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Osha, Sanya (2006) SA’s Foreign Policy under Scrutiny. Eye on Civil Society : -.

On the 11th of April, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in Pretoria hosted two heavyweight African intellectuals to discuss South Africa’s foreign policy. The first speaker, Dr. Adekeye Adebajo of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town gave a wide-ranging expose of South Africa’s development as a regional power in the light of its various foreign policy initiatives. The other speaker, Professor Achille Mbembe of Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) in Johannesburg dwelled upon the cultural dimensions and implications of the country’s foreign policy.

Both presentations gave a clear idea of the sort of challenges that lie ahead. Does South Africa continue along the lines initiated since 1994? How feasible is it to pursue a foreign policy that is more a less a reaction to the legacy of apartheid? Surely, a crucial challenge is to promote the unifying attributes of culture and also the means by which they lead to more intimate links with the rest of world.

Initially, empire builders such as Cecil Rhodes- who had very little regard for the natives- construed imperialism as a form of capitalism. And so the South African ruling class of the apartheid period saw the growth of nation’s economy through capitalist means as a way of dominating the rest of the continent in most senses of the word. This is why support was granted to secessionist rebels in the Congo and Nigeria during the civil conflagrations that threatened to dissolve those two countries. Until 1994, South African foreign policy had a largely Rhodesian orientation which was both racist and imperialist.

At the moment, the South African economy continues to expand and this has all sorts of reverberations. It is often said that the overt Rhodesian tendency of the country’s foreign policy has given way to what many analysts see as pan-African rhetoric and gestures. Also, South Africa’s reach into the rest of African continent comes in form of a widening of its cultural web through the images that get disseminated by its continent-wide television stations. Channel Africa, we are told, is viewed in thirty-three African nations. As such, Tsotsi’s victory at the last Oscar awards in the United States is something that helps this continental cultural thrust.
In many ways, South Africa is the most pan-Africanist and at the same time the least so of African nations. This feature is ascribed to an innate divisiveness within the South African foreign policy orientation. Obviously, the swing from a Rhodesian foreign policy orientation to one that is governed by pan-Africanist ideals is bound to be fraught with all kind of difficulties.

Mbembe took an entirely different direction from Adebajo who had situated his discussion within established paradigms of studies in international relations. Mbembe on the other hand, foregrounded the politics of culture and its contribution to the perceived power of nations. In so doing, his discussion touched upon questions of identity, ideologies of blackness, the philosophical notions of selfhood and so on. A super or regional power’s standing, he said, is not tied to economic and military factors alone. In other words, culture and cultural power are what seduce the rest of the world and just not military or economic might.

As such, questions of identity are not concerns for only the intellectuals but are in fact largely political. Mbembe pointed out that President Thabo Mbeki exploits the political potential of identitarian politics in ways that sometimes date back to the 19th century. For Mbembe, such a political stance is a way of Africans reclaiming their dignity in a harsh racial terrain even if it is easy to see that there is something déjà vu its current value .

But the stance of maintaining a one-dimensional approach to identity making and naming has some quite serious limitations. It has led to a binary impasse that is underpinned by a pervasive consciousness of victimhood. In relation to this response to victimization, there is what is called Afro-radicalism which can either become evident in African homegrown Marxist critiques of society or in projects that espouse the re-habilitation of the politics of identity which in turn is basically the dominant form of nativism. Within the context of contemporary South Africa this dual mode of seeing things gets transformed into an opposition between a white supremacist notion of social cohesion and the imaginary of black nationalism. Clearly, this model has impoverished the language of public discourse. Undoubtedly, there is a need for a new social vocabulary which can be found in the realm of culture. There is also a need to move beyond “a politics of resentment.” Instead of being weighed down by these drawbacks, Africa should become “a place of dispersion,” of multiple encounters and global flows.

As it stands, commentators on South African foreign policy are divided in two camps. On the one hand, there are those believe that the traumas of the South African past need to be fully addressed and accounted for. On the other, there are those who come from an angle that suggests a necessity to move beyond that past. There are those who also have an inward looking sense of identity and belonging and there are those who entertain much broader conceptions.

For Adam Habib, founding director of the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal and who now works at the HSRC, the challenge that currently faces South Africa is how to harness the relatively enormous resources (both in their negative and positive aspects) that it inherited from the apartheid order to construct a black cosmopolitan power. In this way, he has more in common with those who advocate more intimate South African links with the rest of the world.

Clearly, there is a need to move beyond a preoccupation with a narrow politics of identity, there a need to do away with an us-versus-them-mentality of local race politics but more importantly, there ought to be an urgency in exploring the multiple links South Africa can have with the rest of the world.

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