Prsident Jacob Zuma delivers his State of the Nation Address in the joint sitting of the house in Parliament, Cape Town, 11/02/2016, Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

Zuma must be given credit for at least one thing in #SONA2016: consistency in his references to foreign policy, writes Peter Fabricius.

Embattled President Jacob Zuma must be given credit for at least one thing in his 2016 State of the Nation address (SONA): consistency in his references to foreign policy. And brevity.

Clearly the 2016 speechwriters had the 2015 speech in front of them and merely annotated it a little. Both asserted the centrality of Africa to South Africa’s foreign policy and how “South Africa continued to support peace and security and regional economic integration in the continent” - the identical phrase in both speeches.

Both speeches praised the role which the SANDF has played in peacekeeping missions in Africa. But you also have to spot the subtle differences.

The 2015 speech had said: “The African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC), of which South Africa is a contributing and founding member, has been operationalised.” There was no reference to ACIRC in the 2016 SONA, probably because this brainchild of Zuma - intended to intervene in continental crises, to avoid the embarrassment of relying on outsiders to do so - now seems likely to be dissolved without ever having been deployed, largely because of regional rivalries.

SONA 2015 noted that South Africa continued to support conflict resolution efforts in sister countries, mentioning Lesotho, South Sudan and Sri Lanka. The latter was dropped from SONA 2016, because Sri Lanka is no longer a problem country. South Africa had a significant influence on this positive outcome, analysts say. Zuma and his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, as Special Envoy, played their parts. But it was mainly the tireless efforts of the In Transformation Initiative, a peace-mediating NGO, which made the difference. Its directors - Roelf Meyer, the old National Party government’s chief negotiator; Ebrahim Ebrahim, former deputy foreign minister; Ivor Jenkins, former analyst of the African democracy think tank Idasa; and Mohammed Bhabha, former ANC MP - spent many days sharing the principles, practices and spirit of South Africa’s own negotiations, with the Sri Lankan politicians.

Both of the SONAs underscored the importance of South Africa’s relations with its fellow members of Brics - the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa bloc. Zuma added on Thursday that the Brics Bank was expected to approve its inaugural projects in April this year.

And he said that $10 billion (R159bn) of the total of $50bn in investment in Africa which China had announced at the Forum for China-Africa Co-operaton (Focac) in Joburg last year, would come to South Africa.

And in both SONAs, Zuma acknowledged the often-neglected importance of “north-south co-operation”, saying this year that the EU was South Africa’s largest trading partner and investor - with more than 2 000 EU companies operating in this country, creating more than 350 000 jobs.

In SONA 2015, Zuma had welcomed the US decision to extend the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) - which gives eligible African countries duty-free access to the lucrative US market - beyond its scheduled expiry in September last year. On Thursday, Zuma added that “all outstanding issues around Agoa are being attended to.”

That cryptic reference masked a long saga that has unfolded between SONAs, leading to South Africa’s provisional suspension from the agricultural benefits of Agoa because of its blockage of US meat imports. Pretoria has until March 15 to lift those health restrictions or face Agoa suspension.

In SONA 2016, Zuma, significantly, made no mention of the International Criminal Court (ICC), though South Africa’s deteriorating relationship with it was one of the major foreign policy developments of the past year.

At the AU summit last month, Zuma vowed to withdraw South Africa from the court, in the wake of last year’s drama when the High Court found the government had acted unconstitutionally and illegally by failing to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir when he visited South Africa for the previous AU summit.

Maybe Zuma was silent on the ICC because the next day the Constitutional Court was to decide if the government should be given leave to appeal the High Court judgment. Perhaps South Africa will only leave the ICC if the government loses this case.

Or perhaps Zuma judged, in a SONA speech intended primarily to reassure skittish investors, that walking out of a court would not be quite the gesture to underscore the country’s commitment to the rule of law.

Of course nowhere in the world are state of the nation or union addresses ever strong on foreign policy. You have to read a lot between the lines - and between the speeches - to get a clue about what’s been happening beyond the borders.

Sunday Independent