Opening address by Deputy Minister Ebrahim I Ebrahim at the foreign policy discussion forum on reconciling national interest and values: a dilemma for South Africa’s foreign policy? DIRCO, 19 March 2010

Programme Director,
Ms Maud Dlomo, Deputy Director-General: DIRCO, and host of this Forum,
Dr Siphamandla Zondi, Executive Director of the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) and co-host of this Forum,
Other Directors-General and the rest of the DIRCO Officials,
Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Former Deputy Minister, Comrade Aziz Pahad,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me to begin by congratulating Dr Zondi for his well-deserved appointment as the new Executive Director of the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD), and I wish him all the best as he endeavors to take this Institute to new heights. Let me also congratulate DIRCO for co-hosting this event with IGD as this is testimony to our Minister’s undertaking that we will seek to broaden the space of interaction between the department and non-state actors in this country.

Programme Director,

A seminar touching on a topic of interests and values that inform foreign policy making is not only timely but relevant. It is of symbolic relevance when one considers that in a few days time, South Africa will be commemorating Human Rights Day. It is an occasion of historical significance in our country, as it permits us to commemorate the efforts of ordinary people, who on one fateful day on 21 March 1960, took to the streets of Sharpeville, in protest against an unjust system and in defense of a basic human right and value; the right to human dignity. It is such values that have informed South Africa’s foreign policy principles since the country’s re-entry into the international arena in 1994.

This year South Africa also commemorates the 20th Anniversary of the release of former President Nelson Mandela, an icon of the struggle for social justice and human freedoms. This commemoration comes on the heels of a decision by the United Nations (UN) to commemorate International Mandela Day. This gesture sanctifies Madiba’s many years of struggle and selfless devotion at the service of humanity in our country, our continent, and the rest of the world. We continue to draw strength from these actions of self sacrifice by South Africans, actions that have shaped the course of history, which in turn have informed our past and current strategic, but principled engagements in international relations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me declare from the onset, that I am not going to provide answers to any of the critical issues that you will be discussing as I may not be qualified to do so. Rather, I have opted for a different path, that of raising a few questions in the hope that I will be enriched by the discussions and outcomes that will flow from this Forum.

This seminar is timely partly because of what seems to be an emerging view in various circles in the country about our foreign policy choices and our international relations engagements since the start of this fourth administration in May 2009. This view seems to suggest that DIRCO specifically is uncertain of what it is doing and generally, that the current administration is not interested, compared to others that came before it, in engaging effectively on issues of international relations. I got a sense of this emerging view from two newspaper articles I read not so long ago, and I would like an opportunity to liberally refer to them, if anything, for the purposes of elaborating on my afore-mentioned observation.

An article entitled “Is Foreign Policy Being Thrust Upon Zuma” appeared in the Star Newspaper, penned by Peter Fabricius. It makes the following assertion:

“How seriously do the Zuma people (sic) take foreign policy? This is a question still preoccupying the diplomats in Pretoria as well as foreign policy experts, 10 months into the new administration”.

The article goes on to argue that:

“As a whole this administration is too focused on the vicious quarrels within the tripartite alliance”…

And as such, we are told:

…“so it is not surprising that it has not paid much attention to matters beyond our borders, apart from the “near abroad” (i.e. Africa), even though they are nearly a year into the new administration.”

I hope this seminar can, in the context of a discussion about values and interests, also point us in the right direction, in determining whether indeed we have not paid any particular attention to matters beyond our borders. I would of course beg to differ, given the work that this administration has done and continues to do in the sphere of international relations. We will certainly continue to engage with the esteemed members of the Diplomatic Corps resident in our country, and hopefully with time, they will realize that this Administration takes “foreign policy seriously”.

Another article I read recently appeared in the Cape Times, penned by Tim Hughes, who asserts that:

“Foreign Policy barely warranted a mention in the State of the Nation Address and even less in the budget speech. This can only be interpreted as a retrenchment of South Africa’s global diplomatic ambition and reach, but also begs the question as to who is running South Africa’s foreign policy, or more fundamentally, whether there is a South African foreign policy under the Zuma administration”.

I take it that the above quoted text refers specifically to the State of the Nation Address as delivered by the President in 2010, and for reasons not known to us, ignores the 2009 State of the Nation Address, the African National Congress’ (ANC) 2010 January 8 Statement, and many other pronouncements by the President on matters of international relations.

In the context of what we are discussing today, the assertions made in the above-quoted articles beg a number of indirect questions about the character of this administration; about how it seeks to achieve its Programme of Action, and thereby meet the commitments made to the people of South Africa, who overwhelmingly returned the ANC to power in 2009. Is it conceivable, that the current administration can come up with a Programme of Action, and hope to achieve it, without a clear foreign policy strategy? Is it practical to conclude that this administration seeks to achieve the goals it has set for itself in the next five years, without strengthening its international relations programme as another pillar of support in order to meets its domestic obligations?

Ladies and gentlemen,

As I said in the beginning, I do not intend to provide answers but raise questions. One of those questions is whether indeed there is a dichotomy between what could be regarded as our interests, from that which could be defined as our values.

I am of the opinion that a debate over the values/interests dilemma arises, somewhat because of the manner in which we have become schooled about issues of international relations. It is my contention that by and large, the dominant theories of international relations reflect the historical evolution of international relations and state-making in the North. By this I mean that these theories have created a generally accepted notion that States only act in pursuit of their narrow, selfish and nationalistic interests, at the expense of anything else. This dominant view, it seems to me, has entrenched itself as the main yardstick with which we measure the work and programmes of a State on matters of international relations.

Now, the question to ask is: in the world we inhabit today is it still conceivable to speak of a dichotomy between these two variables?

I wonder if there is no other discourse which can enrich us with an alternative approach to international relations. A discourse which speaks to the new material conditions, whereby there are emerging powers on the international stage, whose actions are to an extent informed by the phenomenon of globalization and the noticeable trend of increasing interdependence between States. We might also ask ourselves whether there are any practical examples in the history of State action and behavior in international relations that can help us navigate the fog when trying to analyze foreign policy choices.

Somehow, when I was reflecting on this topic I was reminded of Cuba, and the contribution of its internationalists to the liberation movements in Africa and other parts of the world, where people were subjected to unjust and unfair policies. Addressing a Joint-Sitting of Parliament of the Republic of South Africa in 1998, former President of Cuba Fidel Castro declared:
“From the African lands in which they worked and fought voluntarily and selflessly, these internationalists only took back to Cuba the remains of their fallen comrades and the honour of having discharged their duty.”

The case of Cuba is of interest in that it might assist to answer the question whether “it is still conceivable to speak of a dichotomy between these two variables, interests and values?

What lessons, if any, can we draw in order to enrich our discourse of international relations, from Cuba’s prosecution of its foreign policy? Cuba is a small country that was transformed by a revolution, an event that caused Cuba to face pressure from major global players. Nevertheless, with its history of struggle against colonialism, Cuba decided to take on the cause of internationalism, sacrificing its sons and daughters in the process, by sending them to difficult missions abroad to fight in international struggles for justice, and freedom, albeit without expecting anything in return.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me refer back to the current administration’s Programme of Action and Priorities on the basis of which the ANC was elected to lead this country. The ANC-led Government has committed itself to uplifting the standards of living of our people, through among others, the creation of decent work, and provision of decent human settlement, rural development, and effective safety and security of our people. Now, do such Priorities represent exclusively our interests or exclusively our values? I am inclined to make an assertion that these Priorities represent issues of fundamental freedoms, they speak to the rights of people to live with, and in dignity, as well as a commitment to advance social justice.

These are objectives that the current administration knows full well that it cannot meet on its own; it ought to build partnerships with other countries. That it needs to rally around progressive forces especially in the South in order to achieve these ideals. That it needs to contribute to the transformation of the international playing field so that there is better representation of those voices that seek to bring about change in the manner in which, hitherto, things have been conducted in the international sphere. These are freedoms that we do not only wish for ordinary citizens of this country, but for the citizens of the world, in particular those who for a long time have suffered cultural domination, political oppression and economic exploitation.

Programme Director,

The stated Priorities of this administration inform us of what is needed in order to contribute towards a better South Africa, in a better Africa and a better World. Perhaps a related issue confronting us today, is not only what our interests and values are, but a more shared understanding of what tactics are we willing to use in order to achieve our long-term strategic objectives, as a nation and as a responsible member of the international community.

In conclusion, and perhaps on a lighter note, let me recall a statement associated with Winston Churchill, who is understood to have said:

“Soviet Union foreign policy is a puzzle inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma, and the key is Russian nationalism.”

I dare say, our foreign policy is not as complex! With these words, I declare open this Forum, and wish you successful deliberations.
Thank you

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