White Paper on South Africa's foreign policy: Panel discussion

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International Relations

05 November 2014
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Meeting Summary

The meeting was an appraisal of the draft White Paper on International Relations and Cooperation, in a panel discussion. The  Institute for Global Development (IGD) Director presented on matters of the paradigm shift in thinking, orientation and Africa, and its researcher concentrated on consideration of matters relating to the South-South relations and global governance. It was noted that the Green Paper had been abandoned, and many other countries that took a human-rights based approach had withdrawn their positions. This raised questions whether it was viable or positive to now produce a White Paper, and the point was made that this essentially harked back to a particular global position that may no longer be relevant, and whether a more fluid approach was needed. One view was that Africa needed to address internal issues, such as lack of democracy, whilst another held that external and internal problems had to be addressed. Although South Africa had, under former President Mbeki, pushed the African Renaissance, that had been largely abandoned and the approach seemed now to be focused more on ubuntu. However, the main difficulty was that there was little understanding of what precisely that meant, and it was later suggested that the Department of International Relations and Cooperation should be specifically asked to explain that, as also to speak to the idea of whether South Africa should announce that it was following this specific diplomatic path, or rather express that idea in actions. The intentions of South African foreign policy in relation to the South also did not come out clearly,nor the role of BRICS.

Professor Chris Landsberg, SARCHI Chair on African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, University of Johannesburg, focused on South Africa's spending on education and noted that whilst it spent approximately the same amount as counterparts in BRICS on education, its output of PhD graduates was way behind, and the question was whether it could continue to sustain an incoherent foreign policy that sought to please all but did not necessarily advance the country itself. He put ubuntu ideals into context, and noted that new alliances were rising in competition to BRICS. He suggested that the White Paper should only specify non negotiable elements such as constitutional values, and not be too specific, and also consider the position of the leadership. It was suggested that emphasis on economic diplomacy could be seen as a regime agenda in foreign policy, rather than national driven policy. He agreed with comments that ubuntu was poorly defined, and there could be an interpretation of South Africa as "big brother".

This point was also emphasised by independent analyst Michelle Presser, who noted that South Africa's support to the position of Ecuador had actually resulted in some loss of votes. She noted that the White Paper concentrated on attracting Foreign Direct Investment, but that was not shown to have substantial benefit, and there were contradictions, as it seemed to emphasise both competition and cooperation. 

Members were unanimous in their concern about educational policies, urged that these had to be revised, and said that there was a need to find a foreign policy that took the country forward. Although there was a stated aim to resolve conflict through negotiation, this had not helped in the case of Boko Haram to date. They agreed that it was probably not necessary to title the document as an ubuntu approach, and questions must be asked whether the White Paper took sufficient account of changed conditions and whether South Africa was continuing to benefit from the BRICS alliance. The question was asked whether the White Paper in fact was more of a trade than foreign policy document, and how South Africa could transition to become a competitive nation, and whether there was a strong enough concept of the ultimate aims. The high levels of spending on foreign missions were a concern, perhaps detracting from the need to look internally to improve the economy and educational standards. South Africa had been a leader in the New Partnership for Africa's Development, but perhaps a more forceful approach was again needed. Members asked the panel discussion members to come up with some written suggestions as to how the White Paper could be improved.

Meeting report

White Paper on South Africa's foreign policy: Panel discussion

Institute for Global Dialogue: 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 to 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, Senior Researcher, Institute for Global Dialogue, spoke to the topic of 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.

Matters Relating to the North and decision making: Submission by Professor Chris Landsberg
Professor Chris Landsberg, Holder of SARCHI Chair on African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, University of Johannesburg, 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.

Submission from  Independent Analyst: Ms Michelle Pressend

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


Ms T. Kenye (ANC) said South Africa had to improve on its education policy, citing the 2 000 PhD graduates produced by South Africa per year, in comparison with the 5 000  graduates at one Indian university alone. She asked which foreign policy could take South Africa forward, and asked if there was a need to amalgamate the previous foreign policies with the present. Since South Africa believed in conflict resolution through negotiations, she wondered what could be the remedy to resolve the Boko Haram conflict.

Mr L Mpumlwana (ANC) asked what the presenters meant by saying the national policy was in the interest of government.

Mr  V Khoza (EFF) said South Africa had to invest in education, suggesting that South Africa could not fail to offer free education, as other developing states had done. He asked what was limiting South Africa from offering free education.

Mr M Maila (ANC) asked if it was necessary to title the document "Ubuntu" or if people were to be left to observe ubuntu in the foreign policy. He believed that giving the document a title was akin to marking one’s own script. He said the conditions had changed, from when the White Paper was crafted, and agreed that there was a need for the country to assess whether that White Paper would be of benefit still. Although South Africa was a member of BRICS the question must also be asked whether South Africa was continuing to benefit from the BRICS alliance.

Ms D Raphuti (ANC) asked what could be the challenges with South Africa’s obsession with the BRICS. Citing the presentation by Professor Landsberg, she asked whether it was suggested that South Africa was strategically leading or occupying positions, and what advice was offered in relation to its position. She believed that ubuntu meant "doing unto others as you wished them to do to you". She asked what could be added to the issue of ubuntu, to exhaust its meaning in foreign policy. She said South Africa was being unfair to itself, if it was to compare itself with Nigeria.

Mr S Mokgalapa (DA) said the White Paper had made life difficult. He asked whether South Africa’s foreign policy would help achieve the domestic imperatives. He asked what it meant to be "ubuntu". He asked if the White Paper did appear to be more of a trade policy than a foreign policy, or whether the White Paper was suggesting a protectionist economy. He asked if South Africa was closing relations with the Global North and opening up to the Global South.

Mr Mokgalapa asked how South Africa could navigate to become a competitive nation, and how that would translate into cooperation versus competition. He wondered what role the foreign policy should play in influencing or changing the global order. Other member countries in the BRICS had a strategy of what they wanted, and he wondered if South Africa had a strong enough idea of what it wanted, and the value BRICS would bring to the country.

Ms S Kalyan (DA) asked what could be the challenges of getting the PhD student numbers increased. She was interested in Ms Pressand's viewpoint that when South Africa voted in favour of Ecuador, this resulted in losing candidacy, and said that there did indeed seem to be a perception that South Africa was manipulative, and playing the "Big Brother" position.

Mr M Lekota (COPE) said Vietnam foreign policy was cited as taking care of its citizens first, before any others, and asked how this compared to South Africa's foreign policy. South Africa was ranked second, after the USA, in the size of foreign missions, and was thus spending much of its resources on missions instead of improving the economy and improving education standards. There was a need to prioritise the national interest. In the New Economic Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) South Africa was leading, but now South Africa was chairing. He said South Africa must lead because it had substantial content to offer.

The Chairperson said South Africa should enter the global scene forcefully, stating what it intended to do and how it intended to benefit from any mission. He said South Africa did not want to be seen as doing things for itself, but doing with others. He said the world seemed to think that South Africa was capable of peace brokering, that South Africa was more impartial, but this was relative in the global scene. He said the former President of South Africa, Mr Thabo Mbeki, was not the brainchild of the African Renaissance  but that he only gave life to it.

Dr Zondi said that although the foreign policy was formulated with the inclusion of four departments, the administration policy did not allow for a document binding four ministries, and so the main challenge became how the White Paper should address the four departmental concerns, in foreign policy. There has not been an abundant foreign policy in paper terms, but there had been certain alterations in approach and how it was implemented. While there was unanimity in NEPAD between the government and private sector, the question was why the government then allowed that to lapse. The questions to be asked were who it was who initiated Agenda 2063, what had South Africa done about it, and had South Africa agreed to the 2063 agenda. NEPAD had workshops, which were comprehensive, and he wondered if the same would be done in respect of Agenda 2063. Speaking to the issue raised about the foreign missions, it was noted that there was under representation by some delegates in the international scene.  He said some of the delegates were more interested in domestic affairs, even though they were representing their states abroad and knew less of their mission in those countries.

Ms Naidu said that economic diplomacy was a dense topic in itself and was not limited to improving foreign markets access. It also included what should be done to change the structure of trade and the need for equitable trade. It was necessary to consider what the role was of South Africa in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and this would change the monopoly of power. It had to do with regimes in the architecture of the global economy. Improving access to markets had more to do with commercial diplomacy. There was trade between the Euro Zone and South Africa, as reflected by the current rates, and so it was not feasible to close down in the Euro Zone trade in preference to the Global South. The point to consider was where South Africa would position itself in the African narrative, given that there were African states that had emerged in the continental economic dominance, such as Angola and Rwanda. The point was whether South Africa was going to be seen as advancing the African agenda.

Ms Pressend spoke to the questions raised on education, and said that this was not so much to do with funding or affordability, but policy decisions. It was unfortunate that South Africa had chosen austerity measures. It was far easier for students to go to university in other countries than in South Africa. BRICS had a developmental policy, and South Africa had to address its monetary policy and improve its manufacturing sector. There had not been improvement in South Africa’s industrial sector. South Africa was depended upon foreign currency and reduced capital outflows, while countries like India had better monetary policies through capital control. South Africa had given up all its  policy space in trade and finance. The question was therefore now how it could re-take that, and learn from the ubuntu principles. Whilst South Africa was still speaking in terms of ubuntu, countries like  Ecuador had a different foreign policy implementation methodology; it was more individual-centred, in contrast to South Africa, which created the impression of a corporate-centred foreign policy.

Professor Landsberg said that there was an implementation crisis, and too much time was spent in crafting and drafting policy rather than implementing it. John F Kennedy wrote a foreign policy that lasted for 50 years, entitled "Diplomacy without diplomatists". He questioned whether South Africa had diplomatists to differentiate between economic diplomacy and commercial diplomacy. Although every province had foreign policy, there was no national coordination in foreign policy. There was thus a need to call upon the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) to explain what exactly it meant by ubuntu and what was its vision for the BRICS. South Africa should speak with one voice and mend its relations with Nigeria.

Professor Landsberg agreed that although Mr Mbeki was not the brainchild of the African Renaissance,he did give life to it. Out of Mr Mbeki's initiatives came NEPAD, which was very instrumental in creating change.  The underwriters of that, South Africa and Nigeria, later distanced themselves from something they led and crafted, because of their country's own internal politics.

The question was what South Africa was doing to solve Africa’s challenges. Diplomatists did not want to go to some places, like Europe or France, citing personal preferential reasons at the cost of the nation’s interest. Countries in the BRICS, with particular reference to China, would not interfere in domestic politics because they were so focused on industrialisation and economic growth. The Chinese nation was a friend of Africa but was imperialistic in nature. He suggested that for South Africa to express a dislike for colonialists and prefer China was not wise diplomacy. The challenge South Africa faced in education was that there were limited resources, resulting in under-performance.

Committee Members requested the IGD and Professor Landsberg to  write recommendations on the White Paper and map out some alternative measures to improve the White Paper

The meeting was adjourned.

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