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Foreign policy flip-flops undermine global stature

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Picture: SAPA stringer/Taken June 19, 2007 – Then-President Thabo Mbeki hosts Lesotho Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili for bilateral political and economic discussions at Tuynhuys in Cape Town. In 1998, South Africa’s foreign policy was put to the test when the country refused to send troops to Democratic Republic of Congo, but sent troops to Lesotho after SADC called for a military intervention to restore peace there, the writer says.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

South Africa’s foreign policy posture has undergone metamorphosis for decades. Under apartheid, it was confrontational and defensive. The apartheid government despised certain countries and carefully selected those that sustained the apartheid regime.

Moreover, the proponents of apartheid used the government’s foreign policy to defend the apartheid policy. As the country prepared for the anticipated new political dispensation in the early 1990s, a need arose to relook into the country’s foreign policy with two aims in mind. Firstly, it was to understand the foreign policy agenda. Second, there was a need to plan for the post-apartheid foreign policy direction for South Africa.

In 1993, former President Nelson Mandela envisioned South Africa’s post-apartheid foreign policy. In a document titled “South Africa’s future foreign policy”, Mandela stated that human rights would be “the light that guides our foreign policy”. Implicit in this statement was the submission that, unlike during the apartheid era when human rights violation was the order of the day, a new foreign policy agenda would be implemented.

In 1998, a year before Mandela handed the baton to his successor, Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s foreign policy was put to the test. As other African countries sent soldiers to defend Laurent Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Africa refused to do so. The argument was that the country’s foreign policy was built on democratic solutions to problems that preferred diplomacy. During the same year, political instability in Lesotho prompted SADC to intervene militarily to calm down the situation. South Africa sent troops to Lesotho.

Some questioned consistency in the country’s foreign policy stance. While it is true that both Mandela and Mbeki were outside of the country and the acting president was Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, he did not take a unilateral decision.

Under Mbeki (1999-2008) there was an attempt to keep South Africa’s foreign policy consistent. This was the case with the “Quiet Diplomacy” approach to the Zimbabwean political crisis. As other countries expected South Africa to use force or hard (military) power against Zimbabwe, Mbeki insisted that this was not the approach recommended by our foreign policy.

When Jacob Zuma took over in 2009, there was no expectation that the country’s foreign policy posture would change. Non-interference and respect for the political sovereignty of other countries continued unabated. This was to continue under President Cyril Ramaphosa, who assumed office on February 15, 2018, following Zuma’s removal from office by the ANC the day before.

While this synopsis gives a broad overview of how South Africa’s foreign policy posture has metamorphosed over time, there is something worth mentioning. The country’s global image diminished from what it used to be soon after 1994. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has once again put South Africa’s foreign policy under scrutiny. When the issue was debated at the UN General Assembly, South Africa took a neutral stance. She could neither side with the West which supported Ukraine nor Russia.

There are two reasons for this stance. The first one is that South Africa’s position is in line with the country’s foreign policy agenda. The second reason is that South Africa’s relations with both Russia and Ukraine are rooted in history. Both countries have provided military training to South Africa’s liberation fighters. Taking a side would have obliterated South Africa’s prospects to participate in the mediation process between the two countries.

What is noticeable is that South Africa’s influence in global politics has declined over the years. Soon after the negotiated settlement in 1994 and the formation of the Government of national unity (GNU), the country became a force to be reckoned with. Many countries across the African continent benefited from South Africa’s expertise. Among them were DRC, Lesotho, Liberia, Mozambique, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. But the calibre of the incumbent – coupled with the continental (African) and global contexts have impacted South Africa’s global image.

The recent humiliation of the South African delegation in Poland points to the weakened state of the country’s global stature. Linked to that are the actions of the American ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety who first undermined South African authorities by announcing behind their backs that Isis might attack Sandton.

Seeing that he was not reprimanded by our government, he alleged that South Africa sold arms to Russia. Although he rescinded this claim, the damage had already been done. Subsequently, four American legislators asked President Joe Biden to punish South Africa. Therefore, the gains made by South Africa in 1994 are gradually being lost.

While it is true that the country’s Constitution continues to receive accolades internationally, South Africa’s foreign policy stance is losing momentum. The country’s global influence is waning and its respect is dwindling.

Professor Bheki Mngomezulu is the director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy, CANRAD, at Nelson Mandela University