Who's Really South Africa's Foreign Policy 'Master'?

By Dale T. McKinley · 8 Nov 2011

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Picture: zaqzaqat.blogspot.com
Picture: zaqzaqat.blogspot.com

If one has been relying solely on more recent mainstream press coverage and associated NGO-academic interpretations to understand and analyse South Africa’s foreign policy/diplomacy then it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that the overwhelming conclusion would have to be that China has become our new foreign ‘master’. Whether it’s the Dalai Lama saga, the Libyan conflict, the situation in Zimbabwe, trade issues, general North-South politics or diplomatic positions taken at the United Nations, the dominant ‘line’ appears to be that most everything that South Africa does these days on the foreign front is linked, in one way or another, to Chinese interest and influence. Predictably though, there is a great deal of difference between appearance and reality. To put it bluntly, the ‘China syndrome’ argument is more hot air than anything else.

First things first though. In our era of neo-liberal globalisation and capitalist power politics no country’s foreign policy is really ‘independent’ although this does apply in varying degrees depending on the country’s global pecking order. And yes, it also very directly applies to South Africa despite President Jacob Zuma doing his best a few weeks back to convince us all otherwise when responding to widespread criticism over the Dalai Lama debacle. If anyone is naïve enough to swallow Zuma’s foreign policy explanation that, “we look at what is of benefit to the South African people and what will advance our domestic priorities at that given time” then read no further. 

Most certainly, China has a great deal more political influence and economic weight both globally and in respect of South Africa than it did back in the late 20th century. Further, there can be little argument that the ruling ANC and the government it runs takes that increased influence and weight – largely due to China’s ravenous appetite for Africa’s and South Africa’s bountiful natural resources - on board when it comes to consideration of some of its foreign policy and diplomatic decisions. But if we take the time and effort to actually look at the principal source of (foreign) influence and weight on the core of South Africa’s foreign policy then China definitively takes a distant back seat to the world’s still main imperialist power, the USA. 

While China’s contemporary toxic cocktail of Stalinist-infused political authoritarianism, ‘free market’ capitalism and social engineering might well appeal to many within the ANC and government, the USA – and its associated Western junior allies - not only has a much deeper historical socio-cultural, economic and political boot print in South Africa (also across the sub-continent), its present-day imperial ‘candy store’ is better set up, stocked and deployed. 

On the economic front besides the fact that the USA has had - from almost the very beginnings of South Africa’s capitalist development - serious and sustained mining-industrial corporate presence, the dominant trope of South Africa’s post-apartheid capitalist economy has been symbiotically tied to the global circuits of US capital. Seventeen years on and the USA remains by far the largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in South Africa, with some of the world’s largest (public and private) pension and portfolio funds leading the way. Even though much has been made of the fact that China is now South Africa’s largest trading partner (remembering that the USA is a close second) the variegated and more easily shifting nature of FDI is a great deal more strategically placed as a political shaper and influencer than mostly predictable bulk trade which is largely driven in the longer-term by objective-material need.   

More specifically though, the economic relationship between South Africa and the USA is far more institutionally embedded than that with China. Confirmation of this can be found in the establishment of the SA-US Bilateral Cooperation Forum in 2002. In the ensuing years, the Forum has been a hive of activity with ten separate committees focusing on; trade and investment, agriculture, justice and anti-crime initiatives, defence, energy development, health, human resource development, housing, science and technology as well as conservation and environmental matters. Add to this the long-standing ‘Bi-lateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement between South African and the USA, the almost 1000+ US companies with a physical presence in South Africa, the USA-driven support for NEPAD and the African Union, the domestic and continental economic importance of the American Growth & Opportunity Act (AGOA) as well as the widespread involvement of outfits such the US Agency for International Development (USAID). 

Combined with the economic and political dominance of the USA and its Western allies within the United Nations as well as within key international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation and it does not take an ‘expert’ to figure out the degrees to which an economy like South Africa’s is intricately inter-twined into the character and content of US global (state and corporate) capitalism. The reality is that despite all of the ANC-government rhetoric about the centrality of South-South economic (and political) solidarity, the USA and its associated junior allies remain the biggest and most influential capitalists in South Africa’s (and Southern Africa’s) economic and by association, foreign policy, sand pit. 

As crucial as the economic front is, the military-security side of things also looms large; after all, the viability of a system requires protection and projection. Again, while noting the historic military-security relationship between the USA and South Africa, the last few years in particular have seen this relationship grow from strength to strength. South African military forces have participated actively in the USA’s ‘Africa Command’ (not surprisingly, the only one of its kind in the world) annual ‘Africa Endeavor’ exercises, described by the US military as, “multinational communications interoperability exercises” and involving the armed forces of many other African countries as well as NATO and European Union nations. In 2008, through the African Union and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), South Africa also participated in US-initiated and financed military exercises of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In 2009, the South African Navy held week long joint exercises with the USA’s guided-missile destroyer ‘Arleigh Burke’.

The last three years have seen the relationship being extended much more directly and bi-laterally. In 2009 enlisted non-commissioned officers (NCOs) from the Special Forces division of the USA’s ‘Army Africa’ visited SANDF Special Forces headquarters. This was soon followed by an early 2010 visit to South Africa from the ‘Army Africa’ commander who, according to the US military, “observed preparation for training under the U.S. State Department-led African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program.” The commander was quoted as saying that, “our task now is to expand this relationship into an enduring partnership between the U.S. Army and the South African Army.” No surprise then, that during 2010 the ‘expansion’ included, “officer and NCO professional development activities, a leader exchange program, and various engagement activities including military medicine, military police, facilities management and helicopter operations.”

The cosiness has not stopped with the military though. In late 2010 some of South Africa’s top police officers went to the USA to receive training in “crisis response skills” as part of the US State Department’s ‘Antiterrorism Assistance Programme’. Then SAPS Special Task Force Commander Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi (recently promoted by President Zuma to acting National Police Commissioner), told the media; “this training recognises … the solid relationship law enforcement in South Africa has with the United States."  

What all of this translates into is a contemporary foreign policy - and largely also, a national policy - which continues to dominantly reflect the realities of South Africa’s (and the sub-continent’s) historic and systemic relationship with global capitalism, and thus also its main political, economic, socio-cultural and military driver, the USA.  Yes, there are spaces here for degrees of ‘independent’ economic action and competition (e.g. China) as well as political-ideological point-scoring (e.g. ‘anti-imperialism’) but the dominant core still remains intact.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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