs in the Mbeki era.

Much hope has been pinned on the appointment of Zane Dangor as director-general of international relations to address the organisational and moral morass it has slid into.

The department’s latest annual report indicated that it had a 15% vacancy rate, above the 10% national average vacancy rate. The previous director-general had been implicated in a dodgy deal in New York, for SA’s mission to the UN.

Dangor has already made a name for himself not only as a good public manager but as a morally driven one, having testified against his boss, Bathabile Dlamini, when he was director-general in the social development department, at an inquiry into her role in the 2017 social grant crisis.

The international relations department would do well to focus on its critical management issues. These include standing up against the pressure to flood the department with political appointees, which is frustrating a fine cadre of bureaucrats, many of whom entered the foreign service in the ’90s as ANC cadres involved in its international affairs section.

Reduce missions

Given the demands of international relations, these career diplomats could do a far better job representing the country, while political appointees can be restricted to a handful of critical postings.

This will mean being guided by the mantra of “fewer, but better”, when we cut our diplomatic suit according to the cloth of available funding. There is a crying need for SA to reduce its overseas missions and improve the quality of their work by retaining its experienced upper echelons at home.

SA should also remain guided by a principled approach, as articulated recently by long-serving former deputy foreign affairs minister Aziz Pahad: “The human family remains bound together by mutual vulnerabilities and an abiding sense of solidarity, compassion and interdependence. These have been the essential values that have guided SA’s foreign policy since 1994, profoundly informed by our global landscape of grave asymmetry and deep inequality.”

May this vision, which “resists arrogant unilateralism”, guide our approach to foreign policy in Ukraine and beyond.

• Abba Omar, a former SA ambassador to Oman and the United Arab Emirates, is director of operations at the Mapungubwe Institute. 

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