Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Written evidence submitted by Professor Gerrit Olivier

  Professor Extraordinary, Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria, South Africa and Director, Centre for European Studies, RAU University, Johannesburg, South Africa.

  I will not try to assess UK foreign policy on specific SA issues in this brief memorandum. Rather I will restrict my input to some broad comments on the intellectual, political and strategic framework that seem to guide UK foreign policy towards SA. Particular aspects I will mention include UK foreign policy style and posture, quality of diplomacy and diplomatic strategy and tactics in the context of its bilateral relations with South Africa. I will also make some introductory comments on the unique SA foreign policy milieu and how it may influence UK diplomacy.

  1.  Among western countries, the present SA government seems most comfortable with the UK. Historical, cultural and economic relations mainly account for this attitude. Although this is a plus factor from the UK point of view, the impact of these factors are declining and the convergence of interests between the UK and SA have narrowed since the new beginning in 1994. Presently the relationship can be characterized as friendly and cordial rather than special or close, competitive rather than co-operative. Economic interdependence has become main determinant of continuing amicable bilateral relations, replacing erstwhile sentimental or emotional determinants. However, in this interdependent relationship SA is the more vulnerable one, a situation which UK diplomacy has been unable to exploit meaningfully.

  2.  In general, UK influence on SA foreign policy decisions is limited and even declining. South Africa's foreign policy priorities these days are guided more by ideological interests and predilections than by objective interests measured in the concrete terms of national welfare and security. It is a case of precedence of "permanent friends" over "permanent interests"; it is an uneasy mix between friends and interests and idealism and pragmatism. Solidarity politics play a major role as confirmed by SA's stance on the catastrophe in Zimbabwe, its refusal to confront president Robert Mugabe.

  3.  President Thabo Mbeki's role perception as champion of Third World causes and Prime Minister Tony Blair's own philosophy and public stance on Africa and poverty, could be used as basis for developing a more productive partnership that could also spill over into other areas. Blair could use his leverage and perhaps lean more strongly on Mbeki to deliver on human rights and good government [Nepad Peer Review Mechanism] in Africa in return for his promotion of Nepad in the EU and G8 context.

  4.  It has become difficult to influence SA foreign policy decisions by way of orthodox diplomacy. Some of the reasons are the decline in the quality of South African professional diplomacy, with the exception of Mbeki's own role of course. Professional diplomats play a minimal role in the policy-making process and they are, generally speaking, not effective brokers of policy or influence in their country of accreditation and at home they have but limited access to the higher echelons of government. This malaise is partially being compensated by the fact that Mbeki and senior officials in the presidency's inner circles have all but monopolized foreign policy; Mbeki and the Foreign Minister S. Dlamini-Zuma are personally close, but due to her diplomatic incompetence and lack of gravitas , her role is mainly ceremonial and supportive rather than creative and innovative. Foreign policy on important issues can only be influenced by way of direct access to Mbeki, perhaps using ministers like Zuma as messengers, or by way of access through influential world business leaders. This calls for a revise of UK diplomatic tactics in regard to SA, as it seems that the High Commission mainly engage bureaucrats as interlocutors.

  5.  The question is, given the above parameters or constraints, how could UK diplomacy towards SA be more effective [ie maximise beneficial relations]? Is there any scope for improvement? The UK High Commissioner in Pretoria generally keeps a low profile, and is mostly invisible to the public eye perspective. Prudent, inobtrusive, low profile, absence of presence and leadership, are terms one could use to characterise contemporary UK diplomacy in SA. This characterization seems to confirm a resignation on the part of the UK to loss of influence or inability to make any difference in political decision-making process in SA. It is, of course, not an uncommon for diplomatic missions these days to make prudence the lode star of diplomatic exercises. They are afraid to "rock the boat" and, therefore, away in the background so to speak. It could be Whitehall's brief to the local HC to behave in this way. If so, the HC's diplomatic task in SA is basically to maintain a "holding action" with minimalism the guideline.

  6.  Obviously, as Zimbabwe has demonstrated the UK's experiment with "hard diplomacy" did not work. "Soft diplomacy" seems the better option, but this strategy could also become an alibi for practically doing nothing. Minimalism is not necessarily the only strategy one can follow under the heading of soft diplomacy. However, effectiveness depends mainly on the quality of diplomacy and the effective use and orchestration of the array of instruments of soft or subtle diplomacy. The UK have ample soft diplomacy instruments to its disposal, but fail to apply them or orchestrate them in an effective manner. The big issues of SA politics [and elsewhere in Africa], domestic as well as foreign, seem to be immune to UK influence. Here I think of SA government policy on Zimbabwe, HIV/AIDS policy, criminality, unemployment, corruption, inability to create wealth to combat unemployment and poverty, and the obvious flaws in the NEPAD initiative. Of course, it is well understood that the HC cannot interfere in SA domestic affairs. But for a major country like the UK to punch so far below its weight in the SA context is difficult to justify. In the last days of apartheid the UK had an ambassador [Renwick] in Pretoria who understood the influence of his high office and achieved remarkable results. At the same time he was highly respected by the government of that time.

  7.  The UK has to its disposal an array of influential bilateral as well as multilateral instruments [Commonwealth, UN and EU] of foreign policy. Bilateral action could be supported or augmented by multilateral action and vice versa. The question is how these instruments could be combined and applied to the best effect [ie to enhance as far as possible diplomatic influence, to promote economic/commercial interests and to maximise good relations in general].

  8.  Some suggestions:


    In dealing with South Africa UK policy makers and diplomats should, as far as possible, distinguish between sensitive political and moral issues on the one hand, and hard economic and strategic interests on the other hand, and pursue different strategies and tactics in each case. On political/moral issues the UK should avoid acting as a lone crusader because of the risk of being isolated. Preferably the UK should assume a more high profile leadership role [in regard to South and Southern African matters such as human rights, good governance, rule of law, etc] in multilateral organizations, particularly the UN, the Commonwealth, and the EU.


    On economic and strategic issues a multidisciplinary or eclectic approach could be followed in an effort to intensify and diversify diplomatic efforts, inter alia by: reaching out more purposefully to certain non-governmental sectors in South African Society by way of developing greater contact and rapport with leadership [elite elements] in the private sector [business, academia, science, culture]; heightening the UK profile in the media; participating in seminars and conferences on topical issues to put across the UK point of view [I cannot recall having seen any newspaper or magazine article or heard radio or TV commentary by the UK High Commission the last five years or so]; issue a regular newsletter and circulate press statements; develop rapport with bright post-graduate university students and research institutions; informing the public generally more systematically on the present and past UK ties with South Africa; informing South Africans on UK role in global matters such as the UN, the G8, the EU, and issues like globalisation, Third World poverty, the north/south divide, terrorism, trade patterns, etc.


    The lack of a public debate on issues affecting both the UK and SA is rather glaring. There should, therefore, be a greater qualitative dimension in the bilateral relationship. Also the UK's economic diplomacy in South Africa should be beefed up and rendered more active and more engaged.


    Alternatively, the present low-risk, minimalist, reactive, holding action could be maintained. Then, of course, UK image will become increasingly remote on the South African radar screen and its role and status will continue to decline and perhaps wither away.

Gerrit Olivier, Pretoria

October 2003

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