Economic diplomacy rules

ANTHONY BUTLER: Ramaphosa brings international relations to a new level

Foreign policy is harnessed for the first time in decades to build trust and secure SA’s economic interests

First published in Business Day

26 November 2021

Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta concluded his visit to SA this week without any fanfare. He and President Cyril Ramaphosa reportedly reached tentative agreements about modest infrastructure and trade partnerships, and how to patch up this country’s dysfunctional visa regime.

Should we yearn for the supposed “glory days” of SA foreign policy, when Nelson Mandela was a global icon, Thabo Mbeki created new institutions to bring about a united Africa, and Jacob Zuma launched us into the dizzying firmament of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA (Brics) grouping?

In retrospect, these leaders’ grandiose initiatives were almost all counterproductive. What we need today is a prudent foreign policy president who places economic diplomacy at the forefront of all of his international interventions. Mandela tried to place human rights at the centre of foreign policy, but he alienated potential allies across the continent and created an albatross of unrealisable expectations among do-gooders in the West.

Mbeki championed conflict resolution and institution-building across Africa, but the resources needed for SA’s anticipated role were never available. His pet project, the African Peer Review Mechanism, became a tick-box exercise. The only country now fearful of its judgments is SA itself.

Mbeki must be credited for helping to create an India, Brazil, SA Dialogue Forum (Ibsa), which brought together middle-income democratic states. But he also made possible SA’s Zuma-era participation in Brics. 

What did Brics add to Ibsa? Two authoritarian partners who are the world’s most aggressive salesmen for nuclear generators. Nuclear power procurement is a magnet for corruption, taking place behind a smoke screen of vendor financing and under a national security secrecy blanket.

This was not the worst of Zuma. The SA government battled to secure the position of chair of the AU Commission in July 2012 for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a role from which large countries have been excluded by convention. Disgracefully, all this was simply to build Dlamini-Zuma’s political “seniority”, so that she could run for the ANC’s presidency in 2017. Little wonder the country is viewed with distrust.

Ramaphosa is well-equipped to be a foreign policy president with his history as a trade unionist, co-chair of the Commonwealth Business Corporation, a mediator in peace processes and a former director of SA’s most international bank, Standard Bank.

In the past he enjoyed rubbing shoulders with the global great and good as much as any politician. Today, however, SA foreign policy is harnessed for the first time in decades for building trust and securing the country’s fundamental economic interests.

Ramaphosa has appointed a serious and independent-minded foreign minister in Naledi Pandor. As AU chair last year he focused efforts on the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement.

He remains alert to the importance of SA’s second-biggest trading partner, China, and continues to promote a role for SA banks facilitating trade between Asia and Africa and providing financial services to Chinese companies operating on the continent.

At the same time, he is aware that duty-free access to the US provided by the African Growth and Opportunity Act is due to expire in 2025, and that this programme has contributed significantly to export-led job creation in agriculture and vehicle manufacture.

SA’s complex climate diplomacy recently achieved some provisional successes in Glasgow. Similar complexity — and now also urgency — surround a fast-approaching global shift towards electric vehicle manufacture.

Finding ways to move forward in these sectors seems for the first time to be occupying centre stage in SA foreign policy. Ramaphosa’s government has remained pragmatic with regard to its potential international partners. Moralising, posturing and grandiose national exceptionalism are nowhere to be seen.

When it comes to foreign policy we should all hope that Ramaphosa has an equally focused — and unexciting — second term as SA president.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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