Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Critical Themes in South Africa's Foreign Policy: An Overview

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Critical Themes in South Africa's Foreign Policy: An Overview

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

In his state of the nation address on 14 February 2013, President Jacob Zuma re-iterated some of the essential leitmotifs which have shaped South Africa's foreign policy since 1994 and echoed very similar values, emphases, and priorities as those which underpinned the presidencies of his predecessors, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. He talked, inter alia, about contributing to a stronger African Union (AU), supporting efforts to build a more stable and peaceful continent, building the pillars of South-South cooperation through BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), and strengthening North-South relations particularly with the United States (US), Europe, and Japan (Zuma, 2013). In short, President Zuma was referring to the very strong foreign policy foundation and legacy he had inherited in promoting South Africa's international engagements and external relations, a foundation that is essentially held together by the mortar of its moral capital, normative agency, and political stature.

However, there are legitimate concerns that this capital, agency, and stature are fast depreciating because of recent missteps and strategic blunders in the conduct of South Africa's foreign policy, especially under President Zuma's watch (Le Pere, 2013). While obviously subject to debate and contestation, reference is often made to South Africa's controversial tenure on the United Nations (UN) Security Council, the ongoing Dalai Lama visa debacles, the misguided and divisive campaign to win the chair of the AU's Commission, and the tragic military misadventure in the Central African Republic. But probably most egregious was the embarrassment of 'Guptagate' when a planeload of private wedding guests arriving from India was allowed to land at a secure military base in Pretoria, officially designated as a 'national key-point' rather than the international airport outside Johannesburg. Media innuendo flew fast and furious that the plane was allowed special landing-rights at the military base since the wedding guests were family and friends of the dynastic Gupta family who not only had accumulated enormous wealth since settling in South Africa but were closely associated with Jacob Zuma who allegedly had sanctioned circumventing official protocol.

These are worrying trends since the country's foreign policy over nearly two decades since its democratic transition is, arguably, one of the most successful and inspiring areas of post-apartheid public affairs and has been built on the paradoxical legacy of the racialised apartheid state and the values of the African National Congress (ANC)-led liberation movement. Above all, South Africa's activist foreign policy agenda since 1994 has been premised on a belief in the compatibility of human rights, democracy, solidarity politics and its own development needs. This is buttressed by multilateralism and adherence to international law and conventions as the strategic anchors for pursuing foreign policy goals and implicitly, by the enduring notion of South Africa's presumed status as one of the de facto leaders of the African continent and indeed, of the global South (Alden and Le Pere 2009).

The orthodoxies and axioms which guided the first two presidential periods it seems, have been maintained and affirmed in the era of Zuma albeit with a more streamlined and less ambitious menu and shorn of the ideological and crusading shibboleths that had characterised the Mbeki presidency. At least this is what the last two ANC party conferences resolved at Polokwane in December 2007 and at Mangaung in October 2012. The Zuma era has thus been adaptive and continuous in terms of the normative charters which guided his predecessors, with the centre of gravity less concentrated in the Presidency than was the case during the Mbeki years. The Zuma Presidency was itself a product of intense intra-party politics and factionalism but which ultimately sought to place renewed emphasis on the welfare concerns of the ANC's broader constituencies, particularly in addressing the legacies of poverty, inequality, and unemployment. …

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