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Peter Vale writes on some key aspects of South Africa's foreign policy-making, part of our on-going effort to determine what's really new about the ``new South Africa.'' Not enough, Vale at least seems to suggest. Vale writes: ". . . Politically things are very different now in South Africa. The country's foreign policy is being conducted in a near carnival atmosphere, a holdover from the fanfare that heralded its return to the international community. . ."

vol 10 no 5

Prisoner of the past?: The new South Africa abroad
Peter Vale

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 10, No 5, July 1995
Page 7
"South Africa"



Peter Vale is Professor of Southern African Studies at the University of the Western Cape and a Visiting Professor at the University of Stellenbosch where he teaches comparative foreign policy. He writes on South Africa's international relations for the influential national weekly The Mail & Guardian.

The text and sub-text of South Africa's foreign policy were quite simple during the apartheid years. Slavishly committed to the central tenets of western economic interests, the country's security was dedicated to ensuring the preservation of white supremacy. The making of this foreign policy was closed, confined to "a kind of an elite" almost exclusively made up of white Afrikaner males. Even within the confines of the limited (and limiting) minority democracy, foreign policy was the preserve of dictatorial figures such as Hendrik Verwoerd, responsible for the decision to declare the Republic of South Africa, and P.W. Botha, the guiding hand on the country's policy of destabilizing its neighbours.

The traditional narrative around South Africa's foreign policy was standard to the Cold War period. At its root was a haughty confidence that rejected any considerations of the nature of the South African state or the realities of the international scene. This perspective reinforced patterns of official behaviour and determined - as it still appears to - the country's response to international initiatives.

But deeper forces are at work within South Africa and understanding these is only possible against the backdrop of the country's image and self-image. This is especially important in foreign policy where the late-Victorian values of firmness, discipline and thrift have underpinned South Africa's appreciation of itself within the international context. In the much-loved but analytically threadbare dichotomy represented by the poles of order and justice, South Africa was quintessentially for "order." It is difficult to find a single instance of South Africa's behaviour in the world that has not been influenced by this consideration.

South Africa's national weltanschauung profoundly influenced, and was influenced by, the idiom within which the state conducted its international relationships. It is not possible to overestimate the importance of the narrow security-driven idiom that closed off all other avenues of discourse. Less than a decade ago, South Africa's ambassador to the U.N. challenged the Security Council "to do their damnedest," and evidence of apartheid's extra-territorial mischief-making, in the name of fighting a "total onslaught," was to be found in places as far apart as Oman, France and Sri Lanka.

In framing this behaviour, apartheid's foreign policy makers drew upon the crude realist paradigm that has inspired most modern discourse in international relations. This approach was embedded in the belief that, irrespective of the challenge to its domestic political legitimacy, South Africa had real, even `legitimate', interests in the international system. As criticism of the apartheid state deepened in the 1970s and 1980s, South African foreign policy makers appeared to believe that any methods could be used to defend the country's sovereignty and to secure its self-interest. Why else would the country manufacture seven and a half atom bombs?

Many of these features were not exclusive to South Africa's foreign policy, of course. During the Cold War, most countries used realist templates to understand and respond to international questions. But three important differences set South Africa apart from the general cases.

First, the policy process in South Africa was entirely cut off from domestic politics. Organized public interest in foreign policy and international relations supported, rather than challenged, exclusivity around the making of foreign policy. This contrasts with experience elsewhere; in the 1980s, organized public interest increasingly became a feature of foreign policy making in most democracies. Indeed, the international response to apartheid was a case in point. Official shifts on the issue in the United States and in Britain were orchestrated by organized public pressure.

Secondly, sanctions against South Africa compounded a problem associated with the country's geographic isolation. Located far from competing centres of power meant that even the limited public discussion that took place was self-centred and parochial. As taught in its schools, the country's positioning in the world was little more than a paranoid listing of the international "wrongs" the country had suffered at the hands of its enemies. When it moved beyond this, the dominant themes were pro-western: Reagan's Washington and Britain under Thatcher were far more relevant in the mind of South Africa's voting public than were Swaziland or Lesotho.

Finally, there was a serious disjuncture between the theory that drove apartheid's foreign policy and its practice. However, appreciating this was rendered impossible by the limitations of orthodox international relations methodology which was largely uncomfortable with liberation movements. Were they, like the Basque separatist movement, ETA, representative of sub-national elements within established nation states? Or, as in Zimbabwe's case, were they part of the Cold War contest for the state itself? Moreover, in South Africa, something else was in place. The ANC had features of both ETA and ZANU/ZAPU but it also had a distinctive international personality that enjoyed extensive legitimacy, at times having a higher profile in world affairs than did the South African state. Like many other aspects of South Africa's international relations, this dimension was silenced by draconian security legislation.

Politically things are very different now in South Africa. The country's foreign policy is being conducted in a near carnival atmosphere, a holdover from the fanfare that heralded its return to the international community. The April 1994 election results suggest that contrary to what the world believed, South Africans can rise to the essential challenge of the times and find a way for disparate races and cultures to live together in peace and harmony. More importantly over the short-term, Nelson Mandela's courageous life and his towering stature have marked him as one of the last true heroes of the twentieth century. Monarchs, statesmen and common garden-variety political leaders from around the world have beaten a path to his door. The country has established diplomatic relations with 163 countries and has acceded to 86 bilateral and 21 multilateral treaties since the inauguration of Nelson Mandela. The country's geographic location - once the bane of its efforts to maintain a place on the international stage - appears to have become an asset. Aid agencies and, to a lesser degree, international companies, are using South Africa to service the region and the continent. But all these accoutrements have not made for a coherent foreign policy; indeed, in making foreign policy, the new South Africa looks decidedly like the old.

As in many areas of its emerging personality, South Africa's "new" foreign policy suffers from a crisis of multiple identities. The challenge of creative international policy in a confusing new world appears to have flummoxed experienced foreign policy makers and politicians in most countries. In post-apartheid South Africa, however, one can find very specific symptoms of this malady.

Consider the issue of idiom. The mythology around George Bush's `new world order' has been surprisingly evident in South Africa's framing of post-apartheid foreign policy. Nelson Mandela's speechwriters have cued the President to uncritically use the `new world order' phrase on several occasions. Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo has also used it, most recently in the speech to parliament on the budget vote. Understanding the immediate reasons for this particular rhetoric is not difficult. The ending of the Cold War has produced very few coherent explanations for the pattern of deteriorating inter-state relations. For the most part, the process of drafting Presidential and Ministerial speeches on international relations topics fall to the Department of Foreign Affairs which has uncritically absorbed the language on the post-Cold War world from the Bush Administration.

Understanding this raises questions about DFA bureaucracy. Although potentially the strongest department of the apartheid regime, the DFA was cowed by the long years of fighting isolation and acutely affected by the 16-year stewardship of former Foreign Minister, Pik Botha. Anecdotal evidence suggests that within the DFA ranks are substantial pools of competence, but that these were side-lined by cronyism and an emerging ennui in the mid- and late-1980s.

The DFA has other shortcomings. These have less to do with individual personalities than with the situation in which the country found itself in the 1970s and 1980s, decades that were important to the development of modern diplomacy. In crucial areas in the DFA, there is little or no expertise. Excluded from all but a handful of rarefied international organizations, apartheid had little need, or opportunity, for multilateral relations. This lack of experience may well prove to be a considerable handicap in a world in which multilateralism has become the prevalent form of diplomacy.

Arguably the ANC had more multilateral experience than do those who were apartheid's diplomats. The ANC were active in the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity and the Non-Aligned Movement. Both the late Johnny Makhathini and Oliver Tambo built solid reputations as liberation diplomats in multilateral fora. But access to this source of knowledge has been largely blocked by the slow absorption of the liberation movements by the DFA. Much of the formal blame for this lies in the confusion around the sunset clauses in the transition arrangements; in particular, the undertaking to absorb the "foreign ministries" of the former homelands. The irony is that in this new period, the diplomats from apartheid's independent homelands seem poised to play a greater international role than was ever previously afforded them. There is an impoverishing side to this: cadres with real international experience have been excluded.

Even when exile diplomats have been drawn into the DFA, this has not been gracefully done. Again, anecdotal evidence suggests that levels of resistance have been high. Inevitably incumbent bureaucrats resist those regarded as intruders, and South Africa's diplomats are no exception. South Africa's long-serving diplomats have been at some distance from the raw passion of the country's day-to-day politics. Posted abroad and cut off from the intense struggles of the 1980s, they may have little appreciation for the great wells of talent within the ranks of the country's majority. This distance may have been compounded by the DFA's elitist self-image.

The process of transforming the DFA has also been both skewed and slowed by the rush to appoint black staff to foreign missions that has left the internal workings of the ministry untouched. In most cases, the "new" foreign policy appears to be made by those who made the "old" foreign policy. Hopes that this might be changed by the appointment of senior staff in the ministry have been put on hold. It has taken more than a year to appoint second-tier leadership. The decision to retain Rusty Evans, the incumbent, Director-General of Foreign Affairs, until the end of his current tenure, was not without controversy.

All this may have affected the public image of the DFA and brings us back to the flamboyant Pik Botha. He remains a master of the sound-bite: in conferences and on the hustings, his dramatic performances gained him international notoriety. But it was on television where a single two-minute appearance would guarantee voter approval for the DFA, that he is most sorely missed. This digression should not be read as an attack on Alfred Nzo. He is very different from his predecessor, far more the Victorian gentleman than any previous South African foreign minister. Nzo's contribution to the process of building a new set of international relationships is, frankly, unknown. Official sources credit him with securing the sets of relations with the African continent but whether or not this has actually turned on his President or on Africa's joy at South Africa's return is uncertain. The point of the comparison is that a central threat to South Africa's "new" foreign policy may well be the absence of a clearly-defined public profile. This promises to be important in South Africa where budgets and efficacy of government departments will be closely watched.

The ending of the Cold War has witnessed the rise of a new genre of realism in international relations - trade and economic determinism. It holds that the new conflicts are economic, that only countries who are positioned to respond to this can become "winning nations." Of course, there is ample superficial evidence to support this view, but it has been driven by economic interest groups in most countries and South Africa is no exception. The watchword of this neo-mercantilism is clear. The business of foreign policy is finding business.

This perspective has been enthusiastically embraced by the DFA who see it as a means of contributing to the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). But they face an immediate challenge from the increasingly vociferous Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), previously a bureaucratic backwater. The DTI has to all intents and purposes cornered the market on South Africa's international economic positioning. They have steered the debate and the negotiations over South Africa's links with the all-important European Community and set out the issues on the country's association with its immediate neighbours through the still-to-be-refurbished Southern African Customs Union. In all this, the DFA has followed, although it's fair to say that individuals from the DFA have made a difference particularly on the EU question.

If economics is one face of the `new world order' debate in South Africa , the other is security. Here, too, the discourse has not been carried by DFA. In this case, the dominant leadership has been the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). Like many other transitions - in Spain and Portugal, for example - South Africa's has been powerfully cast within a distinctive security-conscious mind-set that has uncritically continued the idiom of the security debates of the past.

True, the simplistic notions of a `total onslaught' that were driven by crude strategic logic have been replaced by a set of new issues such as migration, drugs and small arms proliferation. While each represents distinctive challenges to South Africa's government, whether or not individually or together they represent a threat to the security of the state is an altogether different question. The necessary unpacking of each suggests how dangerously simplistic policy approaches to these kinds of issues can become when they are cast within the restricting logic of traditional strategic thinking. In South and Southern Africa, each of these issues is only properly understood and responded to within wider social contexts: migration is a significant part of the region's political economy, drugs are an integral part of the country's culture and of rural economics, and small arms are a by- product of township violence and the struggle for scarce resources at the local level.

The strategic logic that underpinned the ancien regime makes some sense in the context of, say, maritime security intentions, but even in the context of the hotly-debated issue around the navy's desire to purchase four Corvettes, it has been shown to be wanting. The country's maritime interests may be best served by the development of a comprehensive maritime policy in which the navy might play a major, though not the dominant, role.

These macro and micro-security concerns touch the very core of South Africa's foreign policy, the country's relations with its neighbours. And, quite understandably, Southern Africa has been identified as the priority by Minister Nzo, his deputy Aziz Pahad and senior bureaucrats in the DFA. Beyond these declarations, however, there seems to be a void. Although an elaborate scaffolding is in place both for a new regional security and economic structure, South Africa appears to be hesitating. In limited ways, the country is caught in a complex dilemma: does it follow or lead the region into the 21st century?

Along with Botswana and Zimbabwe, South Africa has shown the capacity to deal with the deteriorating situation in Lesotho by using a judicious mix of traditional diplomatic instruments. Lesotho's tragedy, however, is that it may defy the solutions that these offer. Until and unless the security of Lesotho's people becomes part of a wider regional context that ensures them access to some of the wealth they have brought South Africa, there can be no lasting peace in that country. This means that the sub-region's borders will have to be re-examined: Lesotho might only be stabilized by incorporation in a greater South Africa. The same logic applies to Swaziland and, perhaps, Botswana. There is, however, no indication that those who make regional policy are prepared to move the debate beyond the set routines of preventive diplomacy.

Underlying all this, of course, is the nagging question of whether the `new' South Africa will be sufficiently confident to draw upon its domestic experience of reconciliation and help chart new directions in Southern Africa. There are hard choices to be made in southern Africa: these are not to be found within the narrow discourse of orthodox realism but within the emerging global contours that are to be found beyond the nation-state.

Innumerable other issues of both theory and policy remain. Much to the chagrin of the DFA, the increasingly assertive Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs recently pointed out the inherent contradictions in the re-prioritization of the country's foreign policy. While Africa enjoys precedence over both Europe and North America, budget re-allocations to match these new priorities have not been made. At issue here is the immediate problem of bureaucratic transformation, but much deeper is the issue of foreign policy-making in a democracy. How free is South Africa to produce an individual and authentic narrative of itself in the world beyond the Cold War?

In the instance of the non-proliferation treaty, where it seems South Africa did decisively manage to re-direct the course of events by leading and directing a third approach to the issue and ensuring the extension of the treaty, nearly all the kudos were lost because the country has been seen be too close to the United States. If, as the South Africans claim, they did manage to increase the prospects for the extension of the non-proliferation treaty, why has the US been reluctant to allow the "new" South Africa to claim the credit?

Then there is great confusion around President Mandela's approach to foreign policy issues. Both China and Indonesia demonstrate the problem. For a mix of economic and sentimental reasons, plus a certain amount of confusion, the country continues its formal recognition of Taiwan. The imminent end to British rule in Hong Kong suggests that this policy has a limited shelf-life. Nevertheless, President Mandela continues to make conciliatory noises towards the island. Indonesia is a slightly different case. The President visited the country on two occasions. On a recent trip he is reported to have has raised his concerns over East Timor. But has he been forceful enough in promoting an appropriate human rights narrative?

All the evidence suggests that South Africa's foreign policy continues to be made by an elite that is deeply influenced by the country's past international experience. This raises serious questions for progressive research. For too long the theory that underpinned South Africa's foreign policy was uncontested ground within the country. With few exceptions, intellectuals uncritically accepted the necessity of the realist paradigm that did little more than promote sectional interests.

The ending of the Cold War has opened up new discourses in international relations which the debate in South Africa on its emerging foreign policy must draw upon more heavily. In important ways, South Africa can play an important role in changing the debate on the course of international relations. The rainbow option can become a force for intense new understanding of human relations as the 21st century approaches. Moreover, Mandela's personal history needs to inspire more than failing politicians, retired statesmen and ageing monarchs. Foreign policy-makers will have to draw on the insights and energies of community groups and unions, and they will also have to turn to the talents offered by a new and critical generation of intellectuals.

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