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Parliamentary Roundtable Panel Discussion on SA’s White Paper on Foreign Policy


Parliamentary Roundtable Panel Discussion on SA’s White Paper on Foreign Policy

Parliamentary Roundtable Panel Discussion on SA’s White Paper on Foreign Policy
The launch of Ubuntu Radio, South Africa's first government-run, 24-hour, online radio station. Photo credit: DIRCO

The roundtable was aimed at assisting the committee members in unpacking and understanding South Africa’s strategic foreign policy orientations from a regional, continental and global perspective – South Africa’s White Paper on Foreign Policy entitled: ‘The Diplomacy of Ubuntu’

On 5 November 2014, the Portfolio Committee on International Relations and Cooperation in the National Assembly of the South African Parliament hosted in partnership with the Institute of Global Dialogue (IGD) based at UNISA in Pretoria a roundtable panel discussion on South Africa’s White Paper on Foreign Policy entitled: ‘The Diplomacy of Ubuntu’. The roundtable was aimed at assisting the committee members in unpacking and understanding South Africa’s strategic foreign policy orientations from a regional, continental and global perspective. In evaluating whether the White Paper succinctly captures South Africa’s foreign policy identity, the discussion included questions of what are the strategic imperatives that inform South Africa’s role and behaviour in Africa; to what extent does the White Paper articulate a coherent understanding of what is meant by “the Diplomacy of Ubuntu’; and, how does one conceptualise South Africa’s national interests from regime interests. The panel consisted of Dr. Sphamandla Zondi (Director of IGD); Prof. Chris Landsberg (SARCHI Chair on African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, University of Johannesburg); Ms Sanusha Naidu (Senior Research Fellow at IGD, and Project Manager of the Emerging Powers project at Fahamu) and Ms Michelle Pressend (independent analyst based in Cape Town).

Below is the presentation from the panelists.

Dr. Zondi (IGDi): Matters of paradigm, orientation and Africa

Dr Siphamandla Zondi, Director; Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD), said that South Africa had formerly had a Green Paper on foreign policy, but that had been abandoned because it confined South Africa to a concise paradigm. Countries that had ascribed their foreign policy to human rights based foreign policy had withdrawn their statements because it was impossible to hold that line. A conscious decision was made by the Late Head of State and former President of South Africa, Mr Nelson Mandela, that South Africa should allow some space in its foreign policy. The process of discussion on the Green Paper was too long, and it was felt that if it was pushed too far could cause difficulties among the constituencies. If the Green Paper was abandoned by the first South African democratic government, then he questioned what were the reasons for having the White Paper now. The ANC conference of 2007 had taken a decision on that point. However, whether the conditions that had led to the abandoning of the Green Paper had changed was another question, and other topics that needed to be discussed were whether South Africa had the capacity to choose a specific foreign policy framework, in a fluid environment.

The question of “What is South Africa’s outlook on world affairs” was not a static point, given that a foreign policy must be based on the world today, South Africa’s aspirations and the diplomatic efforts it was making.

Two positions were held in South Africa’s outlook on Africa. One asserted that the possible problem was that Africa suffered from lack of democracy and hence solutions must be internal. The second asserted that Africa’s problems were both internal and external, and the solution here would be to fix the problems internally and externally. However it seemed that South Africa has abandoned the African Renaissance.

South Africa carried some baggage from its apartheid past and had, at different points, led from the front, like France, and like Germany, from the back, due to that country’s historic position as well.

The paradigm behind the White Paper was the diplomatic ideal inherent in Ubuntu. However, the question was whether this amounted to abandonment of the African Renaissance. The presenter also suggested that it was necessary to decide what “ubuntu” meant, and whether that idea - in terms or otherwise – was expressed in the report. Although it was generally accepted that ubuntu, means kindness, humanness and cooperation, Ubuntu could also mean destruction and confrontation for anything that was not compliant with the ubuntu ideals.

The statement was made: “The tiger does not announce its tigritude, but it pounces”. The presenter said that a consideration here was whether South Africa should be announcing the diplomacy of ubuntu, or should it express ubuntu. by actions.
The White Paper said that Foreign Policy has to support institutions, and promote an African common position on structural changes in the Continent but did not explain what that meant. South Africa now had to consider whether, given the fact that there might not be consensus on the national question, South Africa would get to the point of approaching the real issue.

Ms Sanusha Naidu (IGD/Fahamu): South relations and Global Governance

She noted that the White Paper essentially had two main tenets: South-South Solidarity and Pan Africanism. South-South solidarity had been dominant since 2005, with South Africa recognising that the global South had a homogeneous group of actors, although some actors were more powerful than others. The question was where the South African identity lay in this. The White Paper stipulated the need to reform the architecture of the global system, because it was outdated, and it excluded the voice of Africa. South Africa wanted to champion the concerns of the South, but wanted to reassure others that the South would not become a block too powerful in itself. It was necessary to recognise the new ideas from the global South, in relation to terrorism and environmental management. The intentions of South African foreign policy did not come out clearly, in the White Paper, in relation to championing the realisation of the South agenda, or to say whether it was to give room to a more inclusive legislative based system where countries in the periphery had a say in global issues.

She asked the question how the White Paper and its concerns related to the ever changing global environment. It seemed that South Africa had shifted towards “the global South Africa”, as evident from the discussion on the role that BRICS could play.

Actors in the global South had vested interests, and South Africa’s interests were not clear. The question was where the policy of ubuntu fitted in all of this, and where did South Africa’s own paradigm fit, in the context of the global South. The definition of economic diplomacy was not only about access to markets, but was a process where the regime of global trade was defined. However, the White Paper fell short of mentioning the difference in its aims and narrative.

Professor Chris Landsberg (SARCHI Chair, University of Johannesburg): Matters Relating to the North and decision making 

Professor Chris Landsberg, noted that South Africa was a member of BRICS and spent approximately the same amount of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as its counterparts, per capita, on Research and Development (R&D), yet the statistics showed that one university produced 5 000 students in India, while the whole of South Africa produced 2 000. The question was whether South Africa could sustain a highly incoherent foreign policy that sought to please everyone.

He discussed the initial triggers for ubuntu, and pointed out that the new administration, post-democracy, felt the desperate need to prove that the new South Africa was radically different from the former attitudes. Although consultation done in 2011 had cautioned against the idea of having foreign policy documented, those recommendations were not considered. The White Paper was a reflection of world politics when it was written, which raised the question of how relevant it would be in the coming years. He noted that new alliances were rising: MIKTA (Mexico Indonesia Korea Turkey Australia) and MINT (Mexico Indonesia Nigeria Turkey) which were competing with BRICS. The question was being asked whether South Africa should be the only country in the G20, and in BRICS.

He submitted that at this juncture, it was dangerous to include foreign policy in a White Paper. If anything was stated along those lines, it should only pertain to non-negotiable constitutional elements and values that everyone in South Africa agreed to.

There was a serious mis-characterisation of foreign policy during the Mandela era, from 1993 and when he assumed the office of President. The foreign policy was seen as pursuing human rights on the global platform. The policy emphasised regional integration in Africa. 20 years later, the question must be asked whether South Africa was committed to driving the African agenda and whether there was a fundamental commitment to the rule of law. The “DNA” of South Africa’s politics was negotiative politics, and that was South Africa’s identity that set South Africa apart from many other countries. The question was also whether South Africa made enough capital to invest in this identity.

Another point that must be discussed was whether South Africa confused positional leadership with strategic leadership, and whether it did indeed have the latter. On paper, there was continuity, with the late South African President Mr Nelson Mandela, former President Mr Thabo Mbeki and the current President Mr Jacob Zuma, insofar as foreign policy was concerned, but in reality there was a large gap.

It was recommended that the Portfolio Committee must play a part in the implementation of the foreign policy, utilitarian and economic development policy, but there might be a risk that emphasis on economic diplomacy could be seen as a regime agenda in foreign policy rather than national driven policy.

The document touched on the most fundamental weakness of the previous foreign policies, that there was fundamental gap between the domestic and foreign affairs. Ubuntu was poorly defined in the document, and there could have been more done. Ubuntu in this sense could suggest that South Africa did believe in confrontational, “big brother” ideals.

Ms Michelle Pressend (Independant Analyst: Cape Town): Discussant

Ms Michelle Pressend, Independent Analyst, said that the White Paper appeared to be “obsessed” with the idea of attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) with the hope of aiding economic growth and alleviating poverty and creating jobs. However, twenty years on from the time that this was adopted, there were still not enough jobs created. The White Paper was contradictory in that it emphasised the need to enhance its competitive advantage at the other end, emphasising cooperation, and hence it was trapped in neo-liberalism. South Africa seemed nervous to lead.

She added that in a recent vote, when South Africa voted for Ecuador, Ecuador lost three votes, and this highlighted how the rest of the world tended to view South Africa, as manipulative. Co-operation had become more powerful than many states on their own. Wal-Mart and the Royal Dutch Shell had bigger revenues than cooperation could seek to achieve. There was a need to re-align this imbalance. The White Paper also fell short in that it did not mention civil society engagement.

» White Paper on South Africa’s foreign policy: Departmental briefing


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