Reply | South Africa’s voice still counts


Reply | South Africa’s voice still counts

Despite gloom over the government's non-aligned foreign policy, South Africa's more strategic and nuanced approach is paying dividends, writes GERT GROBLER.

  • 29 September 2023
  • Free Speech
  • 16 min to read
  • article 4 of 19
  • Gert Grobler

THE exaggerated cynicism and objection to the South African government's non-aligned foreign policy continues to be rampant in the media.

Some commentators have a one-sided preoccupation with the necessity of South Africa's relations with the West. At the same time, our country's cooperation with the Global South and Brics is regularly questioned and even denigrated.

However, it must be repeatedly emphasised that considering the unfolding global multipolar geopolitical order with its many political and economic challenges for South Africa, it is in the country's national interest to cooperate with all its international partners, namely the West, and to expand the so-called Global South/Unaligned group purposefully.

This approach is nothing new in practice. It has formed an integral part of South Africa's foreign policy priorities since 1994. From recent diplomatic interactions between South Africa and foreign countries, it appears the government realises that its non-aligned policy should be operated with greater finesse.

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Several other “non-aligned" governments, including India, Indonesia and China, implement their “non-aligned" approach in a much more sensible way, and we can feel free to learn from them.

After the recent finding by an independent panel that there is no evidence to support the claim that the ship Lady R was transporting weapons to Russia, South Africa has made progress in repositioning its foreign policy and cooperation with key diplomatic partners on a path that encourages foreign investment from all over the world and encourages expanding trade relations. This is urgently necessary in light of the declining South African economy.

Looking at South Africa's recent diplomatic interactions, I would like to highlight the following:

United Nations

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his delegation's recent constructive visit to the US and the session of the UN general assembly further contributed to a positive turnaround and “restoration" regarding the cooperation between South Africa and the US, as well as South Africa's image as a whole.

The president's participation in the various fora in New York elicited positive comments at the international level. This was conveyed to me by various diplomats from the US, the EU and Africa. Several top-level meetings during the general assembly focused on priorities of mainly developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia: climate change, health, financing for development and how to get the UN's sustainable development goals back on track.

Ramaphosa has played an essential role in dealing with thorny multilateral issues, such as reform of the UN Security Council, which will strengthen the voice of the African continent and the Global South in the UN, and how to combat global inequality, poverty and unemployment through international cooperation.

On peace and stability, the president emphasised that South Africa, based on the experience of our journey from apartheid to democracy, is committed to involving all parties in conflicts to reach peaceful, just and lasting solutions.

These principles underlie South Africa's participation in the African peace initiative, which strives for a peaceful solution to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In New York, Ramaphosa also met  Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Among other things, Ramaphosa then said: “In our engagement as African leaders with the parties in this conflict, one of the issues we raised was that of confidence-building measures, including issues such as the return of children deported by Russia from Ukraine. We have also requested that prisoners of war be exchanged between the two countries."

It must be emphasised once again that there is broad international support and appreciation by, among others, the US and the EU, for the African peace initiative, and that South Africa and Africa are still involved in parallel peace initiatives by Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and China, among others, which will hopefully lead to a broadly negotiated peace settlement soon.

The US

A greater degree of calmness, realism and prudence has recently set in with regard to relations between the US and South Africa.

This was increasingly evident from Ramaphosa's and his delegation's recent visit to the US, where talks were held with, among others, the administration, leading members of Congress and top business people.

It was clear that the traditionally close relationship between South Africa and the US since 1994 has always been based on a “strategic dialogue and partnership", a process in which I was also closely involved in the past.

During the constructive discussion this week in New York between Naledi Pandor, South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, and Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, the latter said: “South Africa is an essential and valued partner of the United States," adding: “And as always, given the many issues that are taking place in the region and beyond, I greatly appreciate this opportunity to consult and confer with my friend, Minister Pandor." He also thanked South Africa for hosting the upcoming forum of the African Growth and Opportunities Act (Agoa).

Molly Phee, assistant secretary for Africa at the US State Department, recently said in Washington, DC: “We have an important dialogue with South Africa and would like to add that we recognise South Africa's longstanding policy of non-alignment and respect. However, it is our expectation that the South African government will stick to that policy in its approach to the conflict in Europe."

By the way, she strongly welcomed the African peace initiative in Ukraine. From the discussions, it was also clear that efforts by some US lawmakers to have the Agoa forum moved out of South Africa failed miserably. After extensive talks in New York between US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Ebrahim Patel, South Africa's Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, it was confirmed that the Agoa Forum will continue in Johannesburg in November.

Vincent Spera, the US consul general in Johannesburg, said after the  announcement: “If you look at the broad relations between the US and South Africa, the cooperation between the two countries is constantly expanding … we are very proud of our strategic relationship with South Africa and are firmly committed to continuing with it."

The president of the American Chamber of Commerce's US-Africa Business Centre, Scott Eisner, also said at an event in Washington last week: “At the South Africa investment conference in 2019, I promised that the American Chamber would strive to double US commercial and foreign direct investment in South Africa by 2025 — an ambitious target to which the US Chamber publicly committed again last year. Today's dialogue is organised in that collaborative spirit, and we were honoured to hear President Ramaphosa's vision for the US-South Africa commercial partnership and his support for the US Chamber of Commerce and Business Unity SA's intention to hold an annual South Africa/US trade and investment forum. We look forward to further increasing our partnership in person in November this year during the annual Agoa Forum in South Africa."

Based on information received from American contacts, there will most likely not be further traction with the proposed “anti-SA/Africa" ​​legislation/resolutions in Congress, which have made little progress over months. This indicates a lack of appetite on the side of the US government to implement them. It is a fait accompli that the US still views South Africa as an “important strategic partner", not only in an African context but also in light of global geopolitical developments, including the expansion of Brics.

The US is eager to expand its cooperation with Africa after the Trump administration severely neglected the continent. Ramaphosa's critical statements about Cuba, Israel and Palestine at the UN have also not affected the US because they did not come as a surprise. South Africa's  policy on these thorny issues has been consistent over decades.

Among other things, Ramaphosa emphasised the social and economic consequences of the 60-year-old embargo on Cuba by the US, as well as the impact of sanctions against Zimbabwe.

The issue of Zimbabwe, however, remains a sore point and one that the Southern Africa n Development Community and the African Union (AU) will have to pay much more attention to. But South Africa is by no means isolated on the Cuba and Israel/Palestine issues, as shown by the result of the latest UN vote on the necessity of lifting the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the US against Cuba. A total of 185 UN member states voted in favour of it, with only two countries against (Israel and the US) and two countries abstaining (Brazil and Ukraine).

Regarding the worrying Palestinian issue, the UN general assembly in 2022 accepted more resolutions that were critical of Israel's “oppression" of the Palestinians than against all other UN member states combined.

UN member states overwhelmingly supported these resolutions, strongly condemning Israel.

G7 summit

There was also wild speculation as to why Ramaphosa was not invited to the G7 summit in Japan this year.

The fact is that South Africa is not a member of the G7.

We are not invited (as part of the “outreach") to every G7 summit. Nigeria, Egypt, Senegal and Rwanda have been asked before but were also excluded this year. The G7 is an informal grouping of seven of the world's most advanced industrial countries and economies, and it is the prerogative of the host country to invite participants to the summit. Japan's emphasis this year was on countries from Asia, which is of much greater importance to Tokyo for strategic reasons, and this is how it was explained to South Africa.

Therefore, the following countries were invited: Australia, Brazil (the intended G20 president in 2024), the Cook Islands, India (current chair of the G20), Indonesia and South Korea. President Azali Assoumani of the Comoros Islands, who chairs the African Union, was also invited, and this was welcomed across Africa.


Regarding South Africa's relations with the EU, the cooperation is going from strength to strength. Recently, the EU ambassador in Pretoria posted a joint statement in Business Day signed by 23 EU ambassadors in South Africa. The following excerpts from this constructive statement deserve to be highlighted in full, and speak for themselves:

  • “The partnership that the EU and South Africa are forging is rooted in dialogue and multilateralism and brings concrete, inclusive and sustainable solutions. South Africa and Europe are working together to make international financial institutions more receptive to the financing needs of countries affected by global challenges, such as the debt crisis and climate finance."
  • “Our trade and investment agenda, estimated at more than $32 billion per year, has created more than 350,000 jobs in South Africa and represents a solid foundation to unlock the significant productivity potential in green technologies, manufacturing, energy, further utilising digital, automation and services.”
  • “South Africa's role in political mediation and peacekeeping in Africa is extremely important, whether in Mozambique, Ethiopia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Europe also supports African peacekeeping operations through the EU's peace facility, such as in Mozambique, where the EU deployed a training mission. Our continued dialogue with South Africa on peace and security will ensure that our combined experience in conflict resolution and international mediation is more coordinated and effective."
  • “Just in the first six months of 2023, six European heads of state and government have visited South Africa, and there have been a significant number of visits at ministerial level. And the trend is upward as we engage more in areas of mutual interest that have the potential to further boost our socio-economic growth.
  • “Together let us continue our common efforts to strengthen our partnership, with a view to contributing together to global peace, security and prosperity and to choosing dialogue, solidarity, diversity and respect for the rule of law. Our partnership and cooperation will ensure that we create a better, sustainable and prosperous future not only for our nations but for the world as a whole."

It is clear from this impressive statement that the EU does not consider South Africa to be a country that is “increasingly moving towards the periphery of relevance in the international political economy".


South Africa's significant contribution to the successful Brics summit in Sandton, not only in terms of the logistical arrangements but also the content, substance and outcome of the summit, was widely praised. 

The core of an enlarged Brics will increasingly represent a diverse group of nations with different political systems that share a strong common desire to achieve a fairer and more balanced world order based on growing international cooperation.

While South Africa's exports showed an upward trajectory of 7.1% with the Brics economies in 2022, major economies in Brics represented about 21.3% of South Africa's total trade, China accounting for the most significant portion.

The recent expansion of the Brics bloc confirms the emerging role of the developing and poorer countries of the world, which have often been ignored in a unipolar system due to certain countries imposing their hegemony on others.

Brics' progress represents a “revolt" by the developing world (which accounts for 80% of the global population) against a unipolar world order that emerged after World War 2, whereby the US asserted and entrenched its dominance over global affairs through multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF.

The recent Brics expansion based on consensus criteria has, at this stage, mainly focused on expanding the group in a way that seeks to ensure a broader, balanced geographical representation.

This process, which is not without challenges, will unfold even further. However, the developing world, with Brics at the forefront, holds massive economic benefits for South Africa.

China's economy will continue to grow despite current challenges. While India's GDP overtook that of the UK in 2021, its economy is projected to surpass those of Japan and Germany within the next few years and become the third largest in the world. Following the joining of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran, the Brics bloc now controls 80% of global oil production, according to the South Asia Index.

Brazil is the world's 10th largest economy, with significant potential. Diversifying South Africa's exports is crucial to our economic growth and development. More than 81.5% of South Africa's exports in 2022 were delivered to just 25 partners. Our growing engagement with Brics, in addition to countries such as China and India, presents us with significant trade diversification and growth opportunities that must be actively exploited.

Uniting of South Asian nations 

Considering that global economic power is inexorably shifting from West to East, with implications for South Africa, it is of great importance for our country to position itself in time for such a new dynamic order.

A concrete example of progress in this regard is that, in addition to Brics, South Africa has recently signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the dynamic Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which holds great potential for South Africa's exports, especially over the longer term.

The Asean bloc's 10 member countries and combined population of 660 million represent a fast-growing region with a total GDP of $2.8 trillion. By 2030, the region is expected to become the fourth largest single market in the world after the US, China and the EU.


Africa is South Africa's most important foreign policy priority, with 45 South African diplomatic missions.

Cooperation with Africa generally remains solid and is modelled on dialogue and consultation, including through the SADC and the AU, where SA serves on the peace and security commission. Dozens of bilateral talks with African countries are held every year through, among other things, official bilateral commissions.

About 26% of South Africa's exports already go elsewhere in Africa. Still, implementing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), with a South African at its helm, will create numerous further possibilities for economic progress. There is a strong appreciation among AU member states for the vital role South Africa played at the Brics summit in bringing about an “economic partnership" between Africa and Brics, leading to increased industrialisation and trade between regions on the continent.

There is also widespread recognition on the continent for the critical role South Africa, as the only African country that was part of the G20, played in facilitating an invitation by the G20 to the AU, henceforth also to become a member of the important G20 mechanism.

Furthermore, it must be remembered that South Africa will take over the presidency of the G20 in 2025. Claims by observers that South Africa's relations with Africa leave much to be desired do not hold water. 

Of course, on a continent with 54 countries and with great diversity, there are differences of opinion on many issues, but when it comes to the threat to Africa's prosperity and future — as seen recently due to pandemic-related challenges and important continental economic issues, the financing of the fight against climate change, the impact of the war between Russia and Ukraine, the African peace plan for a negotiated settlement for Ukraine, and so on — countries stand together in solidarity.

South Africa consistently plays a vital role in helping to address these challenges on the continent. One can conclude that despite occasional clumsy and ill-considered diplomatic blunders, especially about Ukraine, South Africa continues to pursue a more strategic and nuanced foreign policy closely linked to national interest, especially in the economic field.

The current far-reaching global geopolitical shifts, as well as the negative consequences, especially economic, of the Ukraine crisis, the end of which is not yet in sight, make such a balanced and pragmatic policy approach of cooperation with the West, as well as with the so-called Global South/Unaligned group, all the more desirable and urgent.

Based, therefore, on the recent encouraging diplomatic activities with, among others, Brics, the US, the EU and EU member states, Asean and Africa, it appears that insinuations of SA's “great break" with the world and “a growing irrelevance" in the international community are somewhat misplaced.

* Gert Grobler is a former South African ambassador to Japan, Spain and Madagascar. He is a visiting lecturer at the Institute of African Studies at the Zhejiang Normal University in Jinhua, China.

♦ VWB ♦

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