Main Picture: Supplied/Taken on May 9, 2022 – With the South African flag as part of his backdrop, presenting himself as a statesman, opposition DA Federal Leader John Steenhuisen provides feedback on his recent visit to Ukraine. This raises questions on the appropriate conduct of opposition political parties in expressing their foreign policy positions. Are the DA and the EFF stretching their opposition too far by meeting with foreign embassies contradicting the government’s position and in the case of the DA even visiting Ukraine?, the writer asks.
By David Monyae
Of late, South Africa’s foreign policy has become a fiercely contested domain. There is no sign of consensus among South Africa’s major political parties on what an optimal foreign policy strategy could look like. This was all sparked by the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war and the South African government’s stance on it.
While the African National Congress (ANC)-led government professed neutrality, the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA) openly supported Ukraine and criticised the ANC position as inconsistent with the country’s constitutional values of peace, human rights, and sovereignty. The DA leader, John Steenhuisen, went to the extent of visiting Ukraine just a few weeks into the war to show his party’s allegiance. At home, his party was quick to meet with the Ukrainian ambassador to South Africa to express its sympathy.
On the other end, South Africa’s third-biggest party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by Julius Malema declared its support for Russia saying its invasion of Ukraine was justified. The EFF even held a meeting with the Russian embassy in South Africa to convey its support. Reflecting their respective positions on the war, the parties have also differed on how the government should handle the Russian President Vladmir Putin’s possible visit to South Africa for the BRICS Summit in August.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Putin in March following allegations of abducting Ukrainian children. An arrest warrant issued by the ICC implores its member-states, of which South Africa is one to arrest the suspect should they set foot on their soil. The South African government has prevaricated on whether they will arrest Putin should he come to South Africa. The DA on the other hand has been unequivocal in its calls for Putin’s arrest while the EFF vowed to protect President Putin from being arrested should he decide to come to South Africa.
As such, there is almost irreconcilable polarisation on the domestic front on the South African government’s foreign policy choices. This has raised questions on the appropriate conduct of opposition political parties in expressing their foreign policy positions. Are the DA and the EFF stretching their opposition too far by meeting with foreign embassies contradicting the government’s position and in the case of the DA even visiting Ukraine?
Should opposition parties be allowed to talk to foreign agents on national foreign policy? Is the division on foreign policy not condemning South Africa into disrepute and jeopardising its national interests? Even countries as liberal as the United States and the United Kingdom strive to show unity on foreign policy matters on the international front despite vociferous differences in their legislatures and domestic political campaigns. The opposition parties’ expression of their positions is understandable since the government’s foreign policy choices has domestic implications.
It is to be expected in a functioning multiparty system that parties will differ on many issues and foreign policy is no sacred cow. This is not least because, it is a faint line that divides foreign and domestic policies. For example, the ANC government’s approach to the Russia-Ukraine war risks souring its relations with the US thus endangering trade and investment relations from which a multitude of South African firms are benefitting. Already there are talks of South Africa being removed from the US Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) under which South African products were granted preferential market access to the US. This arrangement has kept many firms afloat while also maintaining thousands of jobs.
Moreover, a country’s foreign policy is taken to reflect its national identity and ideological values. But this tends to be the identity and ideology of the party in power. Hence, it stands to reason that opposition political parties have a right to speak for domestic constituencies whose welfare is jeopardised by the government’s foreign policy and to ideologically differentiate themselves from the ruling party.
That said, having many diverging voices on the international front is not good for South Africa’s international standing and credibility. The international system only recognises states not political parties and therefore, the Head of State’s pronouncements are regarded as representing a country’s position on international issues. The opposition parties may not have a seat at the United Nations General Assembly, but their antics do receive generous coverage in major international media outlets.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s word is diluted if there is a lack of national consensus and he doesn’t enjoy the support of everyone at home. His legitimacy as the country’s chief foreign policy spokesperson is greatly undermined which has the effect of diminishing South Africa’s role in global affairs.
Perhaps this could be rectified by giving the opposition parties opportunity to make their voices heard in South Africa’s foreign policy processes. While the parties are represented in the Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on International Relations and Co-operation, this committee is starved of any real powers. Unlike its equivalent in the US Congress which approves the budget of the State Department and confirms appointments of ambassadors, the Committee on International Relations and Co-operation does not enjoy any such influence.
The result is that the opposition does not have any leverage to hold the executive accountable on its foreign policy hence resorting to make itself heard by other means. Whatever the case may be, South Africa’s political actors have to close ranks when it comes to the country’s foreign policy.
David Monyae is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science and Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.