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South Africa’s UN Security Council term has ended – now what?

By Priyal Singh

In December 2020, South Africa ended its two-year term as an elected member on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) – the country’s third such term. Serving on the world’s primary security institution gave South Africa experience to guide future multilateral engagements.

Just a few years ago, the country’s regional and global influence on international affairs waned somewhat. Going forward, a stagnant foreign policy that mirrors this trend should be avoided. South Africa must use the positive momentum from its recent UNSC term to maintain an Africa-centred strategy that champions collective peace and security.

For the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, an evaluation of the nature and direction of South African multilateralism will be critical. Key lessons from this period include, first, the importance of aligning common national and continental positions. This gives the country greater credibility and leverage within multilateral bodies.

Second, because of the administrative burden on existing diplomatic capacities, focusing on fewer priorities is important. Third, deliberately working across existing political divides within multilateral bodies is a sure way to reflect the independence of South Africa’s foreign policy. And last, a willingness to transparently engage media and civil society can justify contentious positions in these global bodies.

While this is a time to take stock of key lessons and experiences at the UNSC, it also concludes a period marked by other significant multilateral engagements. All of these have taken place against the backdrop of a turbulent domestic political environment as the country grappled with a national election and various cabinet changes. This includes three changes to the international relations minister since late February 2018.

Since South Africa’s initial campaign to join the council in 2018, and the conclusion of its term in December 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa assumed the role of African Union (AU) chair amid the onslaught of COVID-19. This followed the country’s term as Indian Ocean Rim Association chair and its role on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Organ Troika since August 2020.

South Africa’s diplomatic calendar over the past three years has been busy. On the surface, it seems government has been acutely aware of its role and responsibilities on the world stage. But some glaring problems have emerged, such as prioritising developmental and economic concerns over pressing peace and security issues.

Many of these challenges were identified through official policy processes, such as those contained in a 2019 Foreign Policy Review Ministerial Panel Report. Others have been alluded to through less official means, such as the comments made by former President Thabo Mbeki at a civil society conference in late 2019.

Regardless, a common thread is that the country lacks a distinguishable strategic foreign policy – one that coherently directs its national interests through its myriad interactions at the bilateral and multilateral levels.

Despite this, the international relations department should be commended for undertaking important multilateral engagements in bodies like the UNSC, the AU and SADC that have bolstered its international standing and influence.

The foreign service has become visibly more open to robust engagements with civil society and the media; and the country’s African Agenda has served its function in directing and contextualising key priorities within global institutions.

Institute for Security Studies research highlights these achievements and affirms that South Africa has played an effective role on numerous UNSC files. These include matters aligned to the country’s priorities on strengthening the UN-AU partnership, financing peace operations, and advancing debates on thematic issues including security sector reform and the women, peace and security agenda.

The conclusion of South Africa’s UNSC term is a starting point to build on these thematic and regional priorities. In its current term on the UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), for example, the country could champion unity among elected African UNSC members. It can play a key role in helping achieve the common goals of the African group on the PBC – which includes Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

But South Africa has also struggled in recent years to adequately give effect to its multilateral positions; whether through direct and coherent bilateral interventions, or through well-coordinated efforts within other multilateral bodies.

The African Renaissance and International Cooperation Fund, for example, is intended to be the key government mechanism to fund and direct the country’s peacebuilding commitments. Yet it has become weighed down by years of uncertainty over its future role. This has undermined the country’s ability to intervene in the most pressing regional peace and security crises. Over the past five years, only 4% of all disbursements were earmarked for conflict-resolution interventions.

The relative lack of direct South African peacebuilding interventions in countries on the UNSC or UN PBC agendas, such as Somalia and Sudan, also reflects these problems. Ongoing calls for a review of South Africa’s structured bilateral engagements by Parliament’s Portfolio Committee reinforce the need for change. This is the missing piece of the puzzle that has, for too long, prevented the country from again punching above its weight on the international stage.

Most recently, South Africa failed to secure AU Commission positions, having shown a keen interest by fielding four candidates – two for the deputy AU Commission chairperson and one for the merged Departments of Education Science and Technology, and Political Affairs, Peace and Security, respectively.

And at the regional level, South Africa won’t be represented at an executive management level in SADC for eight years. None of this helps counter the narrative that the country requires greater strategic foresight to reclaim its regional leadership aspirations.

Government’s immediate task is twofold. First, coherence is needed between bilateral and multilateral engagements, and these should be directed towards sustaining the gains of the past two years. Second, recognise that there is room for improvement by incorporating lessons learnt in a deliberate, strategic and whole-of-system approach to foreign policy.

Priyal Singh is a Researcher, Peace Operations and Peace building at ISS Pretoria

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