The strategic imperative of SA’s 2018 Brics presidency

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The year 2018 will be one of South Africa’s busiest on the diplomatic calendar since democratisation in 1994. While it offers many possibilities and opportunities for newly sworn in President Cyril Ramaphosa and his administration, it will also test the state’s strategic thinking when it comes to utilising its international partnerships to achieve domestic and regional priorities.

While South Africa maintains a large diplomatic presence in the world, question marks persist on whether the country’s foreign policy brings about tangible benefits for the broader society. This question is especially pertinent in tough economic and political times. South Africa finds itself chairing the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) group of countries, the Southern African Development Community, the Indian Ocean Rim Association and has recently put through its bid for a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council in 2019-2020.

These multiple responsibilities place an obligation on the foreign policy community to craft a coherent and consistent strategy in line with the country’s domestic and regional priorities. While the Department of International Relations and Cooperation remains the central focal point for South Africa’s international relations, sub-national spheres of government such as cities and provinces have become increasingly important foreign policy actors.

The task of the South African state will thus be to ensure a coherent, whole-of-government approach underpinned by a clear grand strategy on South Africa’s international relations. The state will thus have to demonstrate an ability to co-ordinate within and outside of government to make use of the available human resources involved in thinking through and implementing South Africa’s foreign policy.

During the recent State of the Nation address debate on February 19, Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor noted that under South Africa’s Brics chairship, the country would prioritise the promotion of value-added trade and intra-Brics investment into productive sectors, while pointing out that under its chairship of the SADC it would prioritise implementing the SADC industralisation strategy and developing an infrastructure roadmap.

Given the focus of the Brics New Development Bank in funding sustainable infrastructure, the country will have to explain to its African partners to what extent the Africa Regional Centre of the Bank now headquartered in Johannesburg would contribute to filling the infrastructure gap in the region.

While some within and outside of South Africa have argued that the country’s Brics membership constitutes a turn towards the East (read China) and a shunning of relations with partners in the North (read EU and the US), Pandor sought to dispel this line of argumentation. She states that "(a)s we work to further strengthen the Brics partnership, we will certainly not neglect other valued and established partnerships such as the one with the European Union, which continues to be an important trading, investment, development co-operation and dialogue partner for South Africa".

Her balancing act is more in line with the empirical reality of South Africa’s international engagements, where more than 70 percent of the country’s foreign direct investment continues to come from countries in the EU. This line of reasoning also takes into consideration the reality the EU remains the number one source of funding for regional economic communities and the African Union. Perhaps this signals a more pragmatic approach that balances the country’s engagement with global reformers in the Brics and established powers in the global North. In this approach, Brics is not romanticised as heralding an overturning of the global system, but instead plays a role in the country’s overall grand strategy and positioning in global politics.

The real pressure thus lies in crafting a pragmatic foreign policy, yet one still defined by a stronger normative underpinning drawing from the country’s domestic values. Whether one is a Brics optimist or a sceptic, and there remains many sceptics within and outside of South Africa, the reality is that South Africa is a member of the Brics grouping, and its 2018 presidency will usher in the beginning of the second decade of the Brics partnership.

The only way to allay the anxieties of sceptics will be to demonstrate a type of diplomacy that sees Brics membership not as an end goal in itself, but as part of a web of international engagements synchronised with delivering on South Africa’s domestic and regional priorities. Those responsible for implementing the country’s foreign policy must use 2018 to inculcate a culture of strategic thinking and engagement on the global stage that brings about tangible benefits to the country’s citizens.


Dr. Philani Mthembu is Executive Director of the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA and Co-founder of the Berlin Forum on Global Politics. His views are his own unless otherwise stated.

The article was first published in the Independent Online (IOL) 27 February 2018




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