The GNU should not dilute SA’s pan-African solidarity

Published Jul 7, 2024


By Sizo Nkala

South Africa’s Government of National Unity (GNU) took shape on June 30 when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced his eagerly anticipated Cabinet, which comprises 32 ministers assisted by 43 deputy ministers.

There has been much debate on how the new government will set its policies with nine ideologically diverse parties represented at the Cabinet and deputy ministerial levels.

Many have been worried that the government will be hamstrung by policy incoherence as the parties making up the GNU seek to fulfil the promises they made to their vastly diverse constituencies during the election campaign.

One of the areas to watch will be South Africa’s foreign policy under the new government. Foreign policy, which is an expression of national identity and values, is one of the most contested policy domains in South African politics.

This contestation will now be taken to the new multiparty Cabinet and the Parliament’s portfolio committee on international relations and co-operation, which is no longer controlled by a single party with an absolute majority.

The Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco), which is tasked with implementing the country’s foreign policy, will still be controlled by the ANC following the appointment of the party’s Ronald Lamola, who will be assisted by two deputies also drawn from the party.

These appointments signal Ramaphosa’s desire for continuity in the foreign policy domain, which has been under the control of the ANC for the past 30 years.

The South African government has played an active role in trying to resolve conflicts in countries like Zimbabwe, Sudan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Ethiopia, to mention a few.

While having an ANC minister overseeing Dirco will indeed ensure a degree of continuity, the minister will now have to run his decisions through the multiparty Cabinet and also be accountable to a hung parliamentary portfolio committee.

As such, the ANC losing a monopoly over both the legislative and executive levers means that other political players holding an ideology different from its own will have real influence over the country’s foreign policy for the first time since the end of apartheid.

That said, one of the most interesting areas to watch will be South Africa’s approach to Africa in its foreign policy. For the past 30 years, the ANC has defined its foreign policy as Afro-centric and pan-African in outlook, pledging to advance the interests of the Continent on international platforms where it has a presence.

The South African government has played an active role in trying to resolve conflicts in countries like Zimbabwe, Sudan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Ethiopia, to mention a few.

Led by the ANC, the South African government has also played an important role in fostering regional integration through the creation of such structures as the AU, the Pan-African Parliament and the African Continental Free Trade Area, among others.

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki, together with other leaders from Nigeria and Senegal, led the adoption of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), which has become the AU’s flagship continental economic development programme for the past two decades.

This reflected the ANC government’s appreciation of the importance of regional integration in boosting trade and economic development, not only in South Africa but on the Continent as a whole.

Moreover, although South Africa enjoys significant influence on the Continent because of its history and its economic power, it has refrained from publicly criticising human rights abuses in countries such as neighbouring Zimbabwe and eSwatini, perhaps to avoid being seen as harbouring hegemonic ambitions.

However, the second largest party in the GNU, the DA, has in the past not shied away from criticising human rights abuses by the governments of Zimbabwe and eSwatini.

The DA also criticised the South African government heavily when it failed to arrest then-Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir on his visit to South Africa in 2015 despite having been issued with an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which enjoined ICC members to arrest him.

The ANC government may have deliberately let al-Bashir escape to protect its reputation in Africa and avoid the opprobrium of arresting an African head of state on behalf of an institution which is widely viewed as an instrument of imperialism.

Moreover, the DA has also castigated the ANC government’s willingness to send SANDF troops to restore peace in countries like Mozambique and the DRC. One wonders what the impact of the DA’s presence in the GNU would be on South Africa’s approach to its relations with African countries.

However, I don’t think there will be any radical changes in South Africa’s posture towards Africa in the new dispensation. The behaviour of political parties tends to change once they are in the corridors of power. There is more latitude to speak one’s mind on international affairs from the opposition benches than when one wields actual power.

The DA and other parties will come to appreciate and understand the pragmatic considerations that inform the approaches and positions of the previous ANC governments towards Africa.

* Dr Sizo Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies

** The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL