South Africa’s foreign policy: a new document sets the scene, but…

(MENAFN – The Conversation)

South Africa’s Department of International Relations released a document on Aug. 1 outlining the country’s new foreign policy. The Outline of South Africa’s National Interests is an important document that defines the country’s relationship with the rest of the world for some time to come.

The title of the document is: Framework on South Africa’s National Interest and its Advancement in a Global Environment.

Governments are often cautious, for various reasons, about communicating their national interests. This is a first effort by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation to contextualize South Africa’s national interests.

But the document is insufficient on essential points.

The first flaw is its title. He speaks of national “interest” rather than interests (in the plural) – but in international relations there is not just one.

Nor is it clear what practical purpose its writers intended to serve, or what its target audience is. It is unclear whether this is to guide government policy, direct South African investment or inform the country’s allies and friends.

This does not mean that the document has no value. It will be used extensively in future debates and analyzes of South African foreign policy. And this can be a guideline for policy.


Three general remarks should be made.

First, the document lacks a geographical outline of South Africa’s interests. The corporate sector will research the importance of specific geographic regions.

Reading between the lines, Africa seems to be a region of crucial importance to South Africa. But the country has traditionally had significant export interests in Europe. It is the EU’s largest trading partner in Africa. The EU, excluding the UK, accounts for 22% of South African trade. Trade with the rest of Africa constitutes 16%.

More recently, the BRICS bloc – Brazil, Russia, India and China – has become important to South Africa’s national interests. Trade with the BRICS constitutes 59% of the country’s imports and 41% of its exports; 94% of these exchanges are with China and India and only 2% with Russia.

The war in Ukraine highlighted the importance of a clear articulation of South African national interests in geographical terms. Much has been said recently about Pretoria’s diplomatic support for Russia; and the dichotomy between South African support for Palestinians as victims, but not for Ukraine. This raises a question as to the guiding principles of human rights in South African foreign policy.

Further, how does South Africa’s position on Israel and Russia align with its larger material interests in the Middle East, Asia and Europe; specifically in terms of trade?

Secondly, the outline of South Africa’s national interests document indicates the obvious. The different interests concern the general welfare of society, nothing else. Constitutional order, social security, economic prosperity, a better world are not national interests. These are the general responsibilities of government.

In short, the outline of interests is superficial and insignificant. It is unclear how these interests should define and guide South Africa’s foreign policy.

The focus seems to be on national interests – public interests. A better Africa and a better world is the only interest defined within the framework of foreign policy.

What are the things that South Africa would be prepared to deploy its army to protect and defend if threatened? Is Lesotho’s water flow of vital interest to South Africa; and to the extent that it will use military force to protect access? When does illegal immigration threaten vital interests, how will citizens know and who will decide? These questions are left unanswered.

Third, the outline of the national interest, without the “s”, raises questions as to why the government seems reluctant to be explicit. This, at a time when it is urgent to orient an increasingly complex international order.

National and historical realities – the eradication of the legacy of apartheid and the resolution of the triple challenge of inequality, unemployment and poverty – seem to be the main driving forces, rather than the

The document seems to express the ideological orientation of the ruling elite, more than the material interests that should lead to good governance. It is more of a political document than a guideline for the practice of diplomacy, military art and commerce.

The purpose of the document seems to be to describe how to think about South African national interests, rather than specifying what those interests are.

The objectives set out in the document are as follows:

  • propose a definition of the national interest of South Africa and its elements
  • propose the means to pursue the national interest of South Africa
  • provide guidelines for the practical application of national interests in an international environment
  • reflect on the current and potential future global environment
  • ensure predictability in South Africa’s international relations.

The discussion of who is responsible for implementing the country’s foreign policy is limited to generic realities. It emphasizes the responsibility of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation.

It is unclear what role South African diplomats, military and business community can play in pursuing its national interests.

The army, for example, is often the main instrument of foreign policy in Africa, particularly in the conduct of peacekeeping missions. The business community is also at the forefront of South Africa’s foreign policy interests. What practical realities should the business world bear in mind when doing business in Europe, China or South America?

These questions are unanswered.


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