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Foreign policy driven by a culture of human rights

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From left to right, flags of South Africa, Brazil, Russia, India and China during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on August 24, 2023. Over the past three decades, our bilateral relations have blossomed Strategic partnerships with countries and regional organisations such as China, Brazil, India, Russia, the EU, and Indonesia solidify our global standing, the writer says. – Picture: Marco Longari / AFP

By Shannon Ebrahim

Reflecting on the remarkable journey of South Africa since the dawn of democracy in 1994, we find a story of transformation, resilience, and steadfast commitment to our values.

Emerging from the shadows of apartheid, our nation has made significant strides in international relations, embodying our aspirations for justice, equality, and human dignity. Our foreign policy, grounded in these enduring principles, has guided us through the complexities of global engagement.

Our foreign policy framework draws strength from our Constitution Act 108 of 1996, the ideals of the Freedom Charter of 1955, the visionary National Development Plan, and our National Interest document. These foundational texts underscore our dedication to building an inclusive society that tackles poverty, inequality and unemployment while fostering a culture of human rights.

Embracing the spirit of ubuntu, we recognise that “we affirm our humanity when we affirm the humanity of others”. This principle has been the cornerstone of our foreign policy, rooted in Pan Africanism, human rights and the rule of law, peace and friendship, international solidarity with the oppressed, and economic diplomacy.

These values have propelled South Africa onto the international stage as a beacon of hope and progress.

In 1994, our fledgling democracy hosted only 68 diplomatic missions.

Today, Pretoria stands proud as a global diplomatic hub with 309 missions, including 132 embassies and high commissions. Our nation maintains 115 embassies and high commissions worldwide, highlighting our role as a gateway to the African continent and a leader of the Global South.

Over the past three decades, our bilateral relations have blossomed, strengthening political and economic partnerships across the globe. We cherish our enhanced bilateral relationships, including binational commissions, joint commissions, bilateral forums, and joint ministerial committees. Strategic partnerships with countries and regional organisations such as China, Brazil, India, Russia, the EU, and Indonesia solidify our global standing.

Africa remains the cornerstone of our foreign policy. We have consistently supported regional and continental initiatives to resolve crises, bolster integration, increase intra-African trade, and promote sustainable development.

Our commitment to multi-lateralism has enabled us to advance the African agenda and advocate for a fair and just global order. We have called for reforms to institutions like the UN Security Council to better reflect contemporary global realities and address the needs of the Global South.

Our journey through various administrations reflects a steadfast focus on Africa. Under Nelson Mandela (1994-1999), our foreign policy emphasised good governance, democracy, human rights, stability, and the rule of law. Mandela’s belief that “South Africa cannot escape its African destiny” continues to guide our engagements on the continent.

During Thabo Mbeki’s tenure (1999-2008), we championed the African Renaissance, placing it at the heart of our foreign policy. Transforming the Organisation of African Unity into the African Union (AU), promoting human rights, and establishing the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the African Peer Review Mechanism were significant milestones. These initiatives strengthened AU institutions, fostering good governance and social justice.

The Jacob Zuma era (2009-2018) maintained our commitment to the African agenda. President Jacob Zuma’s pragmatic approach focused on regional infrastructure development and active engagement with the AU and SADC. His successful campaign for Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma to chair the AU Commission underscored our dedication to continental leadership.

Under President Cyril Ramaphosa (2019-present), our priorities have included enhancing UN-AU co-operation, implementing the African Continental Free Trade Area, promoting gender equality, advancing the green economy, and resolving conflicts. Ramaphosa’s leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted our commitment to securing resources and vaccines for Africa.

Our three terms on the UN Security Council have seen us advocate for stronger UN-AU relations and significant reform of the council. We have emphasised women’s participation in conflict resolution, and promoted the Ezulwini Consensus, which calls for greater African representation.

Human rights and international solidarity remain central to our foreign policy. As Nelson Mandela said in 1994, “human rights should be the core concern of international relations” and “justice and international law should guide our relations”.

We have steadfastly supported the self-determination struggles of the people of Palestine and Western Sahara. In 2019, we downgraded our embassy in Israel due to its apartheid policies. Last year we instituted legal proceedings at the International Court of Justice against Israel for violating its obligations under the Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime on Genocide in Gaza.

As a member of the Non-Aligned Movement and the G20, we have been vocal advocates for Africa and the Global South. Our successful lobbying for the AU’s inclusion in the G20 ensures African priorities are represented. Our non-aligned stance and commitment to mediation were exemplified when President Ramaphosa led an African Peace Mission to Russia and Ukraine in 2023, and we have continued our efforts to bring about peace between the two countries.

South Africa’s foreign policy over the past 30 years demonstrates a steadfast commitment to human rights, multi-lateralism, and African development. We continue to play a crucial role in shaping global policies and advocating for a more just and equitable world.

Our journey continues, driven by our unwavering determination to uphold justice, equality, and human dignity for all. Together, we will build a future that honours our past and inspires generations to come.

* Shannon Ebrahim is a senior manager at the Department of International Relations and Co-operation

** The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of The African