National economic interests are, according to the president, the country’s most pressing foreign policy imperatives.
Every two years, South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) summons its ambassadors and high commissioners from all over the world to Pretoria for the Heads of Mission Conference. This is more than just a chance for the country’s top diplomats to network and renew acquaintances; it is also an opportunity for the department to set South Africa’s international agenda for the next two years.
This is also where diplomats are instructed how the country should be represented abroad, and what South Africa’s foreign policy priorities really are. Given that it is not always easy to independently establish those priorities, it is a unique opportunity to peek behind South Africa’s diplomatic curtain.
The conference comes at an important time. With President Jacob Zuma under huge domestic pressure – facing corruption scandals and allegations of ‘state capture’ – the job of ambassadors is becoming tougher than ever.
‘South Africa used to be the poster child for constitutional democracy. But it’s getting harder for South African diplomats to sell a positive story about the country. Zuma is our biggest embarrassment, but there are many others,’ said Anton du Plessis, Executive Director of the Institute for Security Studies.
‘South Africa is losing the moral legitimacy that enabled it to punch above its weight in recent years. This reputational damage makes it much trickier for South Africa to continue to shape global governance, and influence key security and human rights decisions.
‘It also makes us less attractive on the economic investment front because of the unpredictability of our foreign policy and political leadership. Brand SA is in tatters,’ Du Plessis said.
Zuma delivered a rather different message in his keynote address at the conference, which veered off the prepared text. He painted a picture of South Africa as a moral and political heavyweight on the international stage, and a role model for other African nations. ‘There is a good story to tell about this country… The African countries look up to South Africa. And that is not a theory, that is what they say, and correctly so, because South Africa is the biggest economy on the continent.’
Economic concerns were far and away the major focus of Zuma’s speech. His message was unequivocal: when it comes to South Africa’s relations with the rest of the globe, it’s all about the money.
Referring to diplomats as ‘our foremost marketing and promotion officers,’ Zuma said several times that economic diplomacy is South Africa’s ‘apex priority.’ For ambassadors, this means that their most important role is to promote the country as an attractive investment destination.
‘You need to continue to position our country positively, and help us to grow the economy through global economic partnerships. Keep our country brand alive and visible everywhere you are… Our heads of mission need to promote various sectors of our economy to host countries.’
This represents a more hard-nosed foreign policy than that espoused by either Nelson Mandela or Thabo Mbeki, who publicly framed South Africa’s diplomatic engagements in the context of its international and moral obligations. They concentrated more on peace and security, pan-Africanism and human rights rather than national economic interests (this was the discourse, anyway; the reality may have been somewhat different).
In fact, Zuma did not mention a single current peace and security issue, and framed South Africa’s engagement in Africa in almost exclusively economic terms, despite the country’s active presence in several peacekeeping missions.
Zuma emphasised, however, that economic growth must be inclusive, and told diplomats to ensure that potential investors were aware of South Africa’s transformation goals. He praised China as a model of economic inclusivity, speaking at length about how China has raised 80 million people out of poverty (that’s Zuma’s figure. According to the World Bank, the number is much larger: 800 million people since 1978). The sub-text of this was unmistakeable: that South Africa should look east rather than west for policy inspiration.
When it comes to multilateral relations, Zuma reiterated the importance of two institutions: BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the G20. In both, South Africa is the only African member state. This represents a subtle but nonetheless important policy shift away from broader organisations such as the African Union and United Nations, and towards smaller, more nimble institutions in which South Africa can play a more major role.
‘Therefore, for SA to be part of [these groupings] is absolutely an important thing. [They] take very serious decisions that are beginning to influence the world. As a representative, it’s important to know this – not to boast about it, but to discuss when asked,’ said Zuma.
Judging from the president’s emphases, these are South Africa’s most pressing foreign policy imperatives: attracting foreign investment, cosying up to China, and maintaining its position as the sole African representative in BRICS and the G20.
But of course, Zuma could not escape his own domestic issues and was forced to address both the recent student protests and criticism of his own leadership.
On the former, Zuma argued that the government supported the students’ aims, but not the violence employed by some factions, and is in the process of finding a solution to their demand for free tertiary education. On the latter, Zuma told his diplomats that they should use the contested political space to highlight South Africa’s strength as a democracy.
‘You make mistakes, you are punished for it. You learn how not to make mistakes so that you’ll never lose one day. That’s democracy. I can’t explain it in any other way, that’s life. As a representative of this country that is highly praised, tell people that that is what democracy is all about,’ the president said.
He’s not wrong. South Africa’s vibrant, noisy democracy has long made the country a beacon of democratic progress in the world, even if – especially if – it eventually forces Zuma out of office. While Zuma wants the country’s diplomats to talk up its economic potential, democracy may still be South Africa’s biggest selling point.
Simon Allison, ISS consultant