Conventional international relations and foreign policy analyses see South Africa as "a (not quite) middle power", writes David Moore.
Conventional international relations and foreign policy analyses see South Africa as “a (not quite) middle power” that is “a new kid on the block”, “punching above its weight”, and wavering between the purported “human rights” mode of the brief Nelson Mandela moment or the so-called “realpolitik” of Thabo Mbeki’s administration.
Somewhere in this blend is an ideological smattering of revisionist (in the style of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development) “African renaissance” politics, faint memories of pan-Africanism and solemn incantations of national democratic revolutions. Few seem sure of the Jacob Zuma regime’s stamp on South Africa’s interactions with the rest of the world, although the change of the ministry’s name to include “co-operation” and plans for an “aid” wing, consistent with South Africa’s Brics (Brazil, Russia, India and China) status, indicated a semblance of material rather than rhetorical solidarity with the rest of the continent.
Orthodox academic studies in this area focus on a coherent state representing a national interest as articulated by a party representing all and sundry in a nation’s well-bounded bosom (and the imagined nation is usually gendered in the motherly fashion, except when it turns into the slightly fascistic fatherland).
They ignore class conflict within, beyond and running through its borders, tensions aggravated when the class in power is relatively new, still struggling for its modes and institutions of accumulation and legitimation as it tests the contradictory limits of coercive domination and consensual hegemony.
They fail to see that it is often in foreign policy discourse that all the ruling party’s fears are most apparent. When the emperor’s clothes are stripped away, or even feared to be slipping off, the discourse of sovereignty becomes most strident. The language of patriotism takes on schizophrenic histrionics as the last fig leaf of respectability is left hanging.
Fortunately, the ANC’s discussion document on international relations policy is grist to the mill of an unconventional analysis of the South African party-state as it grapples with the global political economy. It shows little of the polished diplomatic veneer so beloved of seasoned foreign policy practitioners: it is an unvarnished display of a party clinging precariously to power at the crumbling edges of the domestic and the global. Indeed, a grammatical mistake – making this writer think momentarily that Iraq had invaded Africa and South Africa – indicated the tenuous nature of the party’s hold on these precipices. But for one comma, meaning is enormously uncertain, which sums up South Africa’s position on the global stage.
After that confusion, one wondered, as the document continued, whether the “second transition” (perhaps a shadow of the national democratic revolution’s “second stage”, serendipitously coinciding with the last phase of the Polokwane reformation) would be a repeat of foreign policy history, only this time as tragedy instead of farce?
The ANC’s “International relations policy discussion document” has little that is new on dealing with the world. The ruling party still looks as if it cannot come to terms with the fact that it is the continent’s economic hegemon: it still seems to be fighting the old battles against colonialism and authoritarianism.
It is happy to know that South Africa is a Brics member – but it does not stop to reflect that joining that club means it might well be on the road to superpower-by-association status. In 50 years or so, “the West” will be an object of pity rather than of fear, so all the worries about this neoliberal and/or neoconservative manifestation of evil will seem misplaced, if not applied to South Africa itself.
The document tries to wear a “progressive” mantle, though it is hard to find a real definition of what this means, aside from a touch of state interventionism, representation at various international financial institutions and the United Nations Security Council, and multilateralism.
This vague “leftness” is the source of a rather bitter, if confused, tone, epitomised by the following awkwardly phrased words complaining about South Africa’s bad luck at the UN game. The document notes that “the ability of those who oppose our progressive stance in international fora like the UN to exploit the existence of domestic neoliberal forces that dominate internal public discourses even though they cannot win elections being small in number is not fully understood”.
Does the paper’s author mean that even though the ANC wins elections it cannot win the ideological battles against South African liberals (read: the Democratic Alliance and whites in general) because they are in cahoots with their global allies?
A later discussion of the G20 shows similar fears: the G20 too is seen to push a “development consensus” not far from the Washington Consensus, and it will not change “unless we work to infuse the thinking of the South in it. This suggests that the impact of developing societies, which have the numerical majority in G20, is minimal because the numerical minority has an ideological upper hand”. As noted, the South’s “thinking” is not clarified here, although the author thinks the ANC represents whatever it is.
What does shine out is the author’s paranoia about losing the ideological battle to a minority. Criticism on the basis of human rights “conceals” a neoliberal agenda behind an “ideological onslaught on [a] pro-reform stance misconstrued as anti-West behaviour”. Thus the ANC may have “underestimated the extent to which these domestic forces control not only the agenda in public debates, but also the judgment on the progressive nature of the ANC’s international relations”.
This is not the confident language of a world leader; even less does it inspire hopes of robust debate.
Reassertion of solidarity
So it goes: from China (solidarity at the UN to fears about resource exploitation) to the African Union (not very good at doing much, but South Africa cannot be seen to dominate so it “resisted the call for us to take a hegemonic posture” on the African Union and other continental institutions) – and let us not discuss Libya.
The series of prevarications and platitudes seems to rest on a reassertion of solidarity for those paragons of revolutionary sovereignty: the ANC must “strengthen relations with the former liberation movements”.
This statement foreshadows a few words on Zimbabwe, which must be considered South Africa’s foreign policy test case. The document states strongly that, along with pushing for change on sanctions, the South African government and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) “should ensure” that a climate conducive to clean elections is implemented, so that “Zimbabwe does not repeat the disastrous experience of 2008”.
Earlier, it is stated that “the movement supports … the new SADC election advisory body” in the hope of ensuring “successful and democratic elections”. If they fail, “post-election disputes and violence” will ensue, which may or may not be desirable in their own terms, but “will attract the hawkish external powers”.
Keeping the West out again trumps all other concerns, but this time it might be for a good cause: Is it by such steps that basic democracy might win a niche in South Africa’s foreign policy? If it did, the vacillations of the document might be replaced by a more confident template. Perhaps next time.
David Moore is head of the department of anthropology and development studies at the University of Johannesburg