Foreign Affairs

Foreign Affairs – cutting the dress to the cloth

Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane
Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.jpg

The only country pipping South Africa to the post in the number of foreign missions, and only just, is the USA. Hard economic realities might change that now.

According to Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) the department now faces the difficult choice of having to close some of its foreign missions.

During her budget speech on 3 May she announced that DIRCO’s budget for the next financial year has been cut by R153 million. Over the next three years it will be reduced by R1,8 billion in light of a weakening economy and austerity measures agreed to by cabinet.

Lamenting the cuts, she claimed, “there’s a direct link between the expansion of South Africa’s missions abroad and lucrative trade and investment links with Africa and Asia”.

Impressive figures

She further said that, “the expansion and strengthening of South Africa’s missions in Africa and Asia saw trade increase from tens of billions of rand to hundreds of billions of rands” and concluded that, “We are targeting half a trillion (rand) trade with Africa by 2019”.

The same upward trend is also true for Asia and the Middle East with the value of trade having “also soared”.

“In 1994, trade with Asia and the Middle East combined was approximately R45 billion and has increased approximately to R760 billion for Asia and R116 billion with the Middle East,” she said.

On first glance the figures seem impressive. However, are these impressive trade figures really the result of the expansion of South Africa’s missions abroad?

The consensus view of economists and retired career diplomats when asked for comment was that the same results should be possible with fewer but strategically shrewdly placed missions and an accomplished and committed team of diplomats.

Treasury’s view

In the 2015 budget Treasury said that at R3.2 billion a year, maintaining 122 missions abroad is unsustainable.

Especially interesting was its concern that the location of the “most expensive missions” was “not aligned with trade relations or other economic interests”.

It calculated that South Africa was spending at R1.9 billion per annum too much on salaries and “generous allowances” for diplomatic staff. Is it affordable?

The ministers’ claim that “there is a direct correlation between the growth of South Africa’s diplomatic missions and the phenomenal expansion of our trade and investment relations …” is clearly an over-simplification.       

Judged against the overall economic conditions and high social demands on state resources, can the country afford the luxury of all these missions?

Some cynics might suggest it is a handy dumping ground for those falling foul of the president or who mismanage a state enterprise.

Historical perspective

When re-entering the global family of nations in 1994 after years of isolation, South Africa had to play catch-up, and the pace was fast and furious.  

In her budget speech the minster explained that South Africa increased its presence in Africa from seven diplomatic and consular missions in 1994 to 47 in 2015. Its trade on the continent increased 39 times from R11,4 billion in 1994 to R385 billion in 2015.

Particularly during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, with his affinity for foreign matters, South Africa purposefully expanded its diplomatic representation.

The aim of the then minister of foreign affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was to establish a mission in every African country – not only to reinforce South Africa’s status in Africa, but to also enhance President Mbeki’s vision of strengthening South Africa’s international status in order to give Africa a stronger voice in international affairs.      

This vision was partly realised in the years immediately post-1994 when international appreciation was bestowed on the Rainbow Nation.  

It could be argued that Dlamini-Zuma’s election in 2012 to head the African Union Commission resulted from South Africa punching successfully above its weight. The aggressiveness of that heavily contested election campaign was, however, not without consequences.

Some analysts concluded that Dlamini-Zuma’s tenure as AU head was not as effective and productive as had been hoped for. South Africa’s dwindling authority could also have influenced her decision not to seek the customary second four-year term in July this year.

According to media reports her decision has infuriated other Southern African countries which felt the SADC was entitled to two terms in the chair.

Lower ranking        

It is becoming obvious that under President Zuma South Africa has lost some of its international punch. Many would argue the country is struggling to compete in its traditional ‘weight division’ and among its peers.

The Zuma administration has made many mistakes and although it cannot be held responsible for all the backsliding, fact remains that it was on its watch that South Africa relinquished pole position to Nigeria as Africa’s biggest economy.

By the end of 2015‚ Nigeria’s GDP was measured at US$490 billion compared with South Africa’s estimated US$313 billion.

Then, last week, came the news that Egypt has also surpassed South Africa, pushing it into third position.

Responding to the news that the economy of Egypt, torn apart by political unrest only a few years ago, is now superior to South Africa’s, had one commentator conclude: "Admittedly‚ SA remains the continent’s most developed economy‚ and has a more diversified economic base than the Egyptian economy.

“However‚ its fall from first and now (the) second place among the continent’s giants is of great concern‚ especially as this development is largely attributed to weakness in the rand that‚ in turn‚ has largely been as a result of domestic issues.”

One of these domestic issues could include Dlamini-Zuma’s decision not to contest a second AU term. Rumours have it that she will contest the ANC leadership vacancy when the time comes to help protect her former husband.        

At the same time, reports abound about how domestic policy uncertainties, fears about political stability and the weakening of the rand impact on investment sentiment towards South Africa.

The number of foreign missions maintained by the country could hardly counter these domestic factors.

by Garth Cilliers

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