On August 1, the South African Ministry of International Relations published a document defining the country’s new foreign policy. South Africa’s National Interest Plan is an important document that sets out how the country will relate to the rest of the world for some time to come.

Title of the document: A Framework for South Africa’s National Interest and its Advancement in the Global Environment.

Governments are often cautious about expressing their national interests for various reasons. This is the first attempt by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation to contextualize South Africa’s national interests.

But the document falls short on key points.

The first drawback is its name. Here we are talking about national “interests”, not about interests (plural), but in international relations there is more than one.

It is also unclear what practical purpose its developers intended to achieve and who its target audience is. It is unclear whether it will guide government policy, guide South African investment or inform the country’s allies and friends.

This does not mean that the document has no value. It will be used extensively in future debates and analyzes of South African foreign policy. And this can be a guide for policy.


Three general points should be made.

Firstly, there is no geographical delineation of South African interests in the document. The business sector will look for the importance of specific geographic regions.

Reading between the lines, Africa appears to be a critically important region for South Africa. But the country traditionally has important export interests in Europe. It is the EU’s largest trading partner in Africa. The EU, excluding the UK, accounts for 22% of South African trade. Trade with the rest of Africa is 16%.

More recently, the BRICS bloc – Brazil, Russia, India and China – has become important to the national interests of South Africa. Trade with BRICS accounts for 59% of the country’s imports and 41% of its exports; 94% of this turnover is accounted for by China and India and only 2% by Russia.

The war in Ukraine emphasized the importance of a precise definition of the national interests of South Africa in terms of geography. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about Pretoria’s diplomatic support for Russia; and the dichotomy between South Africa supporting the Palestinians as victims but not Ukraine. This raises the question of the guiding principles of human rights in South Africa’s foreign policy.

Also, how does South Africa’s position on Israel and Russia align with its larger material interests in the Middle East, Asia and Europe; specifically in terms of trade?

Second, South Africa’s national interest in the document states the obvious. The various interests concern the general welfare of society, nothing else. Constitutional order, social security, economic prosperity, a better world are not national interests. These are the general duties of the government.

In a word, the canvas of interests is superficial and insignificant. It is not clear how these interests should define and guide South Africa’s foreign policy.

It seems that the focus is on internal – public interests. A better Africa and the world is the only interest defined in the context of foreign policy.

What are the things South Africa would be willing to deploy its military to protect and defend if threatened? Is the flow of water from Lesotho vital to South Africa; and to the extent that it will use military force to protect access? When illegal immigration threatens vital interests, how will citizens know and who should decide? These questions remained unanswered.

Third, delineating the national interest without an “s” raises questions as to why the government does not want to be open. This is at a time when directions are urgently needed in an increasingly complex international order.

Domestic and historical realities – eradicating the legacy of apartheid and overcoming the triple challenges of inequality, unemployment and poverty – seem to be the key factors, rather than the dynamic nature of global and national affairs (pp. 9-13).

The document seems to express the ideological orientation of the ruling elite, rather than the material interests that should contribute to good governance. It is more of a policy document than a guide to the practice of diplomacy, military government, and trade.

The purpose of the document seems to be to outline how to think about South Africa’s national interests, not to specify what those interests are.

The objectives set out in the document are:

  • propose a definition of South Africa’s national interests and their elements
  • to offer the means to advance South Africa’s national interests
  • to propose guidelines for the practical application of national interests in the international environment
  • reflect on the current and potential future global environment
  • provide predictability in South Africa’s international relations.

The discussion about who is responsible for implementing the country’s foreign policy is limited to general realities. It emphasizes the responsibility of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation.

It is unclear what role South Africa’s diplomats, military and business community might play in advancing its national interests.

The military, for example, is often the leading instrument of foreign policy in Africa, especially in peacekeeping missions. The business community is also at the forefront of South Africa’s foreign policy interests. What practical realities should the business community bear in mind when doing business in Europe, China or South America?

There are no answers to these questions.

Abel Esterhüse, Associate Professor of Strategy, Faculty of Military Sciences, University of Stellenbosch

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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