SA’s foreign policy dilemmas

ANTHONY BUTLER: SA shows inability to deal with external challenges

Belated decision not to invite SA to G7 meeting should serve as a warning

First published in Business Day and BusinessLive

14 APRIL 2023

SA faces complex external challenges. It is an inescapable but sometimes unwelcome truth that the country still depends heavily on a resurgent and Western-dominated multinational governance system and on economic relationships with the global North. 

SA’s largest trading partner, by a considerable margin, is the eurozone, the EU’s single currency area. Japan, the US and the UK are also important actors. While the relationship with China deepened in recent years, SA exports resources primarily to that country and imports manufactured goods. 

In contrast, exports to the US and Europe include services, sophisticated goods such as vehicles, and the potentially enormous growth sector of tourism. Decisions by institutional and direct investors in London, Berlin and New York meanwhile continue to have far-reaching consequences for us. 

The SA government leans towards an ideological rather than pragmatic approach to international relations. Party-to-party relationships — for example between the ANC and governing parties in Russia and China —  are privileged over state-to-state relationships. 

China has become an object of special fascination as it offers a non-Western path to development, and membership of the China-dominated Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, SA) bloc is highly prized.  

It is certainly a real gain to enjoy a partly institutionalised relationship with the world’s two most populous countries and future economic giants of Asia and Latin America. The members of Brics also share with SA an impatience with the global multilateral order. 

The appeal of Brics is not limited to SA, a club of which it is now, in effect, a founder member. As present Brics chair, SA is responsible for drafting guidelines to be applied in admitting new members.

There are formal expressions of interest in Brics membership from 13 countries and — under heavy pressure from China — the grouping is now moving ahead with expansion.

In the near future we are likely to see the admission of two more states — I expect Indonesia and Saudi Arabia — as “special partners” with more limited rights than present members. 

Subordination to the West is deeply resented, and a shift in the global political and economic order has enormous appeal. However, there are hazards that come with deeper ties to authoritarian states such as China and Russia.

SA needs to secure practical economic and strategic objectives. This requires caution with respect to the disjuncture between SA’s real economic relationships and its political preferences. 

There are warning signals about SA’s inability to negotiate these complex challenges, such as the belated decision not to invite SA to the G7 meeting later this year in Japan. Maintaining a position of nonalignment throws up quandaries that also confront other middle-income countries in the global South, many of them also struggling to combine political democracy with economic prosperity in a less exclusionary multilateral governance system. 

Given the tendency of the SA elite to parochialism, it is a particularly propitious time for the arrival on the local scene of the New South Institute (NSI), a global think-tank headquartered in Johannesburg.  

As NSI director Ivor Chipkin observed at Thursday’s launch event in Sandton, SA needs to engage in dialogue, not only with the polarising giants of China and the US but also with countries that are like us in relevant ways: postcolonial and post-authoritarian states in the global South and post-Soviet Eastern Europe and Asia.

All this needs to be done on the basis of solution-focused research, evidence-based analysis, policy learning and pragmatism. 

• Butler is a professor of political studies at the University of Cape Town and a research fellow of the New South Institute.

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