Is South Africa going “rogue” on the international front? Its foreign policy choices are becoming increasingly unpredictable and, arguably, unconstitutional. Although South Africa is committed to media freedom in theory and they have taken a stand against gender based violence in the past, its recent decisions in the UN have insulted constitutional ideals.
In early July, South Africa voted against a UN resolution promoting internet freedom, alongside fellow BRIC members, China and Russia. The resolution seeks to garner political commitment from member states to protect human rights online, such as freedom of expression and privacy.
“..it will be difficult to argue that instead of South Africa “influencing” fellow BRICS members towards transparency and democratic governance, the reverse may be happening to South Africa.”
Rhodes University Politics lecturer, Siphokazi Magadla, says that since the success of cell-phone connections in Africa and South Africa, internet freedoms, such as the use of social media, have become powerful tools for increasing democratic participation. Internet freedom is an integral part of both national and global governance.
Magadla thinks it is concerning for South Africa to make this decision “in an era where cross country and transnational mobilisation is sustained by one’s ability to connect with others.”
The government defence was that they need to weigh up the right to freedom of expression with the right to dignity.
But although preventing online hate speech is important in a country with such a racialized and oppressive history, Mail & Guardian writer Penelope Andrews says that the UN resolution does address these concerns.
There is therefore controversy over why South Africa behaved in this way, and whether it was influenced by external sources. “If [South Africa] continues to behave in a manner that is contrary to its democratic commitments and foreign policy record, it will be difficult to argue that instead of South Africa “influencing” fellow BRICS members towards transparency and democratic governance, the reverse may be happening to South Africa,” says Magadla.
South Africa also abstained in a UN vote to establish an ambassador to increase protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for the next three years. This was alongside most other African countries, none of which voted for the resolution.
“The decision shows contradiction in what the government claims to take seriously, and what it actually does in reality.”
This was a surprise to many because South Africa has been progressive when it comes to gay and gender rights post-1994. The decision also carries a melancholic irony considering the #RUReferenceList protests against gender violence which occurred earlier on in the year.
“South Africa is a country that is known to be in crisis in terms of rape culture, curative rape against lesbians and domestic violence against women,” says Magadla. “The decision shows contradiction in what the government claims to take seriously, and what it actually does in reality.”
According to Ground Up, South Africa’s delegate Ambassador Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko said that while South Africa is against discrimination on any grounds, the resolution was contentious and an ‘arrogant approach’.
But Magadla says that in the UN Report in which Diseko’s comments are summarised, it is not clear which part of the resolution was divisive and it is uncertain what she meant by an ‘arrogant approach.’ South Africa complies with many of the UN’s other “watchdogs”, such as the UNDPS’s Human Development Index.
“For the country to abstain to support a body that would encourage other African countries to follow South Africa’s role in taking the task of ending discrimination seriously, is at odds with South Africa’s past and stated commitments,” says Magadla, “That South Africa is choosing to be sympathetic to the views of UN member states who continue to be hostile to ensuring the freedom of sexuality, is shocking at best.”
South Africa’s foreign policy seems to be teetering down an unknown path, and there is little national debate about it. “We seem to find ourselves in a space where it is no longer obvious how South Africa behaves in its foreign policy… we find ourselves jumping from one unexpected decision to the next,” says Magadla.
It is clear these decisions do not embody the South African Constitution. Magadla says that “because this government is finding itself insecure in its grip of power, they are destroying the institutions that need to outlive any political party in power in order for us to say that South Africa has consolidated its democracy.”
These recent decisions could also be bad business for South Africa’s foreign relations. “Should South Africa gain a reputation of being untrustworthy, [unpredictable] or even ‘rogue’, it will undermine much of the work that has done in building democratic institutions locally, continentally and internationally,” says Magadla.
This is significant because South Africa does not have economic power, only “ideational power”. It has made headway in international institutions because of its commitment to democratic ideals.
But for all of South Africa’s talk about constitutional commitments, when the going gets tough, the tough get going – often down unpredictable, and sometimes unconstitutional, paths. We will just have to wait and see which direction South Africa’s foreign policy will move in next.