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Looking Through a Lens: South Africa|Tejas Rao

Tejas Rao

How do we respond to 2016? A year where nobody’s predictions came through (no animal, not even Paul the Octopus could have saved us). A year where right-wing politics reigned supreme, against a fading, yet impassioned left-wing. And more importantly, a year where the large information gap between the literate and illiterate came to fore, worse than ever before.

Without revealing personal opinions on the results of Brexit, or the United States Presidential Election, the only way to respond to 2016 is optimism – highlighting the small victories Governments have accomplished. Through this series: Looking through a Lens, Catharsis endeavours to do just that. To shed light upon oft-ignored regions of the world, regions where optimism if not government polices seem like the only roadmap for the way ahead.

And we begin, in perhaps the most ignored part of a largely divided continent and region: South Africa.

What lies ahead for South Africa, both domestically and internationally, is a period of responding to criticism. Criticism, as will be explained, from several quarters.

Domestically, the country is in need of reforms to hold the Government more accountable than it is presently. South Africa recently completed its term as the Chair of the Open Government Partnership, an international collaboration to improve public sector governance and increase civil society participation. In an era where civilian rights have been restricted, under the garb of being reasonable, the 75-member committee strives to ensure a framework of open budgets, the right to information and basic safeguards for human rights. What the OGP necessarily requires is that States develop national action plans – implemented in a two year cycle. In a rather sad state of affairs, South Africa’s end of term report reflects that the country failed to meet key targets in the last two years.

What is perhaps worse is that the country set these targets for itself, and that its failure comes in a year where the UN Sustainable Development Goals set out to promote inclusiveness, partnerships and community action.

South Africa is in need of reform. In 2016 alone, the Government faced an onslaught of protests owing to the failure of delivery of basic social security services and the over-charging of higher education fees. The continuous allegations of corruption against top-brass does not help either, reflecting the diversion of state resources to benefiting an already privileged elite. The country cannot rely solely on media and protests to achieve its goals. Transparency is the need of the hour – and this is where things take an optimistic turn.

The need for community inclusiveness paves a difficult path forward for the Government, and a solution proposed is to link development goals with community initiatives.  This is perhaps where South Africa deserves high commendations, insofar as despite its failures, the country set up a citizen-driven monitoring program, to allow for community feedback on the provision of public sector services. The partnership initiatives offers a platform for this linkage to continue, as long as it is implemented in an effective manner.

Internationally, South Africa has come under flak from corners following its decision to withdraw from the International Criminal Court – sparking off a debate on the ‘ethics’ of foreign policy. The concept of an ethical foreign policy – contrary to all Machiavellian principles stems out of the principle of international co-operation and global communities. South Africa’s ideals, of post-apartheid South Africa, are best established from the assertion that human rights would be the basis of all community decisions, including foreign relations. In this light, the decision to quit the ICC does not spark sympathy, not by any stretch of the imagination.

However, the wavering nature of South Africa’s international identity was not an overnight phenomenon. In an unstable region, with a cloud over political uncertainty hanging over its head, South Africa has made certain policy blunders in the past. Most notably, in choosing to back authoritarian, dictatorial regimes in Swaziland and Zimbabwe, South Africa cast doubt over its decision to support democratic set-ups that allowed maximum attainment of civil rights. This view was further dampened by the deployment of troops in the Central African Republic in 2013.

Again, though, there is some cause for optimism and hope. This stems out of the concept of rehabilitation. As with other ethical and moral conflicts, the first stage to resolution is acceptance of the problem. And the South African Council on International Relations did just that. In a parliamentary briefing, several dilemmas were considered: the inconsistency between values and interest, and the uncertainty of what global responsibilities and moral obligations entailed.

This recognition now means that the country can move forward toward establishing a consistent South African identity that is visible on the global stage. One that is not restricted to strong-arming the African Union, but maintains a consistent voting pattern in the United Nations by advocating for African solutions. An exemplar would be a reversal of what took place with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, and South Africa would be better placed siding with Africa’s political solutions to crises, rather than enabling military interventions.

To that end, I have high hopes of what South Africa will achieve and address in 2017, and I look forward to it.

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