MISSION IMPOSSIBLE?: President Cyril Ramaphosa faces many-layered challenges in terms of BRICS, changing international trade relations, an economic slowdown and poor democratic governance practices along with politicking within his own party. Picture: Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

There is something unsettling about the unfolding shift in the world’s economic and political order.
As relations between the US and its traditional allies hit troubled waters, the flaring contagion seems set to rattle South Africa’s evolving foreign policy agenda. Equally unsettling is conduct by political parties, which validates depravity in our society.

Let me explain. In an abstract sense, prevailing geopolitical tensions seem too convoluted and distant to be of much concern to us. Except, of course, that these tensions, especially in the context of our constantly evolving foreign policy dictates, do affect South Africa’s national security and grand strategy. US President Donald Trump’s “America First” economic policy, that aims to change US trade and military relations with the rest of the world which he deems “unfair and costing American jobs”, has seen the US increasingly turn inward.

Since Trump assumed office, the world’s remaining superpower and largest economy has withdrawn from the UN-backed Paris Accord on climate change; nixed the Iran nuclear agreement; abandoned and threatened key global trade agreements; and resigned its membership of the UN Human Rights Council.

Trump’s isolationist policy is essentially, and increasingly, causing the US to be side-lined from multilateral negotiations processes. The US has triggered fears of global trade wars, as Trump’s administration institutes sweeping tariffs on imported steel and aluminium, and threatens to do more against its trading partners. Opponents of Trump’s action see new, unprovoked US tariffs as undermining the rules-based global trading system, and using national security disguised as protectionism. This has already precipitated other countries to retaliate against the US as they seek to protect their domestic markets.

There is speculation that the US could also be retaliating against countries that repeatedly vote against it in the UN General Assembly, including South Africa, and sulking after the rest of the world demurred over, and subsequently ignored, Trump’s impulses over the Iran nuclear disarmament agreement.

Trump’s unorthodox, impulsive and confrontationist foreign policy doctrine seems to view the global rules-based trading system as moribund, and his idea of diplomacy is that the US must do all the winning while the rest of the world concedes.

While Brexit seems to push the UK away from the rest of its EU partners, there is a growing realisation that Europe would benefit from increased collaboration among EU members, as they seek to counter the effects of Trumpism. Trump baulks at the US’s “disproportionately high” financial contributions to Nato. He apparently insists that Nato allies step up their financial contributions and this is creating disharmony within the organisation. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin is forging ahead with his ambitious efforts to restore Russia’s military to its former Soviet Union glory days, and likely beyond. A fragmented Europe and weakened Nato only strengthens Russia’s hand.

Putin wasted no time in wooing uneasy Nato members and Baltic States who rely on Nato and the US to counter Russian military aggression. Trump’s ambitions in the Korean peninsula, driven by his eagerness and desperation for a deal with North Korea, may lead the US to a bad deal, if any. Should Trump’s current efforts at disarming North Korea fail, a more perilous Korean peninsula, and world, could ensue.

A rising China, using soft economic power, is poised to take advantage of the US’s tacit abandonment of its leadership role in global diplomacy. A belligerent US administration, evolving global economic and power balances, and political instability in the African Great Lakes region add to foreign policy challenges facing South Africa.

At a time when multilateral bodies seek to ensure successful elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe, it is crucial that South Africa plays an active role in supporting these and other unfolding democratic processes across the continent.

However, threats to the long-term national security interests of South Africa do not emanate from abroad, but from within its borders. South Africa’s national security depends more on, inter alia, tackling the burgeoning trade deficit and debt; salvaging the troubled economy; reducing high unemployment; overhauling the crumbling public infrastructure; fighting corruption; revitalising an ineffectual national intelligence apparatchik; and modernising an outdated immigration system.

The government has failed to convey the economic benefits of migration, or to assure the public that it is fully in control of the borders.

The result is pervasive mistrust and restlessness, especially in the wake of overburdened and collapsing public systems - most notably health and criminal justice. On the other hand, consistent, honest and clear public messaging is crucial to establishing and maintaining the integrity of democratic processes and governance. Absent this, and the government loses credibility.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, a few weeks ago President Cyril Ramaphosa led ANC heavyweights in doling out “free” property title deeds to Ekurhuleni residents during his party’s electioneering blitz. It would strain credulity to suggest that this practice was undertaken without Ramaphosa’s prior knowledge and approval, considering his subsequent announcement that he intends doing so countrywide.

This flaring ANC contagion has seemingly infected its ranking nemesis, the DA. DA leader Mmusi Maimane incredulously embarked on a similar electioneering blitz in Johannesburg, a metro the DA annexed from the ANC in 2016. Despite Ramaphosa’s much-vaunted promise of a “new dawn”, the ANC continues to blur the lines between party and state.

Lest we forget, the ANC set a bad precedent in 2016 when then secretary-general Gwede Mantashe unjustifiably accused Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) deputy chairperson Terry Tselane of “colluding with opposition parties against the ANC”, at the IEC national results centre.

The ANC is yet to publicly apologise to Tselane for conduct unbecoming of a supposed leader of society. The ANC’s litany of contagions diminishes South Africa’s standing in the world. These and other critical shortcomings directly threaten our ability to compete in the global marketplace, generate the resources needed to promote the full range of our national interests, and recover our lost pre-eminence as a moral lodestar.

Our trade balance with our biggest trade partner China is worsening, while our trade balances with the US and EU have ironically improved over the past decade. Asymmetric treatment of South Africa on trade by our BRICS allies, particularly, predatory practices by Russia and China, are a national security threat which also manifested in state capture.

The pinnacle of political influence and strategic respite that South Africans once took for granted was turned into a wellspring of national dissonance as an inept Zuma squandered the massive foreign policy dividend that he inherited.

Ahead of South Africa assuming the BRICS chair next month, it is incumbent on Ramaphosa that he invests considerable effort towards fixing his own backyard. While it makes sense to advance the BRICS and African agenda, it must be realised that South Africa’s foreign policy begins at home.

Quo vadis, South Africa?

* Khaas is chairperson of Corporate SA, a strategic advisory and consultancy firm.

Follow him via Twitter @tebogokhaas

The Sunday Independent