Public Lecture by Ambassador Mxolisi Nkosi, Chief Operations Officer at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) on “Multilateralism and the South African Foreign Policy”, University of Pretoria, 26 August 2016

Esteemed Professor Sandy Africa, Acting Head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Pretoria,

Distinguished Members of the Diplomatic Corps,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me to take this opportunity to express on behalf of DIRCO our sincere thanks and gratitude to the University of Pretoria and the esteemed Department of Political Science for extending an invitation for us to participate in this August public seminar. We attach great importance to interaction with non-state actors, for our approach to international relations is not strictly state-centric, but consistent with the popular mandate of our democratic state, remains people-centered. This interaction, like many others we have had before, will help enrich our international relations policy, thus contributing to the sharpening and enhancement of our strategies in pursuit of a better South Africa, in a better Africa and a better world.

Since we are in an academic setting it would probably be remiss of us not to engage and dispense with some key theoretical and conceptual questions before we deliberate on South Africa’s role in the multilateral system of global governance.

South Africa’s foreign policy can be situated within the theoretical framework of internationalism which advocates for greater political and economic cooperation among nations and peoples of the world. This strand of international relations theory, enjoins the people of the world to unite across national, political, cultural, racial, and class boundaries to advance their common interests, and the governments of the world to cooperate because their mutual long-term interests are of greater importance than narrowly defined national interests.

In the South African context, this theoretical perspective can be linked to the political declaration made at the seminal congress of the people in Kliptown, Soweto in 1955 which adopted the Freedom Charter. Under the rubric, There shall be peace and friendship, the Freedom Charter declares, “South Africa shall strive to maintain world peace and the settlement of international disputes by negotiation-not war”. In an article published in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1993, the late Tata Nelson Mandela, then President of the ANC outlined the key foreign policy principles of democratic South Africa. These underlying principles which continue to serve as guidelines in the conduct of our foreign relations are:

  • a commitment to the promotion of human rights;
  • a commitment to the promotion of democracy;
  • a commitment to justice and international law in the conduct of relations between nations;
  • a commitment to international peace and to internationally agreed-upon mechanisms for the resolution of conflicts;
  • a commitment to the interests of Africa in World Affairs; and
  • a commitment to economic development through regional and international cooperation in an interdependent world."


These principles were reaffirmed in the Discussion Document on South Africa’s Policy in 1996. In analysing international trends, the Document notes that “with the growing complexity of international interaction in almost every sphere of human life, the role of multilateral organisations in reconciling and harmonising the frequently conflicting interests of countries, will necessarily increase”.  I think it is appropriate at this stage to pause and ask a question whose answer may be obvious to some of you: what is multilateralism?

In a profoundly erudite article entitled Multilateralism: Anatomy of an Institution, John Gerard Ruggie provides a useful definition of multilateralism, namely that: “ multilateralism depicts a generic institutional form in international relations . . . [It is] an institutional form that coordinates relations among three or more states on the basis of generalized principles of conduct: that is, principles which specify appropriate conduct for a class of actions, without regard to the particularistic interests of the parties or the strategic exigencies that may exist in any specific occurrence”. As an organizing principle, the institution of multilateralism is distinguished from other forms by three key properties: indivisibility, generalized principles of conduct, and diffuse reciprocity. These three properties should be treated as a coherent ensemble which is itself indivisible, rather than as additive, detachable indicators of multilateralism.

Indivisibility can be thought of as the scope (both geographic and functional) over which costs and benefits are spread, given an action initiated in or among component units. Generalized principles of conduct usually come in the form of norms exhorting general if not universal modes of relating to other states, rather than differentiating relations case-by-case on the basis of individual preferences, situational exigencies, or a priori particularistic grounds. Diffuse reciprocity adjusts the utilitarian lenses for the long view, emphasizing that actors expect to benefit in the long run and over many issues, rather than every time on every issue.

I privilege this conceptual definition and explanation over many others because it provides an apposite framework to understand South Africa's behavior in multilateral diplomacy. We believe that the multilateral system should be an indivisible construct based on common and shared values. It should set norms and standards that should find universal application, without exception. The normative framework flowing from the multilateral system should be at the service of humanity and not parochial interests of the high and mighty. The outcomes of multilateral discussion should be fair and balanced, and benefit all. In addition to the themes of representivity and legitimacy which I shall address later, this is our vision of an ideal multilateral system.

There can be no doubt that the world we live in is imperfect. As Shashi Tharoor correctly argues, in “Saving humanity from hell”; Multilateralism under challenge? Power, International order, and structural change. We live neither in a purely Hobbesian world of anarchy and unconstrained power politics, nor a Kantian world of peace and harmony. But one thing is for sure: the United Nations was not created by naive Kantians; it was established as a progressive response to an anarchic Hobbesian world. The United Nations, at its best, is a mirror of the world: it reflects our divisions and disagreements as well as our hopes and convictions. The UN is both a stage and an actor. It is a stage on which member states play their part, and it is an actor executing the policies made on that stage. It is the global symbol and embodiment of multilateralism, and all of its promise and limitations.

The remarkable democratic breakthrough of 1994 and the attendant espousal of a normative foreign policy, has been the currency for South Africa's agency in the multilateral system. As a middle power, South Africa has played a positive role in promoting multilateral approaches to global problems and in defending the multilateral system as a whole. I mention this because there is dialectic connection between middle powers and multilateralism. Essentially, the concept of middle-power diplomacy provides a central role to multilateral institutions, in that it privileges an anti-hegemonic approach to the conduct of international relations. At its core is a vision of a cooperative, collaborative and not a competitive world. In part, the insistence on moving towards a rules-based international system — within which a particular set of norms is applied without discrimination — is inevitable for a country that has struggled so hard for its own freedom and independence, and one that is intent on bringing its own values of justice and fairness to the international table.

Middle powers are characterised by a tendency to pursue multilateral solutions to vexing international issues and a tendency to embrace compromise positions in international disputes ... An ability to stand a certain distance from direct involvement in major conflicts, a sufficient degree of autonomy in relation to major powers, a commitment to orderliness and security in interstate relations and to the facilitation of orderly change in the world system are the critical elements for the fulfillment of the middle power role.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Since 1994 our primary foreign policy priority was to accelerate South Africa’s reintegration into the international community and play an active, transformative role in multilateral institutions and processes.  Our foreign policy has been inspired by our history and guided by our ethos and principles, foremost amongst which is the desire for a just, humane and equitable world. In the conduct of our international relations, we attach the utmost importance to the promotion of human rights, democracy, justice and the rule of international law. These principles necessarily place multilateral institutions, specifically the United Nations, at the centre of our foreign policy activities.  Furthermore, Globalisation has created a highly interconnected and interdependent world of complex, new transnational threats like terrorism, climate change, pandemic disease and food insecurity, in which common problems can no longer be solved without the collective efforts of all members of the international system acting together through multilateral institutions.

The centrality of the United Nations to South Africa’s international relations strategy is based on a strong belief in a rules-based international system of global governance.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As a concrete demonstration of our conviction to multilateralism, we have hosted a number of multilateral conferences, most notably, the NAM Summit in 1998, the Commonwealth Heads of Government in 1999, the World Conference Against Racism in 2001, the first Summit of the African Union in 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, and the climate change COP17/CMP7in 2011.

Under the leadership of the Chair of the World Conference Against Racism, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma,  delegates adopted the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action (DDPA), which reasserts the principles of equality and non-discrimination as core human rights with the aim of transforming victims of discrimination into rights-holders and States into duty bearers.

The struggle against racism and other forms of discrimination is far from over and South Africa’s commitment to fight racism and to promote human rights is resolute – inspired by those who paid the ultimate price in the fight against racism and injustice.  Our message to the world is that the best way of honouring Madiba’s legacy is to keep the outcomes of the Durban Summit and its review conference alive, particularly in recent times, as we witness the demons of racism, xenophobia and other intolerances re-emerging in various parts of the world!

Due to its reputation as a bridge builder and problem solver in multilateralism and the success of the above-mentioned meetings, South Africa continues to be entrusted with hosting major multilateral events. For example, next month we are hosting the CITES COP17, which has key issues to address related to the management of endangered species.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are deeply honored to have been accorded the privilege to serve a third term on the UN Human Rights Council.  In several interventions at high level segments of the Council, Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has reiterated our firm commitment to the mandate of the Human Rights Council.  She has further underscored the fact that South Africa, as one of the 47 members of the Council, will at all times be guided by: a desire to constantly develop norms and standards for the promotion, protection and fulfillment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including respect for international humanitarian law. This will ensure that the Council guarantees (i) maximum protection, (ii) adequate remedies to all victims of human rights abuses and violations through a uniform regulatory framework, and (iii) that there is no impunity for human rights violations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

South Africa is committed to contributing to a peaceful world free of weapons of mass destruction.  Following our voluntary renunciation and dismantling of the apartheid bomb during the early 1990s, we played a key role in the 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – first major international conference in democratic South Africa.  It is on this occasion that South Africa earned its new-found status as a bridge-builder and key player in the multilateral arena by brokering a deal that would not only extend the lifespan of the Treaty, but also hold the nuclear powers responsible for fulfilling their nuclear disarmament obligations. This is treaty is now commonly known as the Pelindaba Treaty, named after the headquarters of the South African Nuclear Energy Cooperation (NECSA), west of Pretoria.

Building on its achievements at the NPT, South Africa also played a leading role in the process to ban anti-personnel mines that kill and maim civilians and stifle economic development on the African continent and beyond. It was a member of the “core group” of countries that took responsibility for developing and promoting the Mine Ban Treaty. South Africa hosted the OAU conference on landmines in Kempton Park in May 1997, a key meeting in building support among African states for the treaty. Then South African Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, the late Jackie Selebi, skillfully steered the ban treaty negotiations towards a successful conclusion in September 1997 in Oslo, Norway. South Africa has also supported or co-sponsored all key UN General Assembly resolutions on landmines. During the last 22 years South Africa has been able to build on these early achievements across a full range of disarmament issues, from conventional arms to weapons of mass destruction.

Today, we continue our quest for a world free from the threats posed by arms that are indiscriminate or cause excessive harm to civilians. This includes our active engagement in the area of conventional arms, such as the recently concluded Arms Trade Treaty, as well as efforts to finally rid our world of the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.  It is in this context, that we are also playing an active role in the recent initiative on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.

South Africa also played a key role in galvanizing international action for the elimination of conflict diamonds from the diamond trading system, culminating in the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, which has contributed to the removal of conflict diamonds in the chain of producing, exporting and importing rough diamonds in participating countries. This process first took shape in May of 2000 when representatives from several African countries met in Kimberley, to “discuss ways to stop the trade in ‘conflict diamonds’ and ensure that diamond purchases were not financing violence by rebel movements and their allies seeking to undermine legitimate governments. As a result of our efforts, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution for the creation of an international scheme for the certification of rough diamonds in January of 2001, now commonly known as the Kimberly Process.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

South Africa has consistently advocated for a people-centered development that takes into consideration all dimensions of development. This multi-faceted approach to sustainable development got traction at the historic UN Millennium Summit which adopted the Millennium Declaration in 2000. This summit represented a high watermark in global efforts to place development at the center of the global agenda. The three dimensions of sustainable development, namely the promotion of economic development, social development and environmental sustainability, are the plank on which the recently adopted sustainable development goals are built. The outcome document of the 2015 UN Summit has given renewed hope to millions in the global South as it affirms the resolve of the international community to remain engaged in continuing the unfinished business of the Millennium Development Goals. We consider this as a major achievement for the developing world at a time when the world's preoccupation with security issues could have pushed development issues to the back burner.

Another landmark development in the progressive development of the multilateral system was the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which adopted an historic agreement in Paris to address all the aspects of the climate change challenge in the post-2020 period, including adaptation, mitigation and support for developing countries. The watershed Paris Conference constitutes a successful conclusion of the mandate agreed to by consensus and facilitated by South Africa at the Durban conference in 2011 to enhance the implementation of the Climate Change Convention.

The agreement represents a big step forward in committing all countries to act decisively against climate change on the basis of equity and a differentiation of action based on their respective national circumstances and historical responsibility. Through this agreement, hope has been restored for a safe and prosperous future, where climate change will be adequately addressed.

As the Chairperson of the G77 plus China, South Africa managed to rally the group to play a leadership role in the build up towards the Paris Conference and eventually in clinching the Paris deal.

We feel extremely honoured to have been accorded the privilege of guiding and coordinating the collective efforts of developing countries on socio-economic issues at the United Nations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The promotion of peace and security, firstly in our region, in the continent, and by extension in the world remains a major preoccupation of our multilateral diplomacy. Our own peaceful transition from the brink of civil war informs our approach to the resolution of disputes and remains a model for conflict resolution.  Our approach is predicated on Pan-African solidarity and the belief that South Africa's development and prosperity is inextricably linked to peace and development in the continent. For this reason we shall continue to play an active role in promoting peace and security on the continent.

South Africa's approach to peace and security on the continent has been magnified in the UN Security Council, where we have championed the prioritisation of African conflicts and at the same time advocated for closer collaboration between the UNSC and the AU Peace and Security Council. We have also focused on defending the integrity of the UN Charter and the Rule of Law as the foundation for multilateral cooperation.

A highlight of our term on the Council was our Presidency of the Council in January 2012, which had as its theme the strengthening of the partnership between the UN and the African Union (AU). Building on the success of South Africa’s 2007/2008 UNSC term in promoting closer cooperation between the UNSC and the AU Peace and Security Council (AU-PSC), South Africa promoted greater coordination between the two bodies in order to increase the effectiveness of the UNSC in addressing African conflict situations.  President Zuma presided over a meeting, which resulted in the unanimous adoption of Resolution 2033 (2012). This resolution formalises cooperation between the UN and AU as a permanent part of the Council’s work and focuses on achieving coherence between the two bodies in dealing with African conflicts.

While we have been vocal proponents for the reform of the UNSC long before our stint in the non-permanent category, our tenure in the UNSC has convinced us that the reform of this premier organ of global peace and security is more urgent than ever before. We are of the firm view that the enlargement of the UNSC to reflect current realities will ensure that it is representative, democratic, and enjoys legitimacy. In addition, internal reforms will have to be undertaken to improve the working methods of the UNSC to enhance its efficiency and effectiveness.

In over 70 years of its existence the UNSC has expanded only once, in 1964, when the Council’s membership was increased from 11 to 15.  At the time, the legitimacy of the Council was questioned because its 11 members represented only 10 % of the UN’s membership – as opposed to 21% in 1945 at the creation of the UN.  Today the 15 members of the Council represent only 8% of the UN membership.  Moreover, how can the Council be legitimate and representative, if two continents, namely Africa and Latin America, are not represented at all in the permanent category?

Having said this, the Security Council remains the primary international organ mandated to promote international peace and security.  It is essential that it remains true to its mandate and moves beyond the paralysis brought on by the geo-political interests of a few member states.  The only way this can happen is if world leaders, including those that represent the Permanent Members of the Security Council, are bold and courageous and commit to enlarging the Security Council urgently.  Failure to do so will encourage states to act unilaterally, with disastrous consequences for all.

I wish to conclude by reiterating our firm commitment to multilateralism. Multilateralism is particularly important today because of increased global and regional economic interdependence, the emergence of new transnational challenges, major systemic changes affecting the global distribution of power, domestic change and democratization, and the expansion of global civil society.

We remain of the firm view that multilateral institutions, whatever their weaknesses, can make fundamental transformations legitimate and peaceful. We are alive to the fact that multilateral institutions are under increasing pressure to move beyond some of the age old principles, especially from non-intervention to non-indifference, as a part of a transformative process in world politics. Having said this, we should guard against the normative evolution being used as a pretext for politically motivated intervention.

As we enter a new, dangerous era with geopolitics once more rearing its ugly head, we have a duty to restrain the powerful from engaging in acts that could trigger wider conflict and undermine global peace and security. We believe that acting unilaterally through the projection of hard power will undermine efforts to preserve stability in this time of flux. The best safeguard for our security and prosperity is to consolidate rather than erode the rule of law, and embed the principles of cooperation over conflict and collaboration over confrontation. The challenge therefore is to expedite efforts to transform global politics from a power-based hierarchical construct to a rules-based system of international society.

I thank you for your kind attention.


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