Foreign Policy: Time to prioritise our national interest

By now, many South Africans would have heard of the African National Congress (ANC) discussion documents released ahead of the party’s national general council (NGC) next month. These documents covered a host of policy topics to be discussed at the council, but it is the foreign policy content that, unsurprisingly, attracted the most interest.

mmusi believe in tomorrow

And “interest” may be too kind a word. The general consensus – in both local and international media – was that the language of the foreign policy passages seemed to be lifted straight from a badly-written Cold War era text. The West was heavily criticised – the US in particular bearing the brunt of the attack, being highlighted as “imperialist” and “aggressive” – while China was praised as a champion of growth and development.

The ANC’s take on foreign policy in these documents is incredibly simplistic and outdated. It is also dangerously antagonistic in the way it attempts to create a deep geopolitical divide between Western and Eastern nations, and firmly sides with the East. More specifically, it seems to put ideology above any national interest in developing a country with a competitive economy that can become a beacon of hope for the developing world.

It sympathises with China’s suppression of the Tiananmen Square uprising, it lays most of the blame for the Russia/Ukraine conflict at Washington’s door and it finds a Western “imperialist agenda” behind every bush. It smacks of paranoia and wild conspiracy, and it puts a considerable dent in our global credibility.

As The Economist stated recently: “South Africa risks becoming a laughing-stock, not least in Africa itself.” The heading of its story described the ANC’s NGC documents on policy as “clueless and immoral”.

The release of the ANC’s documents was followed by a host of written pieces warning against turning our backs on the West in favour of the East – many of these writers getting a little carried away in spelling certain doom for those countries who align themselves with China.

In light of this flood of negative press and ripples of disquiet emanating from the Pretoria diplomatic corps, President Jacob Zuma called a media briefing to explain some of the foreign policy issues and allay fears, but this did not have the intended effect. Most people left this briefing as baffled by the ANC’s position as they were before.

I delivered an address to the Royal African Society two weeks ago where I cautioned against placing all our eggs in one geopolitical basket for blinkered ideological reasons and then burning the other basket. My central point is that we don’t have to choose the East over the West or vice versa. A good foreign policy is one that advances a national interest and works pragmatically to do so.

make history DA

In this day and age, international relations simply don’t work in the old binary terms of the Cold War era. It is perfectly possible to strengthen trade ties with China, or any other country for that matter, without making enemies out of everyone else. We don’t have to sacrifice Mercedes-Benz and General Motors manufacturing plants in South Africa for Tata and GWM plants. What’s wrong with attracting companies from all over the world to establish manufacturing plants in South Africa?

The problem is not the countries we decide to partner with, but our rationale for doing so. Your foreign policy must serve your national interest, and for this you must have a clearly defined national interest. Zuma’s problem is that he doesn’t know what our national interest is. Probably because he and too many Cabinet ministers work to serve their own narrow interests first.

As we speak, the UK is negotiating a £2-billion Chinese-built nuclear plant in Essex. You don’t see anyone calling them a rogue nation or accusing them of unholy allegiances with an extractive state. And the reason is simple: the UK’s national interest is already well-defined, and it’s not threatened or re-defined by an investment from China. The UK can afford to conduct its international relations in a way that serves this national interest, and this inevitably means keeping many doors open.

In the absence of a defined national interest, we’re going about it the wrong way. We’re choosing our ‘friends’ for the wrong reasons – for short-term gain and misguided ideological fit – and in the process we come across as a desperate nation. The way we now abase ourselves before our new international friends while running down what believe are their enemies (and our major trading partners), cannot possibly serve our long-term interests.

China’s relationship with us looks more like that of a micro-lender than an equal partner. It is certainly getting far more out of any relationship than we are. And the ‘interest’ China may extract from us could have severely damaging consequences for our country’s future.

We need to halt this before we cause irreparable damage to our relationships with the allies that have kept our economy afloat through trade and investment. Already we’re at the brink of losing the duty-free access to American markets that we enjoyed through the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

It is time we placed the horse and the cart of our foreign policy back in the correct order. This means first defining exactly what our national interest is. Where does our economic development intersect with human rights and ideology? Which trade relationships are crucial to our survival? How can we ensure that we keep our relationships with all our strategic partners intact?

For me it is quite simple. Our sole national goal right now is to drive economic growth that creates more job opportunities. As far as that relates to foreign policy, we should encourage regional and international cooperation with those countries that could assist us in this goal. At the same time, our foreign policy should always seek to promote human rights, democracy, respect for international law and the promotion of Africa’s influence in international affairs.

Simple but it requires leadership that is determined to make South Africa the country it can be. And it is quite apparent from the ANC’s NGC documents that such leadership will have to come from outside the current governing alliance.

Mmusi Maimane


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