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South Africa's foreign policy walks a fine line

South Africa's foreign policy walks a fine line


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Today, 5 October 2015, South African authorities are expected to submit their reasons for failing to arrest Sudanese President Al-Bashir when he attended the African Union Summit in June 2015. The furore that erupted has fuelled concerns about the place of human rights in South Africa’s foreign policy and highlights the importance for us to consider the nuances of the country’s foreign policy.

For a rainbow nation, we are inordinately pre-occupied with notions of ‘black’ and ‘white’. We find the world easier to digest if it is trimmed into neat dichotomies of ‘good’ or ‘evil’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – ‘black’ or ‘white’. Our inability to see the world in shades of grey – or more preferably, in all its technicoloured splendour – means that we often miss out on the nuance and depth of issues.


Our analysis of foreign policy frequently falls victim to this kind of myopic discourse. This means that we are often confused when trying to digest South Africa’s foreign policy postulations. To be fair, a government that is willing to deride its largest trading partner (the US) for its excesses in Libya but obstructs a Nobel laureate from visiting (three times!) out of its solidarity with China, does not make the job easy.

Foreign policy has always been in the service of the national interest. For South Africa, the amorphous definition of national interest is expanded to included conceptions of how we choose to be seen – intertwined with our identity as well as our history. As a consequence of the latter, the issue of ‘solidarity’ is pervasive and its power is often underestimated.


Beyond the media hype around South Africa, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and the International Criminal Court (ICC), the story of African solidarity and identity becomes clearer.

In June this year President al-Bashir arrived in South Africa to attend the African Union Summit. When he arrived, the Southern African Litigation Centre’s urgent court application for his arrest led to a furious media frenzy compounded by international criticism of the South African government’s decision to not arrest him, and indeed to allow him to enter the country in the first place. South Africa is not only a signatory to the Rome Statute which established the ICC, but in 2002, it enshrined the ICC in national legislation. Refusing to arrest him put the government in contravention of its own laws.

In the end, he was forced to leave the country by stealth, and in defiance of a South African court order that he should remain in the country pending the completion of a judicial process. This brought further censure upon the government for its complicity in his ‘escape’.

The furore around President al-Bashir is inextricably linked with the problems that African countries have had with the ICC’s indictment of sitting heads of state. There is a widely-held perception, shared by the ruling ANC, that the ICC displays an unfair bias against Africans and that it is used by powerful non-member states (read ‘the US’), in the words of Obed Bapela ‘as a proxy to persecute African leaders and effect regime change on the continent but [who] refuse to submit themselves to the ICC.’ 

In 2013, Africa came close to severing ties en masse with the ICC when its pursuit of the indictments against President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto of Kenya forced the continental body to hold a special summit to discuss the future of the relationship. That summit ended with an African consensus that it would not tolerate actions against sitting heads of state.

Given the strong feelings about external interference in the ICC’s agenda, Obed Bapela, chairman of the ANC subcommittee on international relations, was correct in arguing that arresting President al-Bashir would have isolated the country from the continent. This is reminiscent of the time that South Africa was left ostracised by President Mandela’s calls for clemency for Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, and sanction against the Abacha regime in the Commonwealth and elsewhere. The country learnt then that to lead the continent one has to learn to garner its respect first, and avoid alienating African allies.

Therefore, political isolation from Africa is not something that South Africa is willing to risk. From its vantage point, if it is to enjoy leverage to influence peace negotiations on the continent, the doors of communication need to be open at all costs. One government official once told me:

‘We need to talk to al-Bashir, we need to talk to Mugabe – the West shouting and condemning him has not changed anything – you just lose leverage, and become part of the problem. You need good offices even with the worst people.’

However, it would be a mistake to assume that the issue of the Dalai Lama stems from the same sense of solidarity. In this case, one would argue that economic self-interest was the driving factor. On pronouncing on an issue like the Dalai Lama, a state like South Africa is required to weigh the two imperatives of morality with that of economics. South Africa fears a potential backlash if it were to put emphasis on human rights at the expense of other national interest considerations.

A noteworthy example of how swiftly and severely China responds to perceived diplomatic slights is that of Norway. In 2010, Norway awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo. The consequence was a freezing of bilateral relations with China and targeted economic sanctions. According to some sources, Norwegian salmon made up 90% of China’s total salmon imports prior to the awarding of Liu’s prize; almost immediately afterwards, this dropped to less than 30%. Norway now exports less salmon to China than does the Faroe Islands. However, there are many countries in the world that do not question officially China’s sovereignty over Tibet, but they nevertheless find non-formal ways of engaging with the Dalai Lama. 

There is plenty of evidence to show that South Africa seeks to balance multiple interests and actors while being responsive to the context within which issues emerge. The principles that South Africa applies in arriving at its decisions are not always clear. This makes it difficult for observers to understand, if they are not attuned to these multifarious factors, and the weighting that they are afforded.

It behoves the government then, and the Department of International Relations and Cooperation in particular, to constantly strive to fill this gap by providing timeous and clear communications about their decisions – in as far as diplomacy will allow, while also not losing sight of the guidelines and strictures of the country’s constitution.

Written by Aditi Lalbahadur, Programme Manager of the Foreign Policy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs. This article was first published by the Mail & Guardian.


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