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Will foreign policy differences be a deal-breaker in South Africa’s coalition negotiations?

Written by on June 10, 2024

The ANC has sharp differences over foreign policy with other political parties. The question is whether these differences will be deal breakers in ongoing negotiations to form a government of national unity or a coalition.

ANC leaders have made it clear that they will not give ground, especially on their pro-Palestine policy, including the referral of Israel to the International Court of Justice for alleged genocide in Gaza.

The DA, which obtained the second highest number of votes in the national elections after the ANC, has been more nuanced on the issue, though leaning towards Israel.

The two parties also disagree fundamentally on Russia’s war against Ukraine. The ANC has steadfastly insisted it is “non-aligned”, but clearly  tilts towards Russia. The DA has strongly supported Ukraine against Moscow’s aggression. 

Some ANC insiders are adamant that the party is so irreconcilably opposed to the DA on several foreign policy issues, especially Gaza, that a coalition is impossible. “Their point of view on international relations is to be led by the West which we could never agree to,” one senior South African diplomat told Daily Maverick. 

Even former president Kgalema Motlanthe, a relatively moderate voice in the ANC, has raised Gaza as a potential problem in coalition negotiations with the DA. He told the Sunday Times that the DA “might say, for example, you can’t take Israel to the International Court of Justice, or that you are too close to China as a trading partner and you must downgrade that”.

Political analyst Lukhona Mnguni, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, suggested to Al Jazeera last week that foreign policy differences between the ANC and the DA would be less reconcilable than domestic policy differences. 

He said both parties followed conservative economic policies. “They may disagree on other issues like foreign policy, which will be difficult to negotiate,” he said.

And Chris Chivers, a lecturer in religion and philosophy at UCL Academy, London, writes that “while domestic policy-making may be a relative walk in the park, matching up the stances of the ANC and DA on Gaza, Palestine and Israel? Now that may take some real magic.” 

But Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, national director of the South African Institute of International Affairs, said she did not think foreign policy differences among all the main political parties were irreconcilable.  

Gaza could be an exception since it was very important to the ANC. “But I don’t think the DA would insist on a different policy. I don’t think they would make it a deal breaker. 

“The EFF has said that they would expel Israel and I can’t see the ANC making that a deal breaker either. I don’t think the deal breakers would be foreign policy.”

This suggests that if one looks at the full spectrum of foreign policy positions of the main political parties, the extremes on either end are possibly irreconcilable with each other. That could make a broad government of national unity difficult. But the foreign policy postures of either the left (EFF and MK) or the centre/centre-right (DA, IFP, ACDP, Action SA, Bosa, etc) could separately be reconcilable with those of the ANC. This suggests that foreign policy would not necessarily impede a coalition or minority government deal between either the ANC-EFF-MK  on the one hand or the ANC-DA-IFP (etc) on the other. 

However, former president Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) party has just thrown coalition talks and the formation of a new government into disarray by announcing that it intends interdicting the inaugural session of the new National Assembly (due by 16 June) until its allegations of election fraud have been resolved. 

That move may have knocked MK out of coalition talks, at least for now, but the negotiations among other parties will presumably continue. 

Common ground

Emma Powell, DA spokesperson on foreign policy, said differences on foreign policy should not be fatal to negotiations. 

“I think that most parties are broadly aligned with the DA’s thinking on the current geopolitical fractures and where RSA must position ourselves: prioritisation of our national interests, and the defence of constitutional values, followed by the promotion of human rights, justice, tolerance, equality, democracy and a rules-based order. 

“On the question of BRICS, perhaps there is more nuance.

“I also don’t believe that many parties have interrogated the question of foreign policy in any great detail.

“I debated with Mzansi Rise and the ANC three weeks ago and a great deal of political maturity was demonstrated. I think we can find each other on the big questions, broadly speaking.” 

Powell added that even the differences over Gaza were surmountable.

“On ICJ, the DA has a very moderate view. We respect the right of our government to have approached the court and we await its finding. 

“We have also repeatedly said we will not withdraw the case should we govern. However,  it’s common cause that the DA wouldn’t have gone that route in the first instance, given abounding conflicts closer to home.” So the DA would not concede ground on that issue “because there is no ground to concede”.

“There is a question before the ICJ and the court must now answer.”

However, she added that the DA would want the South African embassy in Tel Aviv reopened. Pretoria withdrew all its diplomats from the embassy last year in protest against Israel’s massive assault on Gaza.

Powell said the DA would also not support “any level of political, military or economic cooperation with Russia, given that country’s illegal invasion of Ukraine”. 

“A DA government would also review the recent deployment of South African troops in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo as part of a Southern African Development Community military force, given that this is currently an unfunded mandate.

“That’s about it.” 

Powell added though that the DA had built strong relationships in Washington which would be an asset in rebuilding South Africa’s ties with the US which have been jeopardised by Pretoria’s positions on the Russia-Ukraine war and on the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. This would go a long way towards ensuring the protection of preferential Agoa and Pepfar benefits.

Most European countries have extensive experience of coalitions and some, like Germany, have shared that experience with South African parties. In an article in Daily Maverick this week, Germany’s ambassador to South Africa, Andreas Peschke, offered some lessons from Germany. These included the need for compromise by coalition partners and also for transparency. Germany had found it useful for parties to put their coalition negotiations and their agreed joint policies and visions in writing and to share these with the public so they could be held accountable.

Germany had also found it useful to have a formal dispute resolution mechanism as there were always many disputes in coalitions or minority government arrangements.

Incidentally, the current German coalition has managed to navigate some foreign policy differences not entirely different from South Africa’s. Notably at the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Social Democrats were inclined towards a relatively non-aligned position. But their Green Party coalition partners in particular pushed the government towards a much more pro-Ukraine posture. 

From EFF to Rise Mzansi – What the manifestos say

The election manifestos of the main South African political parties appear to reinforce the view that foreign policy differences would not  prevent any of them doing some sort of deal with the ANC. 

The ANC manifesto stressed that South Africa should be Africa-focused, particularly by strengthening the African Continental Free Trade Area.

It also underscored solidarity and internationalism with the people of Palestine, Western Sahara, Cuba and others.

It called for a balance between support for regional integration and free movement of people protocols with tighter migration laws. 

The DA manifesto focused entirely on domestic issues, although, as Powell indicated, it has articulated clear foreign policy positions elsewhere. 

The EFF, like the ANC, focused on Africa, but also on support for socialist governments including those in Cuba and Venezuela.

Rise Mzansi stressed the importance of a human rights-centred foreign policy, making South Africa a moral example. 

It called for global governance reforms, a focus on economic diplomacy and advancing Africa’s development.

The Freedom Front Plus wanted to reinforce South Africa’s central role in Africa and supported a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.

The IFP manifesto was entirely nationally focused, although the party has expressed similar positions to the DA on issues like the Middle East, Taiwan and Ukraine. 

ActionSA said its foreign policy would be guided by the need to attract investment. 

Good supported reform of the UN Security Council, the IMF and World Bank to make global government more democratic. It would align with the Global South and be forthright in support for Palestine and a two-state solution.

The Patriotic Alliance’s manifesto was also silent on explicit foreign policy, though strong on the need for mass deportation and other action against foreigners living in South Africa without the necessary documents.

The UDM said South Africa’s national interest must be put first, the country’s foreign policy should be independent and it should retain the moral high ground in international conflict resolution. South Africa should also advance African initiatives.

MK said it would withdraw South Africa from the International Criminal Court, support an Africa-first global policy and regional development, work more closely with BRICS countries including Russia, review South Africa’s “inequitable finance relationships with the West” and support Cuba and Palestine.

Bosa did not address foreign policy explicitly. 

The ACDP said it would re-establish full diplomatic relations with Israel and move the South African embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It would support lasting peace in the Middle East but maintain Israel’s right to defend itself.

Al Jama-Ah said it supported solidarity with Palestine.

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