YOGI Berra, the famed US baseball player and manager, once quipped, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Last week’s commendable presidential reaffirmation of the National Development Plan (NDP) came within a day or so of confirmation that at least one of its chapters, the section on foreign policy, had been junked. This raises the larger question of what the Cabinet was doing when it endorsed the document in August last year. Is the NDP our “socioeconomic blueprint”, as President Jacob Zuma described it, providing a common road map to get the country onto the fast track by 2030, or is it simply a work in progress, where the contentious bits simply get junked according to the whims of whichever lobby group is on the rise at a particular moment?
I spent three years abroad trying to decode and implement the strategic plan and white paper of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation. Far from clarifying our role in the world, and offering tough choices, it does not admit that priorities and trade-offs are needed in the competitive world in which we operate. It simply box-ticks all the regions in the world, throws in a few anchor states in each of them and then suggests an African-biased “all of the above approach” to statecraft. It was only on my return from foreign service, which coincided with the Cabinet endorsement of the NDP, that I read chapter seven of the plan. It provides a clarion call for South Africa to shape its foreign policy by requiring of government “a clear strategy” based on the country’s global,
continental and regional situation. It also provides a frank admission that here has been a relative decline in influence of our position as “a significant presence in world affairs” since the heady days of 1994. Exactly so.
Another inconvenient truth in the chapter is the urgent need for South Africa to rationalise and streamline its 124 legations operating in 107 countries. Doubtless treading on the vested interests at play, here is what got the goat of the mandarins in Pretoria.
Canada and the UK, with economies about five and six times, respectively, larger than our own, recently announced that they would be sharing certain diplomatic missions to save costs, in a nod to austerity. British Prime Minister David Cameron has urged his country’s foreign service to put the UK ahead in “the global game”. Converting embassies from cost to profit centres is one way
to achieve that. Allied to taking the fork-in-the-road approach, rather than making the tough calls, is George Orwell’s definition of “doublethink” from his dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four: “The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
Doublethink is one area of major growth activity in South Africa, and elsewhere. It also chimes with an area of economic diplomacy that manifests itself as a race to the bottom, in the form of protectionism. We saw this on display last week with the chicken war now raging between South Africa and Argentina. On the one hand, our Department of Trade and Industry issues a stern mandate to its
trade officers across the world to interdict instances of unfair tariffs being applied against our products in foreign countries. Yet, in an attempt to save the uncompetitive local poultry industry, it has slapped sky-high tariffs on imported birds from South America.
Leaving aside the mouthwatering hypocrisy of Argentina, perhaps the most import-averse country in the world, this saga represents doublethink in the extreme. On the one hand, the workers whose jobs might be saved with such a move, are also consumers. And ramping up the price of white meat by protecting local industry, simply feeds, forgive the pun, the food insecurity and price instability about which the government has expressed correct concern.
The spectre of Big Brother, more than doublethink, has also led to a global spike in sales for Nineteen Eighty-Four after the revelations from former US Central Intelligence Agency employee Edward Snowdon that the National Security Agency’s dragnet allows government access to all social media and private communications, from e-mails to Facebook. But there is an element of doublethink here as well: we want our freedom and privacy, but we also want to be free from terror attacks. Like most big questions and issues, there are no glib answers. But that’s part of the burdens of government: to navigate safely, in a principled and effective manner,
between these competing impulses.
African National Congress deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa recently chided us for being “whiners and complainers”. In contrast, Mervyn King, the departing governor of the Bank of England, spoke in a weekend interview of “the audacity of pessimism — only when things look bleak will people get around to doing anything”. Like choosing the right fork in the road, for example.