Fixing our foreign policy - Mmusi Maimane

DA MP says under President Zuma we have lost the respect of the international community

Foreign Policy under a DA government: A return to human rights and the building of a brand to attract business

24 August 2015

Note to Editors: The following speech was delivered by the DA Leader, at an event hosted by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) in Cape Town.

Good afternoon, distinguished guests.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share with you my thoughts on South Africa’s place in the world, and what a DA government’s approach to foreign policy would be.

Considering whom I’m speaking to, I don’t need to spell it out that our foreign policy has become, to put it mildly, vague and ineffective under Jacob Zuma’s administration. Built on the “quiet diplomacy” of the Mbeki era, our foreign policy now finds itself drifting in a moral vacuum.

But if anyone still had doubts about our position, then the events that took place during the AU Summit in June certainly cleared that up.

When our government let the Sudanese president, international fugitive and alleged war criminal, Omar al-Bashir, slip out of the country on the morning of Monday 15 June – with the help of, amongst others, the VIP Protection Unit and Waterkloof Airforce Base – many people were left shocked and dismayed.

Both here and abroad, the overwhelming response was: How could it be so hard for South Africa to do the right thing? And how could we have departed so much from a foreign policy premised on human rights?

In assisting al-Bashir, our government managed to not only violate our own Constitution by disregarding a warrant of the International Criminal Court (to which we have been a signatory since 2002), but also to stand in contempt of our own judiciary, which had issued first an order to delay his departure and then a warrant for his arrest.

At the time, our government believed that the most expedient route would be to flout international and domestic law and undermine our Constitution, rather than risk upsetting the old boys’ club of African leaders by arresting a wanted war criminal.

Our government was prepared to ignore charges of genocide, the killing of 300 000 people, the use of mass rape as a weapon and the displacement of over 2.5 million fellow Africans in order not to upset a handful of African leaders.

And afterwards, our government thought it equally expedient to join the chorus of condemnation for the ICC, labeling it Western, Colonial and anti-African. But this kind of post-rationalisation does little to mask the fact that we are finding it increasingly difficult to nail our colours to the right mast.

In letting al-Bashir go, we gave up the opportunity to make a statement with our foreign policy. The African Union does not have the capacity to investigate its own crimes, and we had a chance to set this straight. We deliberately chose not to.

In terms of South Africa’s global standing, the al-Bashir saga was a new low for us, and the reputational damage caused by that one incident will take years to fix.

So why do we find ourselves in this position? How did we get to a point where we appear to have lost our moral compass and are no longer regarded as an esteemed and respected global citizen?

If I were standing here before you 21 years ago, speaking about South Africa’s foreign policy, you can bet my talk would have been very different. And this is not so much because the world around us has changed, but because our place and standing in the world has changed.

In 1994, we didn’t find it hard to do the right thing. Or perhaps I should rather say, the lesser of two evils, because international diplomacy is incredibly nuanced and there is seldom a simple choice between right or wrong.

Just about every decision in international relations sits somewhere on sliding scale between the simplified binary choices of right and wrong.

It is where you peg your choices between idealism and realism, between short term expediency and long term benefit, between self interest and global interest, between human rights and commercial objectives, that determines your world standing and your foreign policy.

Back at the start of our democracy, world politics offered us similar tough decisions and moral conundrums, and yet we still managed, for the most part, to be bold and principled in our choices.

And the reason for this is that we had the moral standing to do so. Our country’s new leadership was regarded as principled and fair. We had Nelson Mandela as our president, we had just ended decades of Apartheid rule without a civil war and we would shortly adopt the most progressive constitution in the world.

We stood for something and we were respected. We were allowed a degree of pragmatism in our choices, and we didn’t destroy our reputation or our relationships in the process. We could, for instance, recognise China without breaking our relationship with Taiwan.

When you have enough moral currency in your account, you can afford to be bold. You can afford to risk upsetting one party if the decision is ultimately for the greater good.

But when you have no moral currency left, then it becomes much harder to assert yourself through your decisions. And the man who currently heads up our executive, President Jacob Zuma, has drained all our moral currency.

During his recent visit to parliament, President Zuma was asked two questions that related to foreign policy. One was about the escape of al-Bashir, and the other was about Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s successful court bid to allow him a third term of office.

Much has been written on President Zuma’s inaction on al-Bashir, but his comments on Nkurunziza haven’t received the same scrutiny. Asked about South Africa’s efforts to discourage the Burundian President from seeking a third term, president Zuma’s response amounted to: “If he got a favourable court decision, and if that’s what the people want, who am I to question this?”

In a world where presidents appoint judges, we cannot ask those same judges to rule on constitutional issues such as a third term of office. Given our own president’s history of beneficial appointments, it’s not surprising that this point was lost on him.

It is an indictment of our toothless foreign policy that the American president had to travel to Africa and point out the dangers of bending the rules to allow for a third term of office. We, as fellow Africans, should have said this. Our foreign policy is meant to be built on a respect for constitutional democracy.

Under president Zuma, we have lost the respect of the international community, and so we have lost the leeway to make bold decisions.

Our current administration’s response to our dwindling international standing has been to simply puff up our international presence wherever possible. Quantity over quality.

This has left us with the second-highest number of diplomatic missions in the world, behind only the USA – something president Zuma is clearly proud of and which he is fond of mentioning.

We now also enjoy membership of just about every single multilateral body, and our mere participation in these forums often seems to be the end-goal. Instead of making a meaningful contribution in any of them, we are simply bolstering our CV with numbers.

But in reality, this just adds to our foreign policy paralysis as our decisions end up being governed by the lowest common denominator of these often-contradictory bodies.

In fact, our participation in a forum like BRICS, along with our new-found geo-political friendships with Russia and China, are now posing unique threats to our economy.

China’s currency woes are already crippling our own currency, and a potential trillion Rand nuclear deal with Russia will not only sink our economy, but it will also bind our children’s children to this dubious geo-political ally for the next century.

We must not lose sight of the fact the purpose of our foreign policy is to serve and promote our own national interest. And as things stand, Europe is still our biggest trading partner. It is simply not in our national interest to turn our back on the West, as we seem intent on doing.

So what should our global presence and our foreign policy look like? What would it look like under a DA government?

Recently I have been speaking a lot about what we call Vision 2029. This describes South Africa after ten years of a DA-led government. I have mostly focused on our path to economic recovery and job creation to in order to beat poverty, inequality and unemployment.

But this Vision 2029 also sees South Africa as a global and an African citizen, and it sees us reclaim our place as a beacon of hope in the region and in the world. It sees us at the forefront when it comes to championing issues of global significance.

We realise that we are increasingly part of a global planet. We face greater shared challenges than ever before. Issues such as global warming, migration, human trafficking, nuclear proliferation and the depletion of fish stocks tie the fates of nations together like no other time in history.

Under a DA government, South Africa will rise to meet these challenges with a foreign policy that places us on the front line of these battles.

To start with, we will go back to first principles. We will return to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Oxford Manifesto, and give expression to these documents in our foreign policy.

in 1993, Nelson Mandela wrote that ‘”Human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs”. Two decades later, we have all but abandoned this commitment. A DA government will bring us back on this path.

To avoid the current foreign policy paralysis brought about by our involvement in every conceivable multilateral forum, we will prioritise quality over quantity. We will place the focus back on excercising influence within these forums, rather than mere participation.

Our commitment to a human rights based forein policy does not mean that we will sacrifice our own national interests for global issues. And the best way to ensure that we serve our national interest is by vigorously pursuing economic diplomacy for the benefit of our people.

This will entail both a tightening of the belt in terms of our massive diplomatic footprint, and then making these missions work harder at building our brand and bringing in business.

The 126 foreign missions that we currently run simply do not offer value for money. The Department of International Relations and Cooperation owns 133 properties and rents another 800 worldwide. This costs us over half a billion Rand a year.

A DA government will prioritise and we will streamline. We will start measuring the success of our bilateral relations not by the number of visits undertaken, but by the amount of trade and business generated.

On this point, we will do everything we can to ensure South Africa’s continued participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which allows us duty-free exports to the lucrative US market. Our government’s moves to exit AGOA will be disastrous for our farming sector and our exports.

And, importantly, we will do away with the absurd notion that embassies are the dumping ground for failed cadres. We will see the return of the career ambassador and the end of the political appointee.

Under the DA, our foreign policy will cement our place in Africa as a driver of regional growth and job creation.

We will prioritise SADC integration – with a particular focus on developing regional infrastructure to unlock the region’s trade potential – and we will establish a Free Trade Area.

We will strengthen Nepad and African peer review mechanisms to assist the AU in ensuring development, democracy, human rights and good governance on the African continent. We will also re-establish the SADC Tribunal to ensure justice in the region.

Finally, a DA government will also see to it that a South African Council of International Relations is established, so that non-state actors such as civil society, academia and business can participate in our foreign policy making.

South Africa’s foreign policy, under the DA, will be bold, principled and value-driven. It will place human rights at the front and centre, but it will also allow us to vigorously pursue our domestic imperatives.

Our diplomatic corps will be lean and capable – a professional outfit with one goal: building South Africa’s brand to attract business.

Our foreign policy will form an integral part of the DA’s plan to turn our economy around, create millions of jobs and make it possible for every South African to build a better future based on Freedom, Fairness and Opportunity.

Thank you.

Issued by the DA, August 24 2015