SA’s GNU must navigate a pragmatic foreign policy shift

South Africa faces critical choices in foreign policy amid political change. With a unity government formed after the ANC’s electoral setback, President Ramaphosa advocates for a nuanced global stance based on ethics and national interest. Priorities include African integration, global south solidarity, UN reform, and professionalizing diplomacy to navigate global challenges pragmatically.

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By Anthoni van Nieuwkerk*

As South Africa navigates fundamental political change, it faces stark choices on foreign policy posture and priorities. The change has been brought about by the African National Congress’s loss of electoral majority, forcing it into a unity government.

Based on my work over many years on South Africa’s foreign policy as well as reflections on the country’s role in Africa and the global south, I argue that the unity government must take a more nuanced approach to international relations.

This approach must be based on a shared world view. Developing that world view may prove difficult because unity government members range from social democratic to liberal and conservative positions.

The key will be strong ethical leadership to play a credible “middle power” role in global affairs. In my view, President Cyril Ramaphosa is such a leader. He helped rebuild South Africa’s international standing and role after Jacob Zuma’s corrosive presidency, which was marked by state capture.

The African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance – the two largest parties in the unity government – have already determined the broad outlines of what appears to be a centrist policy framework. The unity government’s “basic minimum programme” of priorities says foreign policy will be:

… based on human rights, constitutionalism, the national interest, solidarity, peaceful resolution of conflicts, to achieve the African Agenda 2063, South-South, North-South and African cooperation, multilateralism and a just, peaceful and equitable world.

Read more: Helen Zille: Down to the wire getting GNU done – now we must exercise patience for it to work

The document’s framing language and the foreign policy section are constitutionally oriented. This is positive. However, the section is written in a bland, technical style that’s deliberately vague. Perhaps that’s to allow for follow-up negotiations.

Six priorities ought to be in the inbox of the newly appointed foreign minister representing the interests of the country and Africa. These call for pragmatism among the unity government partners.

1. Define the national interest

The new decision-makers must avoid serving a narrow political or economic class. South Africa’s constitutional values and the National Development Plan should guide them.

Facing rapid social and economic changes as well as conflict, the unity government must immediately adopt a framework for foreign and security policy. A good start would be to review the proposed national security strategy.

2. Implement the African agenda

Three related themes define South Africa’s contribution to the advancement of Africa:

  • promoting democratic governance: by strengthening a culture of democratic decision-making and accountability
  • enhancing inclusive growth and sustainable development: by following the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which includes the continental free trade agreement
  • advancing peace and security: by strengthening Africa’s approach to peace-building and making sure the guns fall silent by 2030.

South Africa’s decision-makers and diplomats must be attuned to political, economic, security and social developments among its neighbours, and the rest of the continent.

Read more: SA court upholds rights of Zimbabwean nationals in permit ruling

They must be aware of the dynamic nature of South Africa’s relations with Africa. They must stand ready to explore opportunities for the continent’s development and address issues that undermine its interests and harm its people.

Part of this commitment is ensuring that Africa’s institutions of governance work better. These are

3. Promote the interests of the global south

In 2010 South Africa joined the Brazil, Russia and India (Bric) alliance. In 2023 it hosted a successful Brics summit at which membership enlargement was agreed.

This emerging Brics+ configuration has the potential to shape the future of the institutions of global governance. This is necessary to limit the often harmful influence of several western-led centres of power: the so-called P3 UN Security Council (United States, United Kingdom and France), the Group of Seven, the Group of 20, the international financial institutions and the World Economic Forum.

The unity government must use robust diplomacy to advance South Africa, Africa and the global south’s prospects. Instead of aligning with either west or east, it must foster a deeper understanding of the Brics+ alliance, and define South Africa’s place in it.

4. Recovery of the institutions of global governance

The United Nations system has increasingly been unable to carry out its mandate. This might be due to internal inefficiencies but also superpower rivalry – the bitter contest for global dominance between the US-led west and an increasingly confident Chinese-led group of nations. Or a return of “cold war” dynamics.

South Africa, the continent and the global south depend on the efficient and effective execution of the UN’s mandate. The country’s diplomats must make efforts to protect and enhance the UN’s role, and not obsess over the need to reform the Security Council.

Read more: Investors cautiously optimistic SA’s new GNU can deliver growth-friendly reforms

5. Reform of the international financial architecture

Global south countries broadly agree on the need for reform of the international financial architecture, anchored by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Historical and recent financial shocks have revealed vulnerabilities in the system. This validates the call for a system that is more responsive to change, and which provides greater equity in process and outcome. South African diplomats must be skilled or upskilled to participate in these reform processes.

6. Professionalise the foreign ministry

In 2019, a ministerial task team made recommendations to improve training and education. Many of them remain untouched.

Given the challenges and potential opportunities facing the country, the report’s recommendations must be carried out. Foreign policy decision-makers must use the wealth of expertise in academia, NGOs, think-tanks and the private sector in undertaking this task.

The foreign policy research community must work with the unity government to build a cohort of professional, patriotic diplomats, including trade and defence attachĂ©s. They must engage South Africa’s traditional and new partners without forgetting their African identity and the obligations it brings as the country seeks to realise the vision of the African Union: an integrated continent, prosperous and peaceful, and a meaningful actor on the international stage.

Need for pragmatism

Overall, one hopes that the parties forming the unity government will be pragmatic rather than stick to their ideological preferences. By drawing on the best talents the nation has to offer, a unity government will be able to restore political credibility at home, and carry out a transformative agenda with poverty alleviation at the centre.

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*Anthoni van Nieuwkerk is a Professor of International and Diplomacy Studies, Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs, University of South Africa

This article was originally published by The Conversation and has been republished with permission.