There can be little doubt that one of the greatest benefits of South Africa’s transition to non-racial constitutional democracy in 1994 was the dramatic improvement in the country’s international standing.
From having been the most unpopular county in the world, South Africa, almost overnight, became the darling of the international community. Foreign Heads of State and Government lined up to visit South Africa for photo opportunities with Nelson Mandela.
In a recent survey conducted by the World Economic Forum Mandela emerged as the most admired man in recent history. Pope Francis was second – and interestingly enough another South African-born celebrity, Elon Musk, was in third position.
All this catapulted South Africa into the stratosphere of international relations – where it soon found itself boxing well above its economic and geo-strategic weight. It was elected at various times as the leader of the Non-Aligned Group and of the African Union. It took its place on the Security Council of the United Nations and became a member of the G20. More recently it was inducted into the BRICs nations – despite the fact that its economy and population was only a quarter of the size of the next smallest member, Brazil.
From the 40 or so embattled and beleaguered missions that the Department of Foreign Affairs maintained during the 1980s, the Department of International Relations and Co-operation – DIRCO – expanded to 122 foreign missions – the second highest number of any country in the world – after the United States. All this – to the irritation of the Treasury – is now costing the country some R3.2 billion per annum.
The question is: are we getting bang for our buck? Is this large investment delivering the trade, investment and international clout that the country needs?
The goal of foreign policy is to promote national interests and to reflect national values.
In some areas we have done well:
- We have, on the whole, played a positive role in promoting and working for peace in Africa.
- We have taken a forthright position in promoting our national interests by seeking to transform international institutions such as the UN Security Council and the IMF to reflect more closely the changed power relationships in the world since 1945 – and particularly the changed position of Africa;
- We have stood up to First World bullies in international trade talks;
- We have quite correctly demanded that the nine nuclear weapons states should fulfil their clear obligations in terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and
- There can be no doubt that we achieved a significant coup by becoming a member of BRICS. It is appropriate that we should be a leading member of the emerging economies and their vanguard in the BRICS Group.
The 15 countries most generally included in the lists of emerging economies reflect the rapidly changing balance of economic power in the world. They include Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, the Russian Federation, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey.
These countries comprise 53% of the world’s population and nearly all of them have experienced impressive growth during the past three decades.
At the core of the emerging markets are the so-called BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Together they comprise 42% of the world’s population and 21% of global GDP.
In 1980 the 15 emerging markets countries listed above accounted for only 15.5% of world GDP – compared with the 25.6% share of the United States and the 34.6% share of the European Union.
Today, they produce 27.6% of the world’s GDP – while the shares of the United States and the EU have fallen to 22.2% and 23.7% respectively. The big winner has been the emerging markets and the big loser has been the EU – despite expansion in its membership since 1980.
All this is to the good – and is indicative a robust and independent international posture.
However, there are indications of quite radical shifts in the direction of our foreign policy that may be more problematic.