On Saturday 30 May 2020, the Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA) and CACS, in collabortion with the UJ LIbrary, hosted a virtual summit on South Africa’s foreign policy amid the coronavirus pandemic which was broadcast live by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). The summit also served as a platform for launching the IFA.
The event was moderated by Mr Mpho Tsedu, CEO of the IFA. The keynote speaker was the Hon. Dr Naledi Pandor, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, and the other speakers were Dr Sithembile Mbete, a senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria, and Ms Sophie Mokoena, Foreign Editor of the SABC.
Opening the proceedings, Prof Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg, stressed the importance of foreign policy and international relations for any nation, and the potentially disrupting impact of COVID-19.
In her presentation, Dr Pandor recalled South Africa’s foreign policy commitments following its transition to democracy – notably, to play an active role globally in promoting democracy and human rights. Given that the success of these commitments depended on peace and stability, South Africa had made significant contributions to United Nations peace missions. Currently, South Africa was the 17th biggest contributor to peacekeeping forces in the world. Its contributions have been made even outside the continent, to Syria and Venezuela, for example.
Minister Pandor also noted that South Africa’s 2020 incumbency of the Chair of the African Union (AU) had brought with it a range of responsibilities. Deputy President David Mabuza had been working closely with the South Sudanese government, and it was heartening to note that at the beginning of 2020 the South Sudanese government was reconfigured to include leaders of the opposition, thus lessening the tensions that had destabilised the country since 2013.
Another upside to South Africa’s foreign policy activity in peacekeeping missions was the attention it had paid to gender sensitivity, i.e. the inclusion of women. Africa could never fully develop until it incorporated all its stakeholders in the mainstream development agenda. Including women in the continent’s quest for peace and development was not only important but necessary.
According to Dr Pandor, the continent was beset with challenges. Ongoing conflict in Libya between the UN-acknowledged Government of National Accord and the rebel movement of Khalifa Haftar was a blight on the continent. This instability undermined efforts to quell the human smuggling and perilous immigration taking place in Libya. Apart from security concerns, the Minister talked about the troubling disillusionment that the West seemed to have with multilateralism.
The coronavirus underscored the importance of global synergy in tackling common challenges. In this respect, she noted that Africa had asked for its debt to be deferred for at least two years. The continent would need all the resources it could muster in order to bolster its health facilities, and deal with the after-effects of the coronavirus. Isolationism could harm prospects for surmounting these challenges. For this reason, Dr Pandor highlighted the importance of working in concert.
Dr Mbete highlighted three important South African responsibilities in the foreign policy arena. The first, in tandem with one of the minister’s points, was the inclusion of women in the search for peace and security under the framework of silencing the guns. COVID-19 had underlined the indispensability of women in Africa because most of the essential work that had to continue amid COVID-19-imposed lockdowns was being done by women.
South Africa’s second responsibility emanated from its non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council. The two foremost economies in the world, the United States and the People’s Republic of China, were engaged in polarising hostility and interminable trade disagreements that had global implications. Both were also permanent members of the UN Security Council, and their conduct in the Council demonstrated the fissures between the West and the East. South Africa could thus play a leading role in keeping the balance between these two extremes.
Minister Pandor concurred with this point, and made the case for level-headed diplomacy in what she described as a ‘titanic battle’ between the two superpowers. She argued that leaders of the United States and China should be given a ‘gentle whisper’, counselling them against the harmful effects of Sino-American tensions on Africa and other world regions. South Africa had to emphasise the fact that the UN remained a guarantor of human rights and security, but the escalating tension between the USA and China could deal a body blow to this mandate.
The third responsibility mentioned by Dr Mbete was youth empowerment. Sixty percent Africans today were below the age of 25 years, and Africa’s median age was 19.7 years. Africa was thus a repository of the future, but the prosperity of that future depended on harnessing the talent of the continent’s youth. Alienating the youth from Africa’s development was counterproductive, because alienated youth were susceptible to conscription by extremist movements. South Africa’s contribution to peacekeeping in Africa was imperative because infrastructure development and economic progress could only take place and be sustained in conditions of peace and stability. Even the ideals and aspirations of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) could only be fully realised if Africa established enduring peace and sustainability.
Ms Sophie Mokoena started her presentation by referring to the peripheral role that Africa had played since the First World War. She argued that this had continued to this day, and historically powerful international actors continued to dictate to Africa. She advocated the reform of the UN Security Council in accordance with the challenges of peace and security currently confronting the world. She argued that Africa was rife with conflicts, yet the continent did not have permanent representation at the Security Council which was a premium body for mapping out conflict resolution programmes. She urged that Africa should emphasise inclusivity, even in intra-African affairs. For this reason, the African Union should acknowledge and welcome the insights and roles of ordinary Africans in building peace on the continent. She referred to the ‘]nothing about us without us’ exhortation as a clarion call for including ordinary Africans.
Ms Mokoena also argued that peace and stability could only be achieved if the basic material needs of Africans are met. Once poverty had been silenced, stability and the silencing of guns would follow. Currently, South Africa and Africa at large would struggle to meet the challenges confronting the continent because the coronavirus had imposed unbidden and unforeseen challenges.
The continent found itself in an unfortunate position because it was dangerously vulnerable to the state of non-African and more powerful economies. The effects of COVID-19 demonstrated how Africa’s lack of economic independence made political independence largely rhetorical. The AfCFTA was aimed at remedying Africa’s economic vulnerability to non-African economies.
Dr Pandor lamented the fact that COVID-19 had forced the AU to postpone important discussions about the implementation of the AfCFTA. Some of the groundwork had already been done, and a Secretary General, Wamkele Mene from South Africa, had already been appointed.
Dr Pandor agreed with Ms Mokoena’s argument for reforming the UN Security Council. She also reiterated the importance of economic self-sufficiency. She referred to the uncomfortable fact that Africa was relying on non-African countries for masks and ventilators that were needed to stave off the spread of the coronavirus. In response to Dr Mbete, Minister Pandor noted that youth empowerment in Africa was essential for the future of Africa and the world. She was encouraged by the fact that the youth had been involved in data gathering amid the coronavirus.
Mr Tsedu asked Dr Pandor about the possible role that non-state actors could play in foreign policy. Responding , she drew attention to the admirable and effective role played by non-state actors in the struggle against apartheid, including bolstering international ant-apartheid campaigns. The same determination should be invested in areas such as the Palestinian question where people were still deprived of land and basic human rights. African civil society also played an essential role in exposing human rights violations. For this reason, institutes such as the IFA and CACS had an important role to play in contributing to African and global peace, stability and development.
Dr David Monyae, Director of CACS, thanked the presenters, the SABC and the staff of the UJ Library. He added that CACS and IFA should establish channels of collaboration with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO).