These findings suggest that South Africans are pragmatic internationalists – committed to improving the world, if that means improving the quality of life for all at home. The results also suggest that the kind of internationalism underlying South Africans’ sense of their place in the world is fundamentally driven by the extent to which international and regional engagement results in economic growth and jobs at home. South Africans’ orientation as pragmatic internationalists may reflect the mentality of a ‘trading state’. Unlike all its other BRICS partners, South Africa cannot rely on a domestic economy of scale to fuel growth.

Janis van der Westhuizen and Karen Smith
Date published on SAFPI: 
Thursday, 12 December, 2013
Publication date of source: 
Thursday, 12 December, 2013
Source organisation: 

South Africa's role in the world: A public opinion survey

Series title: 
SAFPI Brief 55

Over the last fifteen years, South African foreign policy has been subject to tumultuous twists and turns, as the immediate post-1994 ‘honeymoon period’ with its remarkable enunciation of a human rights centred foreign policy increasingly gave way to processes reflecting greater complexity. South Africa emerged as a leading spokesperson for the global South and, at the same time, increasingly had to assert its African identity. These factors, as well as the usual rough-and-tumble of realpolitik in daily diplomacy, slowly eroded the premium placed on human rights under the vanguard of the Mandela presidency. In short, South African policymakers are often hard pressed and face trenchant critiques for failing to strike a balance between material demands and normative constraints. These material demands usually entail dealing with divergent constituencies clamouring for domestic expectations of redistribution on the one hand and market-led demands on the other; whilst normative constraints involve having to seek a compromise between cosmopolitanism and pan-Africanism on the other.

As a result, multiple contradictions clutter the policymaking domain: a widely pronounced commitment to an ‘African Agenda’ amongst the political elite, set against severe levels of xenophobia amongst the poor, in part because South Africa has had to deal with amongst the largest influx of refugees in the world; increasing trade and economic ties with China, including Chinese sponsorship of South African membership of BRICS, set against massive Chinese imports which have, for example, decimated the local textile industry; and enunciating a commitment towards ‘democratizing’ international institutions, yet having to tolerate one of the world’s last absolute monarchy’s in its own backyard.

Given these contradictions, policy analysts and newspaper columnists have played a crucial role in shaping the discourse about what our foreign policy should be about. Yet, besides the occasional protest triggered by say, the denial of a visa to the Dalai Lama, much of the foreign policy debate involves trafficking between think tanks, media commentators and government spokespersons. Whilst foreign policy traditionally remains the domain of an elite group - in both the developed and developing world, occasional flare-ups, such as the Dalai Lama visa debacle, reveal the continued significance of what is widely known in the foreign policy analysis literature as ‘the attentive public’.

What motivated this research project was the remarkable absence of scholarly analyses about ‘the attentive public’s’ attitudes to key issues in our foreign policy. The only other comprehensive study of a representative sample of the South African population was conducted 15 years ago by Philip Nel. We contend that since then, considerable shifts in attitudes are likely to have occurred, making another survey both necessary and very compelling. The survey – which was not designed to test the public’s knowledge of international affairs but rather their attitudes, beliefs and values about our foreign policy - reveals considerable convergence across various societal divides in relation to major issues.

This policy brief provides a preliminary report of the findings. After contextualising the nature and methodological approach of the survey, four key themes illuminate ordinary South Africans’ foreign policy beliefs, orientations and values and how South Africans view the country’s international identity. These themes include, firstly, debates about what South Africans consider the country’s national interest to be; secondly, the country’s international role; third, human rights; and finally, South Africa’s international identity.

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