There is one thing that governments all over the world, democratic and undemocratic, have in common: they all seem to think that foreign policy is an esoteric area of human endeavour that is beyond the grasp of the mere mortals who happen to be the citizens of the countries they govern or misrule.
Countries that are democratic have another thing in common: their democratic spaces are very noisy places that are populated by people who either think they know everything or are entitled to know everything, including the secrets of politicians or what is sometimes genuinely, euphemistically or cynically referred to as ‘national security’ and ‘the national interest.
Fortunately, no one knows what these things mean exactly, hence the equanimity with which citizens tend to receive foreign policy decisions. It is the consequences of some of these decisions that, under the influence of a free media, can shatter the bliss of ignorance. Under these circumstances, our grasp of geography improves and it is precisely for this reason that the number of South Africans who can locate the Central African Republic (CAR) on a map has increased exponentially over the past few weeks. There was a time when many South Africans could hardly locate Africa in an atlas. Now we know that the CAR is not a car, although we still do not know how our soldiers got there. The media, with its ignorance of bliss, has destroyed our blissful ignorance on foreign policy issues.
As they say, all politics is domestic. Our democracy is one of the noisiest places on the planet and, on the domestic front, the relationship between ruler and ruled is not always cosy. It is for this reason that President Jacob Zuma makes sure that his visits to South Africa are as infrequent as possible. Also, it may be the reason why some members of the African National Congress (ANC) are punishing the inquisitive among us by disinvesting from the South African economy.
According to the Mail & Guardian, they prefer safe investment destinations, such as the CAR, where their money is being protected – from a safe distance – by South African soldiers from the grubby little fingers of the Seleka rebels who took power by undemocratic means. The ANC angrily dismissed the allegation and accused the Mail & Guardian of doing something its journalists must do in the privacy of its same-sex toilet.
Were it not for the 13 young South African soldiers who died during a battle against the rebels, I would be laughing. But we must cry because 13 South African families are in mourning. We must cry, not because our soldiers must never die, but must shed tears of anger and frustration when those we elected treat us as a nuisance for asking simple questions. I am not asking for operational plans. All I want is an improvement in public diplomacy.
Instead of shouting at talk-show presenters, the Minister of Defence must explain the pillars of South Africa’s African agenda and how our intervention in the CAR is consistent with this African agenda.
As stated previously, all politics is domestic. More importantly, citizens are not bloodhounds who will understand foreign policy decisions by smelling them.
On the South African domestic front, a wall of mistrust is being erected, with citizens and the government on opposite sides. In its responses to questions that are being posed about our presence in the CAR, our government must bear in mind that some of us are motivated neither by the desire to catch votes nor the belief that the ANC constitutes evidence of the inability of those who were oppressed to govern a modern State and a modern economy.
Our government, particulalrly the President, must develop the wisdom to listen carefully with the aim of distinguishing constructive noise from destructive noise. To wish for a quiet democracy is as futile and naïve as to wish for full transparency in matters of the State. That said, the noise over the death of 13 of our sons is less about the foreign policy considerations that caused South Africa to intervene in the CAR and much more about building a relationship of trust between citizens and government here at home.
If citizens cannot trust their government on national issues, it is highly unlikely that they will trust it on foreign policy. At home, government must keep its word when it comes to issues such as service delivery and tackling corruption. On foreign policy, it must communicate more effectively. This, however, does not mean that citizens will stop questioning government decisions. The questioning will be less malicious if the prospects of a relationship of trust are not undermined by what may be reasonable suspicions that individual politicians are, indeed, crossing the line between the national and the personal.