Realign and reconstitute our foreign policy to serve the people of South Africa

Published Jul 5, 2024


American diplomat and political scientist Henry Kissinger once said: “A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security.”

South Africa’s foreign policy has been marred by a lot of confusion and inconsistencies, especially under the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa. He has not effectively interpreted his understanding of the country’s foreign policy.

I am worried that our foreign policy is becoming too obsessed with Israel. The main purpose of our foreign policy is to satisfy domestic and developmental priorities. What we do outside our territorial borders should help eradicate poverty and end the marginalisation of the poor.

We can use our foreign policy to co-ordinate and consolidate economic and political partnerships across the world. The partnership foreign policy helps establish should be able to create employment and business opportunities for South Africans.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the goals of the country’s foreign policy were sacrificed on the altar of attacking Israel. The recent legal showdown between South Africa and Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has not and will not bring tangible, real changes in the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine. It is not pragmatic.

Having spent months in Israel, I have to concede that the Israel-Palestine impasse is the most complex conflict in modern history. It has political, religious, economic and military aspects. There is also a colonial legacy that continues to affect the situation as the conflict was worsened by a failure of the British Empire to address the land dispute between the Arabs and the Jews.

We are making another mistake in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by wasting our military infrastructure on a political problem that we will never be able to address through military intervention.

Like Israel-Palestine, there is a colonial legacy in the DRC where the so-called M23 rebels are fighting for inclusivity in the government. However, the DRC believes that the Banyarwanda, a major ethnic group in Rwanda, belongs to Kigali and not to them. It is a political problem that began with the partitioning of Africa by colonial powers in Berlin in 1884. Therefore, it requires a political, not military, solution.

Now is the time to focus on South Africa’s external relations and remind the new minister, Ronald Lamola, that we have been moving away from our reputable foreign policy that had been effective during the Thabo Mbeki years. Between 2001 and 2012, Mbeki’s administration was able to seriously align the UN Security Council to regional organisations such as the AU Peace and Security Council.

In addition to an African focus, the Mbeki diplomatic doctrine did make attempts to assert influence in the Middle East when in 2002, under Mbeki’s “Spier Initiative”, he was able to bring Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Fatah to together to negotiate in Stellenbosch, Cape Town. Although the negotiation was unsuccessful, it was a step in the right direction.

South Africa’s constitutional negotiator, Roelf Meyer, was also involved in Mbeki’s efforts. Meyer, the head of In Transformation Initiative, went further in 2015 and 2016 by attempting to unite Hamas and Fatah as the first step towards the realisation of peaceful negotiation between Israel and Palestine.

Both examples demonstrate cost-effective (certainly less taxpayer money than what was spent on the costly ICJ cases) diplomacy aimed at finding tangible solutions, rather than the grandstanding which is what we have recently witnessed.

While the political conundrum in the Middle East requires a political solution, South Africa is preoccupied with disheartening proportions of inequality, poverty and crime which are paralysing to our people, especially our black communities. We need to pursue a foreign policy that sets out a clearer national interest or self-interest. Foreign policy should pursue a transformative agenda in which domestic and developmental needs are realised.

Our foreign policy should seek to assert our influence in the South African Development Community, African and global affairs to promote the domestic and developmental priorities of the locals. Minister Lamola should help position South Africa as the friendliest investment destination on the international stage, as was the case under Mbeki. We should use our influence to grow and develop our economy and establish peace/reconciliation where it's needed and possible.

Minister Lamola, you have a clean slate and a golden opportunity to realign and reconstitute our foreign policy to serve the people of South Africa. We plead with you to keep the goals in mind and not waste this chance to use your position for the betterment of South Africans.

Mokgatlhe is an independent political analyst. He is based at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. He was among 200 Young South Africans Mail & Guardian winners for 2024.

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