SA Foreign Policy issues; Meeting with South African Council on International Relations

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International Relations

16 November 2016
Chairperson: Mr M Masango (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

A delegation from the South African Council on International Relations (SACOIR) met with the Portfolio Committee on International Relations and Cooperation to discuss the recent US election and its impact on South Africa’s foreign policy. Though the US election was only briefly discussed, the delegation gave a detailed account of issues that faced South Africa and Africa, such as the exodus of university-educated Africans, the growing youth bubble, the growth of nationalism in the developed world, instability on the African continent, and the lack of clarity and contradictory nature of South Africa’s foreign policy.

The SACOIR delegation stated that the Council had been set up to give foreign policy advice to the sitting government, as well as to Parliamentary committees and bodies. It was non-partisan, and sought to give objective and clear advice in order to help the government make sound foreign policy decisions.

Members asked questions relating to SACOIR’s role and mandate, South Africa’s decision to leave the International Criminal Court (ICC), the country’s future engagement with issues of human rights, the viability of continuing to support large numbers of South African foreign missions, what the country’s national interests were, and how the government could engage with the public on issues of international relations and foreign policy.

On the issue of the ICC, the delegation said that the South African government could have done a much better job of being clear on why it was leaving the body, but that it was in the best interest of the country and continent that it withdrew. SACOIR believed that South Africa was still committed to protecting human rights, and that leaving the ICC did not invalidate that ideal.

The delegation and the MPs debated on whether or not it was important for the state to have such a large number of foreign missions. SACOIR contended that while the state must operate within its budgetary restraints, it should not withdraw from the international community. It said that before a clear understanding could  be formed of what the country’s national interests were, there needed to be a clearer picture of what South Africans wanted, what the South African nation was, and what its beliefs were. The SACOIR delegation put forward a number of suggestions on how the government could do a better job of engaging with the public on foreign policy issues.

There was a thorough discussion on the many challenges that faced the continent and South Africa, with a general consensus that more regular meetings between the Portfolio Committee and SACOIR needed to take place. 

Meeting report

South Africa Council on International Relations (SACOIR): Presentation

Dr Aziz Pahad, Chairperson of SACOIR, said the Council had been was launched in 2015 after a five-year negotiation process. The lengthy implementation process meant that it had a very comprehensive board of contributing members, and had a well thought-out mandate. SACOIR was established by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), and the organisation’s mandate was to interact with DIRCO and the Parliamentary and executive bodies and give clear analysis and frank advice on South Africa’s foreign policy. In addition, it was mandated to interact with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society on issues of international relations and South Africa’s foreign policy. This was important, because in this information age, non-state actors were influencing the world more so than ever, even in the developed world.

SACOIR was tasked with analyzing how well DIRCO was implementing the international relations policies that the government had chosen, and if those policies were meeting the expectations of the public. It should provide a bridge between civil society and governmental institutions on issues of foreign policy.

He identified eight areas that SACOIR focused on:

  • Global political and economic trends, and their impact on international relations;
  • The African agenda of poverty, inequality, development, regional integration, peace and security, and the African Union (AU) Agenda 2063;
  • Emerging global powers, especially China, and in the context of South-South cooperation, to see what the impact of this was on South Africa;
  • South Africa’s relations with the North, to see how South Africa could improve its relationships with those more developed countries;
  • Global governance, and analysis of whether there needs to be a restructuring of the United Nations (UN) Security Council and General Assembly, and the Bretton Woods institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund;
  • Whether SA’s work in economic diplomacy was meeting the needs of its domestic programmes;
  • How the Middle East peace process impacts South Africa and Africa;
  • The growth of terrorism and extremism. The emerging trend of the internationalization of terrorism had already affected Africa, and could impact South Africa in the coming years. It was also a threat in almost all major developed countries.

Dr Pahad said that every year SACOIR would identify foreign policy trends and issues. It was critical that all structures of South Africa’s government and governmental institutions, NGOs and civil society engaged in open and critical discussions which challenged all sectors of our society, and forced them to defend their beliefs and understanding of the issues that faced South Africa.

SAICOR had to ask whether it was able to produce knowledge that influenced policy makers and policy. It was not enough to just study and discuss. It had to know what knowledge SA’s policy makers needed to make informed foreign policy decisions. It had to assess whether the criticisms of South Africa’s foreign policy and government in general were based on fact. It also had to analyse whether SA’s foreign policy was based on fact and understanding, and in that way contribute to the democratization and use of knowledge.

It was vitally important for the Portfolio Committee to consider many different options, so that policy makers were informed, and have the knowledge to react to unforeseen situations. South African policy makers need to be informed and flexible enough to make the correct foreign policy decisions.

Every country in the world needed to accept certain global realities. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States (US) had become the sole military and economic superpower. After the 9/11 terror attacks, the world’s countries had had to come to grips with the US policies of American exceptionalism, increased defence spending, disregard of international law, the weakening of the UN Security Council, and a militaristic approach to diplomacy. This had led to a universal lack of leadership in governments the world over. In addition, all countries were experiencing the crisis of corruption and the abuse of state power, growing income inequality, and growing disenchantment with the political system. The recent US presidential election and the Brexit vote had both been examples of this reality, where millions of people had rejected entrenched political authority.

Dr Pahad said that the world was experiencing unprecedented forces with the pace of globalisation and the communication age. This was part of the new liberal agenda, which had resulted in growing inequality within and between countries. To its credit, the World Bank had stated that the neo-liberal agenda had been oversold, and had created many of the world’s current issues.

Since 1977, the world had experienced a growing financial crisis, with western banks continuously experimenting as the financial world became more and more complex and interconnected. Illegal flows of capital were costing Africa more than $50 billion a year, and that if those flows could be halted, Africa would no longer need financial assistance from the more developed countries. In addition, Africa was experiencing a brain drain, losing 20 000 professionals a year since 1990.

In addition to these issues, rapid urbanization, the youth bubble, climate change and unprecedented levels of migration had led to extremism, fascism, racism, nationalism and xenophobia. This was leading to a disregard for international law. For example, the European Union (EU) had violated every tenet of international and humanitarian law. South Africa was not immune to these issues, because Europe was South Africa’s biggest trade and developmental partner.

Dr Pahad said that this was a period of global tension not seen since the inter-war years, with an unwillingness to compromise, engage in dialogue and diplomacy, and a diminishing of realistic statesmanship. The rise in the information age had led to an increase in governments controlling and influencing perception management, and the belief that controlling information and strategic communications was a soft power weapon. This could be seen in the recent Chilcot Report (otherwise known as the Iraq Inquiry), WikiLeaks and the Hillary Clinton email scandal.


The Chairperson thanked Dr Pahad for his input, and invited comment from Members.

Mr D Bergman (DA) said that South Africa’s relationship with the international community was often unclear. He pointed to the decision to leave the International Criminal Court (ICC), and contrasted it to post-apartheid South Africa’s history of promoting human rights. He asked if South Africa was giving mixed messages on what type of player it wanted to be on international and foreign policy issues.

He asked for a progress report on Dr Pahad’s involvement in the Middle East peace process, and his efforts at building sustainable peace in the Middle East.

Mr Bergman said that there was a lot of discussion surrounding nationalism in the US and Europe, but that the issue of race also needed to be taken into account. He argued that there needed to be more frank discussions around race in South African politics. He asked about the importance of race on issues in South Africa and Africa. If there were more discussions around race, would it help reduce some of the aforementioned issues?

At a recent conference he attended, it had been said that the world was vastly underestimating the effects of climate change. He asked how climate change was going to impact the number of refugees and migrants seeking safety, and if South Africa was going to become a larger recipient in the future.

He always believed that diplomacy was the best substitute for war, noting that South Africa had a large presence in the international community, both in terms of foreign policy and its foreign missions. However, its actions did not always reflect its stated values, and even though the presence was substantial, it was not always used effectively. He asked the delegation what could be done to make South Africa more effective diplomatically in the international community, or if South Africa should reduce its foreign footprint.

Mr S Mokgalapa (DA) thanked the Chairperson and the SACOIR delegation, saying that he had been one of the MPs that had long called for the establishment of an international relations institution. His issue with South Africa’s foreign policy was the lack of clarity, definable goals and objectives. If he called a SACOIR member and asks what South Africa’s national interests and foreign policy objectives were, he questioned whether they would be able to clearly articulate what they were. At a time when America’s foreign policy was uncertain, SACOIR needed to make sure that it aided South Africa in making sure that its foreign policy objectives were clear, and that the country’s interests were definable.

Some were saying that South Africa’s honeymoon period of its foreign policy was over, citing the country’s recent record on human rights. He asked if South Africa was still in line with its foreign policy record of support for the principles of human rights, as its recent record on human rights left much to be desired, as did its record at the UN.

On the issue of South Africa’s institutions being prepared for unforeseen foreign policy related situations, South Africa sometimes reacted after the fact and got forced into a conceptual corner, and had its foreign policy makers been more prepared, they could have reacted more promptly to international developments.

Mr Mokgalapa said that he wanted to believe that SACOIR was not partisan, and that it gave non-partisan advice. If SACOIR was non-partisan, what advice had it given the DIRCO Minister on the issue of the ICC, and if it had advised against leaving the ICC, what alternatives had they put forward?

On the issue of foreign missions, asked if SACOIR had ever had an engagement with DIRCO on the number of foreign missions necessary, and if the missions were being used effectively. Had SACOIR engaged on the issue the brain drain and how it related to the mismanagement of natural resources?

Ms D Raphuti (ANC) said she was of the view that the ANC had taken the right position on its foreign missions. Some people thought SA should just concentrate on Africa and around South Africa, but she argued that South Africa should reach out. Mr Mokgalapa had always been against such foreign missions, and he should instead be a visionary.

The Chairperson intervened and asked Members to engage SACOIR. Members could speak from their own perspective or their party’s perspective, but personal engagement between parties was unhelpful at this particular Committee meeting.

Ms Raphuti said that SACOIR was an important institution and she applauded its work. Because it was made up of members from academia, business and civil society, they were uniquely positioned to give comprehensive advice from a range of different perspectives.

On the issue of the brain drain, she said that the youth were pushing for more economic empowerment, but that they did not have the capacity to economically empower themselves, and were perpetuating conflict and instability. She asked how SACOIR could assist on the issues of income inequality, and terrorism and extremism.

Mr B Radebe (ANC) asked what SACOIR was going to do to educate the common person on South Africa’s foreign policy, saying that the populace was woefully ignorant of the foreign policy challenges that faced the country.

He said that the UN Security Council had been formed in 1945. The global landscape had changed drastically since then, and organisations such as the UN needed to change accordingly. What was  SACOIR going to do to help implement those changes?

On the issue of foreign missions, Mr Radebe stated that in order to influence the world, one had to have a presence all over the world.

He commended the South African Constitutional Court, which had ruled that the sitting government had the right to rule on the foreign policy of the country, and therefore the Executive Branch’s decision to unilaterally leave the ICC was constitutional. The Constitutional Court’s ruling effectively closed the issue. He asked what steps SACOIR would take to educate the South African people on issues like this in the future.

On the issue of terrorism and extremism, he said that the Middle East had been stable until Saddam Hussain had been taken out under false pretenses, and since then it had not been stable. He would like to see SACOIR take a stance on these issues -- for example, on the instability following regime change in countries such as Libya. Instability had often followed regime change, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, when Patrice Lumumba had been taken out. He asked if SACOIR would take a stance on these issues in the future.

On the issue of illegal capital flows leaving Africa, $50 billion could have been used to develop the human capacity on the continent. He asked what SACOIR was going to do to help plug that leak.

Ms O Maxon (EFF) said that a number of members of SACOIR were not in attendance. She urged that all SACOIR members be in attendance at the next meeting. It clearly had its work cut out for it, and she looked forward to meeting with them in the future. She would like SACOIR meet with each political party individually if possible.

Ms T Kenye (ANC) said that SACOIR was an important stakeholder in South Africa’s foreign policy. On the issue of illegal flows of capital, she asked if SACOIR had any ideas on how to deal with this issue.

Mr L Mpumlwana (ANC) said there seemed to be a certain lack of clarity on what the national interest was, and asked if SACOIR could advise the Committee on this issue. In certain developed countries, even when there was significant disagreement on domestic policies, the public and politicians were more unified on foreign policy. He questioned whether this was due to the fact that South Africa’s democracy was relatively young.

Mr M Mncwango (IFP) stated his belief that SACOIR could help the DIRCO Minister and the Portfolio Committee to make sound foreign policy decisions in the coming years. However, there was currently a lot of contradiction in South Africa’s foreign policy.

On the issue of budgetary constraints, he asked how SACOIR thought South Africa should align its budget in terms of its foreign policy and foreign mission responsibilities, saying that his party was of the opinion that South Africa had too many foreign missions and they were too costly. Did South Africa have the budget to be the main stabilising force on the African continent, and if so, were South Africa’s efforts actually welcome? Referring to both questions, he said that South Africa must match its ambitions with the budgetary realities.

He added that there was an inherent contradiction in South Africa’s position as a protector of human rights, while simultaneously deciding to withdraw from the ICC.

The Chairperson said that not all South Africans understood what a country’s national interest meant, and whether it was related to party interests, or extended to state interests as well. The media also played a major role in its interpretation of politics and the national interest of a country. He pointed to narratives surrounding President-elect Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying that their supposed safeguarding of the national interest had led them to take power. The Americans and Russians who had voted for them thought that they would protect their national interests in a world that was experiencing uncertainty.

He made a comparison between the Great Depression that had started in 1928 and the rise of nationalist movements, and the 2008 financial crisis and the recent rise of nationalism. Continuing that comparison, he said that the League of Nations had been held in contempt by powerful nations during the 1930s, just as the UN was being ignored by powerful nations today.

The Chairperson concluded by saying that South Africa’s regard for human rights was not tied to its participation in the ICC.

Mr Jimmy Ntobeko Gotyana, Member of SACOIR and Deputy Director of the SA NGO Coalition (SANGOCO) said the issue of how to make foreign policy understood by ordinary people was a very critical question. It was very important to ordinary and small NGOs, which felt marginalised from the decision-making process, and excluded them from giving their input on the path the country was taking. SACOIR must help on this issue, as in the past the government had done a better job of engaging the common person and civil society on foreign policy issues. SACOIR had to be one of the organisations that helped to revive that trend, as this would help to mend the relationship between government and South Africa’s citizenry.

Prof Maxi Schoeman, Member of SACOIR, expressed her desire to have a day-long workshop. Referring to the issue of the national interest, she said that as an academic, she and her colleagues were supposed to be objective. However, she believed that it was important to have academics engage subjectively on these issues. There was a saying, “we cannot know what we want, if we do not know who we are,” and added that South Africans needed to ask the question, “who are we?”

She said that in order to understand what the country needed for its foreign policy, policy makers needed to understand what the country needed from its domestic policy.

She argued that the rise of nationalism may not necessarily be a right-wing turn, but more of a disillusionment with government across the political spectrum. The debates happening within South Africa were about the same thing -- a questioning of the established political order, and the status quo. She cautioned against government ignoring this issue of disillusionment with the political order.

Prof Schoeman said that SACOIR could help to work on the issue of the brain drain. Africa lost its students when they went overseas, pointing out that when DIRCO made bilateral agreements, it established scholarships for SA students to study aboard, and they did not return. A second aspect of the brain drain was that within Africa there was not much cooperation on learning, as non-South African Africans who came to study here, found it extremely difficult to get visas. She questioned whether South Africa was doing everything to attract bright minds from the rest of the continent. She put forward the idea that politicians from every political party should go to the universities and engage with the students on issues of foreign policy. This would be an opportunity to engage more directly with the youth, and make sure that the political system was a part of the revolution that was happening in the tertiary education system in South Africa.

Dr Vasu Gounden, Member of SACOIR, said that even though they were appointed by the Minister, SACOIR was not at the behest of the Minister, and operated without fear of a political backlash. There were three political forums for discussing foreign policy issues. The three different foreign policy stakeholders -- DIRCO, the Portfolio Committee and SACOIR -- differed on some of the issues, and this had to do with a lack of debate. However, he believed that the gap could be bridged through a more rigorous debate on the many issues discussed, and that it was necessary to have that debate so that the three different bodies could speak with one voice.

He argued that the ICC decision could have been more widely discussed, and in doing so the many stakeholders and the public could have had a better appreciation and understanding of why that particular decision had been made.

The world in which people found themselves was particularly fragile and dangerous, and South Africa was a particularly fragile player. South Africa had not dealt with the three challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality, which caused much of the country’s fragility.

There were a number additional problems, the first being that the population growth in South Africa was outstripping economic growth. In addition, there was rapid urbanization, but without the policies in place to help create a more urban economy. This was an issue all over the continent. Then there was climate change, which caused more drought, and the interrelated issues of food insecurity, conflict and migration.

Another problem was the global economic slowdown and a commodity crisis that unduly affected countries that were single commodity exporters, which was partially true of South Africa.

Dr Gounden contended that those combined factors caused problems both in South Africa and in the wider Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, which was experiencing wide spread instability. Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Malawi were all experiencing some form of instability.

South Africa could not afford to provide for more refugees and migrants, as the system could not handle any more. Yet it was the aforementioned factors that were causing the instability that was driving people to seek refuge in South Africa. South Africa did not have the resources to police the continent and aid in these many interrelated issues, yet it also could not disengage with other African countries, and the wider world in general.

Dr Gounden said that he was trained as a human rights lawyer. On the issue of the ICC, he said there was a debate around how one built a normative world, and a new world, and what the role of small nations was. South Africa had dismantled its nuclear capability, and had been the first country to sign up to the Rome Statute. However, not every country had signed up, and since its inception, the ICC had not handled itself well. Sometimes African issues needed to be handled by Africans. He gave the example of Burundi, where the ICC had stated that it would take Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza to trial. This would have completely undermined the peacemaking effort that South Africa was engaged with in Burundi.

However, there was a wider belief in the international community that South Africa was compromising on its idealsThe onus was now on South Africa to show that this step was not a reactive one, but was part of a different direction that the country was taking, while still maintaining its commitment to human rights.

Mr Tshepo Mashiane, Member of SACOIR, agreed with Pro Schoeman’s statement that South Africans needed to have a better understanding of who they were, before they could understand what the nation’s interests were. It was not SACOIR’s responsibility to have all the answers, but to bring the expertise of its members to the table to further the discussion on the many issues.

He said it would be a mistake to take the youth for granted. This could be seen in the recent higher education protests in South Africa. This generation had a strong drive to change the world, and politicians needed to engage with them on the many issues facing the country.

The Committee should not downplay the role South Africa played on the continent and in the region. It would be a mistake for South Africa to disengage on foreign policy issues.

The Chairperson said that regular meetings needed to be scheduled between the Portfolio Committee and SACOIR every six months. These meetings could look at what had transpired during the previous six months, and what SACOIR expected to happen in the coming six months. It would be a positive step if it were to engage with party caucuses individually, and in this way different party views could be expressed to SACOIR on South Africa’s foreign policy.

The Chairperson said that an important step would be to engage with countries from the West and East to understand how they formulated their foreign policy structure. The media had reflected concerns that South Africa’s withdrawal from the ICC would lead to impunity, and these concerns were not without reason. The question of what did one replace the ICC with, was important.

Dr Pahad said that even as SACOIR and the Committee looked at issues of the world affecting Africa, such as the brain drain and illegal capital flows, there needed to be a harder look at internal issues of good governance and the leadership deficit, which was linked to those other issues. The reason the brightest people were leaving, and capital was being extracted, was because of poor governance on the continent, and because there were better opportunities elsewhere. There needed to be self-correction on the continent, and that could not be blamed on outside forces. South Africa’s future was inextricably linked to what happened on the continent.

Dr Pahad said that SACOIR and the Committee had not given enough attention to the Middle East peace process, and that in future meetings there should be more focus on that specific issue, as it was a very volatile situation which could have wide-ranging consequences.

The Chairperson thanked the SACOIR delegation and expressed the desire to meet again in the coming six months.

Mr Mokgalapa said that the Committee was supposed to have been briefed on the US election, but that it had not been dealt with in any detail.

The Chairperson apologised for not being more pointed in directing the discussion to the issue of the US election, and discussing it in more depth.

The meeting was adjourned.

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