Zuma’s Foreign Policy – a personal assessment


FOREIGN POLICY IS CRUCIAL FOR any government aiming to strengthen its relations with the rest of the world. Since World II the growing importance of foreign policy has culminated in disciplines such as International Relations, where global social events as well as the responses on them are studied. What can be said about Jacob Zuma’s foreign policy? Has it succeeded in improving South Africa’s image to the rest of the world? I’d say no.

Upon Zuma’s arrival at the Union Buildings, there was already a mess on his table bequeathed by his predecessor Thabo Mbeki – Zimbabwe. After years of brutality under Mugabe, Zimbabwe was in desperate need of a road to better economic governance and the restoration of political freedoms. Since Zuma took office, along with Zimbabwe a series of events have shaken the global landscape, from Laurent Gbagbo’s resistance to cede power to the Arab Spring that toppled his long time buddy – Muammar Gaddaffi. Today Al-Assad cracks down on peaceful protesters, calling them gangs and terrorists. The whole world is in dismay but South Africa, Russia and the Chinese seem less upset.

Many around the world believed the post-apartheid South Africa would be on board in fighting human rights violations through institutions such as the United Nations and the African Union. But this has never been really the case. Merle Lipton is the Associate Fellow in the Africa Programme at Chatham House and Visiting Senior Research Fellow in International Relations at Sussex University. In her paper titled “Understanding South Africa’s foreign policy: the perplexing case of Zimbabwe”, she talks about inconsistencies and puzzles on South Africa’s stance on Zimbabwe. South Africa justified its policy on Zimbabwe on, among many points, the claim that South Africa’s alternative strategy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ would be more effective than the West’s ‘megaphone diplomacy’ in resolving the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe. These claims seemed naïve in the face of ordinary citizens continuing to endure brutality from their government. Since Zuma became president there has been no significant change in Zimbabwe. South Africa has never played an effective role, exercising its power in the Southern region that would culminate in free and fair elections in Zimbabwe. Zuma has followed on Mbeki’s footsteps, yes Mbeki who once denied a crisis in Zimbabwe. Merle shares her dismay on actions we’ve undertaken, which were to oppose resolutions on behalf of victims of violations in Sudan, Myanmar, Uzbekistan, Belarus and North Korea. Why are we doing this?

One of the challenging issues that have faced Zuma since he became president was that of Ivory Coast. Even though Laurent Gbagbo had been declared a loser of the 2010 national elections to Alassane Ouattara, he denied the loss which led to intervention by foreign troops. It was never clear where South Africa stood on the matter. It even took us some time to recognize Ouatarra as the new head of state.

The other issue is that of Libya where we voted for a no-fly zone at the United Nations Security Council. Then shortly after this the president says no force should be used to protect civilians. Clearly he didn’t understand the meaning of a no-fly zone. He implicitly sided with Gaddaffi which stoked the ire around the world because Gaddaffi had already committed war crimes. Then we recently decided to abstain on the Resolution to impose tougher sanctions on Al-Assad’s regime. Of course China and Russia vetoed that Resolution. I think in this case we implicitly sided with Al-Assad and the Chinese. This is really tarnishing our reputation. Our actions do not show commitment to upholding human rights and civil liberties across the world. I think we’re missing something.

At the recent Delhi Declaration South Africa supported a politically motivated idea of an alternative to the World Bank, probably affording a more dominant role to China. What’s wrong with the current institutional arrangement? It was once predicted that Japan would be the major superpower by the year 2000. It never happened. Today Chinese growth is decelerating and India is mired in economic woes.  My point is that this which seems “gold” might not last and therefore we need to balance our foreign policy – from North to South and from West to East.

In all of these international issues I think we haven’t yet seen the best of Jacob Zuma in taking a stand. When are we going to see him? He’s been back and forth, sometimes very naive. It does seem that his administration is continuing on Mbeki’s policies that, for the most part, failed to condemn human rights abuses across the globe. He needs to consider that the inexorable rise of China may not be a foregone conclusion. We see impressive economic growth in many parts of the world, apart from China. Even that which ails Europe as we speak shall pass. So I believe he should not continue duck-hunting with the Chinese, who in my view are perpetrating human rights violations. Rather he should pursue a balanced foreign policy that upholds human rights, inclusive of the West and the emerging economies – where civil liberties take priority. PM


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