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SA’s foreign policy is at a critical crossroads

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Political party members, IEC officials and members of the media monitor the incoming results of the 2024 National and Provincial elections at the Western Cape Result Operation Centre. Over 27 million South Africans aged 18 and above registered for the elections. Independent candidates are competing for the first time in this election. – Picture: Henk Kruger / Independent Newspapers / May 30, 2024

By Reneva Fourie

After years of isolation due to apartheid, South Africa has emerged as a significant player in the international arena. However, the high moral standing that the country enjoys is in danger of being reversed pending the outcome of the May 29 elections.

Before 1994, South Africa faced significant international isolation. On the continent it was an aggressor due to its illegal occupation of Namibia and its regular bombing of neighbouring states. Globally, the apartheid regime was met with political disdain and subjected to comprehensive sanctions.

South African cultural, sports, and academic representatives were often treated with contempt and denied participation in international events. Many multinational companies withdrew investments from the country and consumers boycotted South African goods worldwide. The effects of the international isolation were a significant factor that led the regime to the negotiating table.

The post-apartheid government’s foreign policy is rooted in a strong and principled commitment to promoting collective leadership in pursuit of human rights, socio-economic justice and a more equitable and peaceful world. This unwavering assertion of its principles has garnered South Africa the support of many nations in the Global South and the respect of the West and instrumental multilateral organisations.

Post-1994, South Africa made dedicated efforts to improve relations with its neighbours by restructuring the South African Customs Union. It also took on a more constructive role in the Southern African Development Community.

On a continental level, South Africa played a significant part in transforming the Organisation of African Unity into the AU and establishing supporting institutions such as the New Partnerships for Africa’s Development, the African Peer Review Mechanism and the Pan-African Parliament. Furthermore, South Africa helped develop the AU’s Agenda 2063, actively promoted the African Continental Free Trade Area, and participated in setting up a more objective credit rating agency for the continent.

South Africa consistently advocates for the transformation of global multilateral organisations. It has questioned the operations of and inherent biases within the World Trade Organisation, the UN and its affiliated bodies, the UN Security Council in particular. South Africa actively participates in progressive institutions such as the Non-Aligned Movement and has been a member of the Group of Twenty (G20) since its establishment in 1999.

Through the Brazil, India, China and South Africa Plus (BRICS+) group, we have helped to establish alternatives to the Bretton Woods institutions and broaden the trade currency beyond the dollar dominance. We have also stood firmly on issues affecting the planet, such as climate change, and have advocated for easing intellectual property rights to ensure domestic medication manufacturing, especially in response to pandemics such as Covid-19.

The post-apartheid South African government has particularly attempted to leverage our country’s negotiations experience to contribute to creating a more peaceful world. In this regard, we assisted to strengthen platforms of international solidarity and responded positively to humanitarian aid needs.

In addition to several initiatives in Africa, South Africa also led an AU peace mission to Ukraine and Russia and continues to engage the two countries around a negotiated solution to the conflict. South Africa’s efforts to stop the genocide being perpetrated by Israel in Gaza have notably garnered worldwide admiration.

Few countries have been bold enough to consistently insist that Israel be held accountable for its atrocities, especially since it is backed by a powerful and equally vicious US. However, South Africa’s foreign policy risks being reversed precisely because it advocates for dialogue to resolve the Ukrainian/Russian conflict and takes a principled stance on the need for a ceasefire in Gaza.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic and other eastern Europe socialist countries marked a period of unparalleled US dominance. This led to significant structural changes in the world economy, including hyper-globalisation, financialisation and digitisation.

However, US hegemony is in decline, and the world economy is facing a series of economic, political, social, technological, ecological and pathological crises. Unilateralism is being challenged, and a multilateral world order is being born. The US is unwilling to allow a multilateral world order to emerge and is intensifying its fights on all fronts, including in South Africa.

The election on May 29 is about more than just national interest. Its outcomes will affect the Continent and the world, putting our foreign policy at a critical crossroads. The future direction is caught in a battle between those who want to create a fairer, equal, just and peaceful world and those who want to maintain Western hegemony and protect Israel.

Last June, the Brenthurst Foundation hosted an international conference in Poland titled “Rolling Back Authoritarianism”. Several key South African political figures were in attendance, including the editor-in-chief of the Daily Maverick Branko Brkic, the DA’s John Steenhuisen and Geordin Hill-Lewis, the mayor of Cape Town, IFP president Velenkosini Hlabisa, Greg Mills (the Director of the Brenthurst Foundation), and Bishop Luke Pato of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. Other attendees included delegates from the US-backed Renamo, which destabilised Mozambique after independence, and Unita, which led the counter-revolution in Angola.

At the conference, they adopted the 21-point Gdańsk Declaration. The declaration promotes the establishment of coalitions to remove sitting governments and instructs political parties to “accentuate common interests between opposition groups and seek to find common ground over differences”. It underpins the content of the DA-led coalition of the right’s Multi-Party Charter. Thus, though the charter is silent on international relations, it can be certain that they are committed to reversing the progressive path of South Africa’s foreign policy.

Due to its significance, the West has heavily invested in the elections. The DA’s electoral funding donations are unmatched, and the collective funds received by the Multi-Party Charter signatories exceed those of other political parties by far.

By now, South Africans may know whether the West’s investment has been successful.

Dr Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security