Trading Politics for the Politics of Trade: South African and Australian Relations in the New Millenium

By Shelton, G. L.; Catley, R. et al. | Journal of Australian Studies, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Trading Politics for the Politics of Trade: South African and Australian Relations in the New Millenium


Shelton, G. L., Catley, R., Schmulow, A. D., Journal of Australian Studies


There is much commonality in the historical evolution of the Australian and South African states, to the extent that in the first part of the twentieth century, the two were linked in the category of `Old Commonwealth' in the international relations literature of the period.(1) The two countries shared a heritage of British colonialism which left a similar legacy of English speaking European settler communities, in uneasy relationships with the indigenous peoples and the surrounding non European nations, tied closely to Britain by trade, strategy, head of state and institutions. Australians fought on the side of the British in the Anglo-Boer war, and South Africans and Australians fought side-by-side in two world wars and Korea.

South Africa -- New International Partnerships

The termination of apartheid in the early 1990s, and South Africa's return to the global community as a respected participant, has opened the way for the development of new, mutually beneficial partnerships. The South African government has already established strategic relationships with a number of countries, and professes to seek to build positive links with all sovereign nations in the international system. This has enabled the revitalisation of bilateral relations with Australia, and the reopening of trade, investment, migration, cultural, and sporting ties. While the similarities in the historical evolution of the two states provides a mutual foundations for renewed relations, it should also be remembered that the commonality does not extend all that far into the cultures of the two nations. Despite the common interest in sport, and a shared use of the English language, the Black population of South Africa has a different pre- and post-colonial experience from that of Australia; whilst the privileged, and then isolated development of the European-derived white population has produced attitudes and perspectives among both the English and Afrikaans speaking communities, which are strikingly different from those of Settler-Australians. This article is intended to provide an outline of South African foreign policy, highlighting the key elements relevant to South African-Australian relations, and suggests a broad policy framework for a future international partnership between the two countries.

Australia is primarily concerned with increasing its exports to other nations, and this is reflected in the emphasis which has been placed on the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which works in close contact with the Australian Department of Industry, and which assesses its diplomats partly according to how successful they are in boosting their country's exports. Consequently relations between South Africa and Australia in the future will be turned increasingly to commercial issues. Whilst this ensues South Africa will be working, often, in different directions; South Africa presently places a great deal of emphasis on a range of multi-lateral issues, and on global and regional (sub-Saharan) concerns, and, unlike Australia, not purely on economic and commercial issues. So whilst it must be stressed that South Africa places high priority on increased trade, South Africa's involvement within the OAU, SADC (which it chairs), the UN, UNCTAD (which it chairs) and NAM (which it chairs) has seen South Africa move strongly in the direction of multi-lateralism; whilst, as stated previously, Australia seems to be moving more towards bi-lateralism.

South Africa's Foreign Policy Priorities

By the time relations with the new South Africa were revived, Australia had fundamentally reoriented its foreign relations, by placing a new, post Cold War emphasis on economic issues, over those of geopolitical strategy, in general; and on the Asia Pacific region over the old commonwealth and empire connections in particular. By the late 1990s Australia was earning over three-quarters of its foreign income in the Asia Pacific region, where most of its top ten trading partners were located.

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