In the May edition of the Foreign Affairs magazine, David Miliband, the former UK foreign secretary, and current president and chief of the International Rescue Committee published an intriguing article entitled: The Age of Impunity and How to Fight It. The article provided a thought-provoking analysis of the international system and the frameworks that govern its moral compass. At the heart of the argument was the reflection of the liberal democratic value proposition and the architecture of principles that have defined the globe since 1945. Most telling in Miliband’s assessment was the view that the deepening acts of impunity not only violate international law and norms but seem to be carried out without any fear of punitive accountability.
But perhaps the most astounding extrapolation from the article is the belief that the US remains the preponderant actor to lead on this through the proposed ‘Summit of Democracies’ by the current administration based on President Joe Biden’s world view that the ‘enormity of the challenge’ is predicated on the “… battle between the utility of democracies in the twenty-first century and autocracies. That’s what’s at stake here. We’ve got to prove democracy works.”
The missing middle, however, in Miliband’s articulation of the quintessential crisis of the liberal democratic model and it’s prevailing and weakening institutional architecture is the almost deafening silence that the very state actors that are seen as the custodians of defending the world against impunity, terrorism, and crimes against humanity and making the international system a safer place have been unwilling at times to subject themselves to the same standards of accountability they expect of and hold for others.
It is almost with derision that some of the world’s so-called defenders of the liberal democratic system have not owned up to their culpability in deepening injustices in the world and perpetuating impunity. And nor are they willing to lead by example to hold themselves accountable to the same standards that they set for others. The curious case of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is one example that comes to mind.
So what does this have to do with South Africa’s democratic identity, one may ask. Well, a lot if one considers South Africa’s positioning when it comes to questions of impunity that characterizes the country’s domestic political and socio-economic landscape and its views on global governance issues like vaccine nationalism, fairer rules governing the international system, and addressing the muted presence of Africa in global affairs.
To put it into its context, and like in the domestic setting of the US, the critical question to ask is where does South Africa find its democratic dividend: at home or abroad? This may seem like a contrarian question to consider but in the broader scheme of things, sometimes the pursuit of a country’s democratic value addition may find more traction in the foreign policy domain.
Is this case for the Ramaphosa Presidency?
The revolving door between the domestic and the international
The relationship between the domestic political landscape and the scope of engagements at the international relations level is often overlooked when it comes to understanding the symbiotic nature of how the national influences the global and vice versa. Sometimes the understated view of how the national body politic of the state intrinsically defines a country’s identity and positioning in global affairs cannot be ignored. This is because it provides the hook in determining what is a country’s value addition and democratic purpose between its stated national interests and the foreign policy trajectory.
Often the contours of domestic affairs are seen as being insular, without realizing that the architecture of a country’s domestic identity has a significant alignment to its international profiling and behavior.
So it is little wonder that since time in memoria, looking to the international when the domestic political setting becomes too complex and difficult to navigate has been the default strategy. History is replete with examples whether it is imperialism, and colonialism, or the Cold War, and, of course, the War on Terrorism. This way confirming what many have highlighted as the complicated revolving door between the domestic and the international.
So with this in mind, what is President Ramaphosa’s playbook in this regard. Or put another way what is the doctrine in South Africa’s democratic intersection between the domestic environment and the international landscape?
The New Dawn Doctrine?
Since the unveiling of Ramaphosa’s ‘New Dawn’ philosophical tact, the focus has been squarely on the domestic setting in fighting the scourge of corruption and malfeasance. This has been aimed at rebalancing the local architecture to ventilate and restore a credible level of good governance, stability, and respect for the norms, principles, and the rule of the law as espoused in the Constitution. It was always going to be this plausible line of the doctrine designed at recalibrating the national context towards the pathway of renewal that would find appeal, resonance, and traction given that Ramaphosa played an instrumental part in the negotiated political transition and the adoption of the permanent Constitution in 1996.
So where does this leave the New Dawn doctrine in the broader context of South Africa’s International Relations design?
The answer seems to be very simply aligned to a return of South Africa playing an intrinsic role as a norms entrepreneur in redressing the power balances of the global architecture. Ramaphosa’s worldview is certainly linked to realigning the country’s democratic credibility. And in the past year, the trajectory of South Africa’s foreign policy discourse has been to regain the principled stance in the country’s global positioning that was also unraveled by the nine lost years where the country’s role and traction in global affairs remained muted and without any sense of purpose or strategic orientation.
All this seems to have shifted with the country serving its third non-permanent two-year term on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) between 2019 and 2020; assuming the Chair of the African Union (AU) and playing an instrumental role with India in pushing for the temporary TRIPS Waiver over the production of the COVID-19 vaccine. In addition, Ramaphosa has constantly reminded the developed world of the prevailing inequities of the global system when it comes to the equitable distribution of the vaccine that is overrun by vaccine nationalism and racism. He has never faltered in emphasizing that in these unprecedented times, the world’s humanity and consciousness lie not in seeing Africa as a Continent to be saved but a Continent that should be treated with respect and as an independent actor that rightfully occupies a critical space in the international order. This was captured in the seminar at the University of Pretoria (UP) with French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron on 29 May 2021:
“When I was in Paris [in May 2021] at the wonderful Summit on Financing African Economies that President Macron had organized, one of the things I heard was ‘we just want to focus on three countries on the continent; South Africa, Senegal, and Rwanda’. It occurred to me then that this was flawed thinking because other countries do have the capacity [to manufacture vaccines], which can gear up to a greater capacity in a short space of time. That prompted me to say that the countries of Europe or northern countries must not tell us what is good for us – they must listen to us because we know what is good for us.”
Perhaps what is significant in Ramaphosa’s narrative is that the Continent does not want charity but to be recognized for the support it has bestowed and lent to others in their global rise whether through the exploitation of the minerals/extractive resources, the exportation of skills to the rest of the world and support in multilateral blocs like the G77+ China, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and the World Health Organisation (WHO). Even in the G20 Ramaphosa has been stoic in pushing for the debt service suspension initiative to assist African countries to mitigate against the negative financial impact from the Covid-19 pandemic.
And so through the New Dawn rhetoric, Ramaphosa seems to have found the country’s mojo with the fight against vaccine inequality. The latter point highlighted in his closing remarks at the UP seminar with Macron:
“Vaccines are flooding into upper-income countries but trickling into Africa,”. This is contrary to our aspirations to build a world founded on human rights for all.”
Curiously Ramaphosa’s ‘New Dawn’ is also about Tshwane finding its democratic dividend in the world of globalized politics.
Unfortunately with the state of the nation in dire straits while the fate of the nation hangs in the balance, it is hard for critics of the Ramaphosa Presidency to make the connection or even see the value addition that Ramaphosa is trying to bring to a revitalization of the country’s foreign policy and reforming of an unequal world system. The latter can be described as a combination of a Mandela-human rights-centric approach underlined by a Mbeki-focused African Renaissance revival. And therefore appreciation and recognition must be afforded to Ramaphosa as the enduring negotiator.
Conclusion: The Ace in the Pack
There is a significant ace in the deck that Ramaphosa holds which will provide him with the lifetime democratic achievement award if it happens in his current and possibly second administration. That is the extradition of the Gupta brothers and their wives to come back and face the long arm of the law in the country that they so disrespectfully fleeced.
This will be the ultimate democratic dividend and accolade that will define the Ramaphosa Presidency.
Pulling off this accomplishment would not only provide Ramaphosa with the legacy of his Presidency going down in history as the Man that brought the Guptas to book. It would also seal the deal of his New Dawn narrative in integrating the democratic dividend at home and abroad.
In the end, this is what most South Africans want: to see those that have made their lives and livelihoods miserable and more vulnerable be held responsible for their disdain and impunity.
Sanusha Naidu is a Senior Research Associate based with the Institute for Global Dialogue. The views expressed are personal.