Towards a participatory foreign policy

“South Africa cannot escape its African destiny. If we do not devote our energies to this continent, we too could fall victim to the forces that have brought ruin to its various parts”


These words of Nelson Mandela writing in the Foreign Affairs Journal in 1993 are still a key influence driving South Africa’s engagement with the rest of the continent.

Shifts and changes in South Africa’s foreign policy since 1993 have included a move from ‘foreign affairs’ to ‘international relations and cooperation’ and the production in 2011 of the White Paper on Foreign Policy entitled “Building a Better World: The Diplomacy of Ubuntu”. These shifts have all declared that international engagement by South Africa is informed by the two central tenets of Pan Africanism and South-South collaboration and solidarity.

The White Paper states clearly that “the business of national interest cannot be the purview of the state alone, but it can encourage an enabling environment of dialogue and discourse among all stakeholders to interrogate policies and strategies, and their application in the best interests of the people.”

It was in this spirit that the SARChi Chair for African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy and Frederick Ebert Stiftung co-hosted an event in Johannesburg that sought to engage participants, including representatives of the ASC, on the theme of “Towards a Participatory Foreign Policy”.

The recent formation of the South African Council on International Relations, chaired by former Deputy Minister Aziz Pahad, and several complementary outreach efforts by DIRCO have opened up real opportunities for civil society to influence and engage the South African Government on the policy and practice of international affairs. This spirit was well articulated at the SARChi event by Mr. Fadl Nacerodien, Chief Director of the Policy, Research and Analysis Unit of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO).

These opportunities bode well for civil society actors who wish to contribute to ensuring that the underlying values and principles, and the philosophical underpinning of Ubuntu Diplomacy, remain prominent in international affairs. But civil society faces a number of challenges that entail a depth of self-organisation before it can hope to influence government in a way that makes its intentions clear and that offers government a credible partner with whom to engage.

As spaces open up for deeper engagement it will be important for South African perspectives not to be drowned out by the loud and well resourced voices of international NGO’s. All too often INGOs engage in advocacy and lobbying national governments under the pretext of representing marginalised communities, while inadvertently or deliberately promoting the interests of their internal resource streams. Civil society is as much a contested space as foreign policy, making it difficult for both sides to engage in a consistent, constructive and credible manner.

The perception of government as being distant and guided by unknown and misunderstood interests, creates divisions which undermine the potential for partnership and the development of complementary strategies towards a common goal. Competing economic interests and concerns over different understandings of Ubuntu Diplomacy between Trade and Industry, Home Affairs and DIRCO add to the complexity.

The ACTION Support Centre will continue to contribute constructively to a progressive African Agenda, in the spirit of forging cooperative partnerships with like-minded forces from within DIRCO and other governments, and with partners from civil society, including academia. These strategies will be informed by our understanding of conflict transformation and the values and principles underlying our approach. In the weeks and months ahead, with SA as the chair of the G77 and the host of the upcoming Forum on China Africa Cooperation we hope that the impact of this contribution will extend across the continent and beyond.