South Africa

Ramaphosa and the World: South Africa’s opportunity to transform its global reputation

In the wake of the stunning political developments surrounding Jacob Zuma’s banishment and the ascendance of Cyril Ramaphosa as South Africa’s newest president, it is time to take stock of the country’s foreign policy evolution, and what the new president must face. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a stab.

Even before the moving vans begin hauling away Jacob Zuma’s boodle from the several presidential residences he used for nearly a decade, and before incoming president Cyril Ramaphosa even begins to start moving his personal stuff in instead, commentators are now busy evaluating the impact of the Zuma presidency on South Africa.

Many will undoubtedly undertake the task of evaluating the former president’s dire impact on the nation’s economy, or its political, legal, social, and ethical structures. But beyond analysis of the diseases, Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency must quickly begin the task of rebuilding the nation’s governmental structures to serve the broader nation, beyond being the well-stocked game farm of a few well-connected families and their political cronies.

Instead, Ramaphosa will need, as it is sometimes said, to make haste slowly but deliberately, harvesting as much low-hanging policy fruit as possible before many conclude he can’t or won’t overcome the mire – and that the rot is simply too deep. Even though the domestic effects have been baleful from this Zuma presidency, there is also the damage done to the country’s foreign relations and that deserves a look as well – as well as some speculations on the possibilities going forward. But, before rushing directly into a brief evaluation of the Zuma foreign affairs legacy, let alone a roster of Cyril Ramaphosa’s daunting challenges, we should first engage with recent history.

By the last years of the apartheid era, the PW Botha and then the FW de Klerk regimes had lost virtually nearly all remaining international credibility. The country’s diplomats were increasingly precluded from credibly representing their isolated state or its domestic policies. By contrast, by those years, the ANC actually had more international representative offices (and official recognition) than did the government in power.

Protests against the South African government’s policies, its embassies, and its personnel were the routine around the world. A growing sanctions regimen – financial, political, economic, cultural, and sports – was increasingly choking off the country’s international connections and future prospects. The international environment looked increasingly menacing for South Africa, and any real prospects for a dialing back of these pressures by the international community seemed very dim at best.

Then, seemingly out of the blue (although we now know there was much movement behind the curtain between the government and its ANC opponents), the government pivoted to negotiating with its opponents, released its political opponents from incarceration, and unbanned opposition political parties and movements. Political opponents in exile returned to the country by their hundreds. There was a peaceful – albeit painful – negotiating process, even as political violence continued in many places across the nation.

But, Mirabile dictu, the country passed through the flame and emerged with a different landscape. Well, yes, that is how the public story went, even as there was – and there remains – an astonishing amount of unfinished business in building an economic engine and addressing the need to right historic wrongs. Still, in some fashion the impossible actually did happen and the seemingly inevitable “war of all against all” ethnic bloodbath did not happen. A scorched earth race war did not erupt. A violent class struggle did not ensue either, despite predictions from many novelists and analysts alike.

We all know what happened next. Even before he was officially president, Nelson Mandela was already travelling globally, reaching out to supporters and those who would believe in the miracle – touring to wild acclaim from Indonesia to New York City, and almost everywhere in between. By the time he was actually about to become president, in late 1993, Nelson Mandela’s government would – as he declared in a headliner article in the globally influential journal, Foreign Affairs – have a principled, highly moral foreign policy in which human rights would have a prominent place in South Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world’s nations.

As his article stated,

The pillars upon which our foreign policy will rest axe the following beliefs: that issues of human rights are central to international relations and an understanding that they extend beyond the political, embracing the economic, social and environmental; that just and lasting solutions to the problems of humankind can only come through the promotion of democracy worldwide; that considerations of justice and respect for international law should guide the relations between nations; that peace is the goal for which all nations should strive, and where this breaks down, internationally agreed and non-violent mechanisms, including effective arms-control regimes, must be employed; that the concerns and interests of the continent of Africa should be reflected in our foreign policy choices; that economic development depends on growing regional and international economic co-operation in an interdependent world. These convictions stand in stark contrast to how, for nearly five decades, apartheid South Africa disastrously conducted its international relations….”

Of course, turning such bold statements into actual practice was much harder than the mere stating of them, as it turned out. The new leadership discovered this first when it tried to bring about a replacement of Sani Abacha’s corrupt, venal, authoritarian regime in Nigeria. Nevertheless, the Mandela foreign policy ideals continued to be quoted routinely as a key element in the country’s dealings with other nations – and many others referred to such positions as goals to aim towards in international affairs.

Concurrently, Nelson Mandela’s economic policy orientation was quickly recalibrated away from his initial support of highly state-centred, nationalised industrial and financial sectors for the new nation. Instead, the new president offered a quick-footed recognition that international financial markets, investors and international financial institutions – and thus their support of the newest democracy on the block – were key for South Africa’s transformation from its apartheid past. This also reflected a profound realisation the centralised economies of the then-Soviet Union and its Eastern European satrapies were no more – and that the neoliberal and Western democratic order now held nearly global sway. (Even Deng Xiaoping agreed with the former, if not the latter.)

As part of setting new kinds of relationships for South Africa, entities such as the US-South African commission were established to nurture bilateral co-operation with high-level involvement – pairing the US vice president with the South African deputy president as co-chairs and a whole host of subcommittees and working groups to push the agenda forward.

Nelson Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, shifted some of the Mandela principles, focusing much more on institutionalising South Africa’s international relations in various fora. The NEPAD process, for example, was an effort to expand the impact on the rest of the continent of South Africa’s own perceived march into a rule-based, administrative competence in economic management. The rhetorical rubric for this was the “African Renaissance”.

Concurrently, the Mbeki administration aimed at pumping up South Africa’s larger international profile, pushing hard for inclusion of South Africa in the UN Security Council as a permanent member, and a restructuring of many international bodies. Claiming a special role for the country vis-a-vis the African diaspora, he even attended a presidential inauguration in Haiti and then offered asylum to a Haitian president once he had been turfed out of his own nation. Based on the impact of the long cycle commodity boom, as South Africa’s economy continued to grow and as foreign investment surged, Mbeki was convinced South Africa was destined to have an outsized place in international affairs as Africa’s first among equals nation.

By the time Jacob Zuma led the intraparty coup against Mbeki and became president, the global economy was teetering on the brink of a major financial and economic shock, and the commodity cycle had fallen away, giving less economic oomph to any international efforts. But the Zuma presidency was really not interested in grand international relations designs for the most part, save for a focus on the BRICS grouping as a pathway to recast international relations globally. (Their deep love for China was not, generally speaking, reciprocated with nearly as much ardour, however, as the Chinese saw things through a very different lens.)

The Zuma foreign policy universe, such as it was, really had no grand design. Embracing BRICS would help open the Chinese treasury and Russian nuclear technology (with those inevitable profitable side deals). Working within BRICS would similarly put South Africa in a collective that could stand against western nations in terms of world influence. Coupled with that, the Zuma worldview pushed against the kinds of international norms and standards exemplified by the Rome Statute that had established the International Criminal Court and advocated, in its place, an African court in which South Africa could have a greater influence.

Perhaps Zuma felt used and abused by that South African vote in favour of the Libyan no-fly zone that had helped precipitate the fall of Muammar Gadaffi when it had actually allowed British and French military aircraft to attack targets inside Libya in aid of Arab Spring rebels against the Gadaffi government. But the Zuma policy also had a fair portion of rhetorical anti-capitalist language woven into texts by the party and government, and that cropped up frequently in his speeches, as well as those of his foreign minister.

But at its heart, the Zuma foreign policy was largely a transactional one, rather than being rooted in broader principles. There also seemed to be the subtle intermingling of efforts on the continent supportive of individual commercial ventures by the well-placed, as with the persistent rumours about its engagement in the Central African Republic.

A final element of the Zuma foreign policy was also its love of the ceremonies, the pomp and circumstance, and the razzamatazz of those non-substantive leaders’ meetings and summits, where the real goal simply was to be in the official photograph, rather than any actual exposition or advance of policies and principles. Pushing hard for his candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, to become chair of the African Union Commission similarly seemed part of this as well, parking her until she could run for his old seat as party head. By contrast, in his engagement at places like Davos, Zuma seemed a fish out of water, rather than someone for whom this was an opportunity to put South Africa’s case to the global investor community.

The Zuma presidency office’s 11:59 hours effort to praise the then-president, on the eve of his dismissal tried hard to put its best face on nearly a decade’s worth of international success. But readers were left with a tick-sheet of meetings held and presidents met – kind of a written photo album.

It noted, “Africa was prioritised and several of State Visits were held with African countries to strengthen relations and deepen co-operation with sister nations in the continent. South Africa also deployed its former Home and Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, as the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, during whose tenure the vision of the continent for the future, Agenda 2063 was launched.”

It went on to praise all those meetings on behalf of regional trade and to herald the establishment of a BRICS bank regional office in Johannesburg as a major accomplishment, arguing, “South Africa is a proud member of formations such as the BRICS, which not only altered geopolitics and international political economy which for many years were skewed towards the developed countries of the west. President Zuma also launched the BRICS New Development Bank Africa Regional Centre in Johannesburg last year, which will provide infrastructure and development support to countries in their own national currency. This model will be further strengthened during South Africa’s 2018 Chairship of BRICS.” But nowhere was there a roll call of any actual accomplishments.

And now, of course, the country’s incoming president, Cyril Ramaphosa, must take on the task of healing a battered national reputation and its tarnished international standing. A few weeks ago, in thinking of an impending Ramaphosa presidency, I had written that once he gains the nation’s highest office, he “…is going to be in the awkward and dangerous position of calling on citizens to sacrifice in the face of difficulties. He will have to argue that the nation must somehow come together across divides that so many organisations and bodies have been stoking and feeding. And, crucially, that those who still have very little must put aside their real grievances in the face of yet a new national need for patience, forbearance and tolerance, where there has been very little of these values on display in recent times. And he will have to do this in a world where there are so many other places for investors to weigh carefully in their plans.” [Italics added]

Fortunately, the transition only took days, rather than a year and a half, as it might have. Moreover, Ramaphosa has the experience and nous to swim in the sea of international mover and shakers, whether it is at Davos or the annual meetings of the World Bank and the IMF, or as a speaker at some investment conference. Nevertheless, South Africa, under Ramaphosa, will have to work that much harder to regain even a smattering of the respect and admiration that it was accorded internationally during the Mandela years, or even in the early part of the Mbeki presidency. Fortunately, Ramaphosa appears to be well acquainted with the intricate relationships that create an effective economic diplomacy.

Unfortunately, it has been a wasted decade internationally chasing phantoms in the night. By contrast to that earlier period of growth and commodity boom sales, the current domestic social and economic pressures have gotten that much more difficult, after years of virtually no growth – plus the dead weight of the so-called “Zuma premium” of corruption and State Capture costs on the national budget and economy. Still, it is almost certainly true that Ramaphosa and whoever he eventually appoints to the senior policy making team will be people who fully appreciate the relationships between domestic growth and international confidence, investment and trade – and how diplomacy must support this in place of the glitter of the Zuma era. We can now hope for better, but we can’t yet count on it. DM

Photo: SA Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa in a BBC HARDtalk interview on the margins of the World Economic Forum 2018 Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. 25 January 2018. (GCIS)

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