Time to reset our foreign policy

Douglas Gibson says old party friendships and loyalties are determining the ANC govt's actions

Do we really have to wait for 2019, with a new president and a new government before we change foreign policy course? 

We should already take a firm decision that what was, was. A generation ago when the ANC came to power, President Mandela stressed human rights aspects and wanted these to form the basis of our foreign policy.  That was long ago and we have strayed as a country ever-further from that course, no more so than during our embrace of President al-Bashir of Sudan when we broke our own law and international law in welcoming him to our country.

Many in government confuse the interests and romantic attachments of their political party, the ANC with the interests of South Africa.  Old friendships, old loyalties, old ties that mean little a quarter of a century later, are allowed to determine many of our actions.  Old suspicions, old resentments, even old hatreds colour our foreign policy attitude.  This is no longer appropriate.

What is South Africa’s most important priority?  Job creation. Economic growth enables the private sector to create jobs.  Our unemployment rate is among the highest in the world, with no signs of abating.  We are not growing; we are not creating enough new jobs.  One of the most important contributors to growth is investment – both local and foreign.  That being so, surely our foreign policy should focus on achieving our most important national priority: economic growth and investment?

Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma was a talented and respected Foreign Minister.  Under her reign, South Africa’s foreign service expanded dramatically and one of the aims was to have an embassy in every country in Africa.  Little account was taken of the trade and investment potential of each of these numerous countries and the objective seemed to be entirely political: if we had representation in a country, they were more likely to support us in international forums. We now have more than 120 embassies in the world.  Do we need all this?

Since the reform of the United Nations is an ever-receding target and with it our fading aim of securing a seat on the Security Council, the time has arrived to take a cool look at all these embassies and decide whether we are getting value for money.  Not only is it the vast expense of maintaining our officials, buildings, housing, families, schooling and transportation, to name a few items, it is also the stretching to the limit the available human resources.  

Then there is the question of our ambassadors and High Commissioners (the latter go to Commonwealth countries but have exactly the same status).  For historical reasons, it was essential to have a diplomatic corps looking more like South Africa and to do that, one had to make many political appointments because there were few trained and senior career diplomats. A generation later, many excellent younger officials are being groomed but often their path is blocked by “bed-blockers,” middle aged and older officials who were given jobs as a reward for services in the struggle, or for nepotistic reasons, who are not up to becoming senior diplomats.  The professionalisation of the service is also slowed because of the proliferation of political appointees, only some of whom make outstanding ambassadors.

The training and recruiting of officials is also deficient in economic, trade, investment and business skills.  Far too many of our officials know little or nothing about these subjects, even those charged with responsibility for these aspects at missions.

We need to change direction entirely.  Even those officials and political appointees who are communists and those who have a dislike of business and a hatred of “the West” and who lean automatically towards every undemocratic leader in the world, must take stock. 

While never forgetting our human rights values in our constitution, South Africa’s new attitude should be: “Open for business.  Any country, democratic or undemocratic, left, right or centre, that wants to do ethical business with us, is a potential friend and business partner.” 

Instead of a knee-jerk anti-American, anti-European, anti- British and pro- Cuban, Venezuelan, Zimbabwean attitude, we ought to resolve to become truly non-aligned.  Of course we must remain close to India, China, Brazil, and Russia.  It is in our own interests, and especially our economic interests to do so.  All of these countries should be our friends, together with the USA, the UK, Asia and Europe.

  There is a bigger world out there and we need to be in it looking for business, trade and investment.  Take just one area that I know well.  In Thailand when I was there I had 6 South African diplomats to assist me.  We also had about 14 locally recruited staff – generally highly educated and excellent quality.  The number has not grown. 

Australia has 60 diplomats and several hundred locals In Thailand.  The UK has 69 diplomats.  The USA has 264 diplomats and several thousand locals.  Tell me who is taking Thailand seriously? Look at the ever-increasing trade gap between our country and Thailand in the latter’s favour and ask yourself whether we could not do better there and in ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations: 10  countries with 400 million people, many moving into the middle class.

It’s time to rationalise some of the superfluous “nice-to-have” embassies. Let’s retire some of the mediocre ambassadors; retrain and up-skill officials with potential so that they become knowledgeable and useful about trade and investment; post them to strengthen our representation in countries that can help us realise our major priority: increasing investment, increasing trade, promoting economic growth and creating jobs for our people. Forget outdated ideology and focus on “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”

A former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand, Douglas Gibson is now a keynote speaker and writer.

This article first appeared in The Star.