South Africa’s foreign relations under a new government: consistent policy with a new style

New foreign minister Ronald Lamola is a rising political force. He will likely focus more on foreign relations serving domestic economic issues, taking a lower profile than his predecessor.

Expert comment Published 3 July 2024 3 minute READ

South Africa has emerged with a larger and more politically diverse administration after four weeks of tense inter-party negotiations over the formation of a government. 

Its make-up is the outcome of political compromises reflecting both internal divisions among the African National Congress (ANC), which ruled the country alone for 30 years, and the grand coalition of parties that now make up the executive.  

The ANC has retained control over key economic ministries – with Enoch Godongwana remaining as finance minister, to the relief of investors unsettled by the efforts of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to secure the job. 

The appointment of Ronald Lamola…will likely see a foreign policy more focused on the national economic interest. 

And the broadly centrist Democratic Alliance (DA) has taken a haul of ministries through which it can demonstrate some influence, despite falling short of its objective of a representative government with portfolios allocated on the basis of the electoral result. 

The appointment of Ronald Lamola as minister of international relations and cooperation was unforeseen but should be highly welcomed. His appointment, coupled with the constraints brought by coalition government, will likely see a foreign policy more focused on the national economic interest. 

National support for Palestinians will continue – exemplified by South Africa’s case against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). But the DA will be keen to moderate the pro-Russian stance of some ANC leaders and ensure a policy more rooted in the national economic interest. 

The new foreign minister will likely return to a mode of engagement that prioritizes exerting influence through multilateral forums, rather than taking a leading role himself.   

Lamola’s reset

Lamola’s predecessor, Naledi Pandor, leaves behind a significant legacy and has been responsible for rejuvenating South Africa’s foreign policy, even if it has meant being the face of the country’s controversial positions on the Ukraine and Gaza wars.  

Pandor exuded a worldliness that was grounded in principles. Her background in exile brought her significant respect and political influence domestically and internationally. 

She gained popularity across the continent for her robust challenges against Western bullying and double standards, but in a manner that managed to maintain those diplomatic friendships. 

However, she was criticized for the personalization of the nation’s foreign policy, and pursuing causes or positions that were not in the national interest, or at odds with the ruling party. She was also said at times to operate in a manner that undermined South Africa’s global network of diplomats and foreign ministry representatives. 

Lamola shares few personal attributes with his predecessor, but his appointment has been well received and may usher in a lower profile and more pragmatic era. He trained as a lawyer and his rise in politics began as a 13-year old in the ANC youth league. 

He has been a consistent supporter of President Cyril Ramaphosa. At the 2022 ANC party conference, he ran as a rank outsider unsuccessfully for the position of deputy president. 

He ignored efforts to encourage him to step aside for the sake of party unity, saying the party needed a younger generation pushing for top positions. 

That he was not politically punished for this symbolizes the respect in which he is held by the party’s highest echelons and his appointment as foreign minister at the age of 40 shows he is a rising star.  

Making the ministry work better

From 2019 until to his new appointment, Lamola served as minister of justice, professionally running the department and supporting the judicial system – one of the most trusted institutions in the country – during a period where a high-profile target of litigation was his own party. 

Lamola’s…term in the justice ministry put him at the centre of South Africa’s case against Israel at the ICJ. 

His leadership of the department was often cited as an area of progress under President Ramaphosa’s first term. His name would regularly appear among those discussed as exciting emerging talent and with future leadership potential. 

Lamola’s political background is domestic, and he is little known overseas outside of South Africa watchers. But his term in the justice ministry put him at the centre of South Africa’s case against Israel at the ICJ. 

Politically this associates him with one area of foreign policy that many South Africans are proud of. Pragmatically, he has an existing relationship with the ministry’s top officials. And the continuation of the respected Alvin Botes as deputy minister implies some consistency and experience within the departmental leadership. 

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Lamola’s ministerial record for competent delivery and departmental leadership will be important for his new role. Following Pandor’s individualistic style, there is a need to reconnect various elements of the department – and other ministries with international portfolios – and to leverage its skills and competencies, which include the economic diplomacy training programme. 

With policy now having to be agreed by a broad spectrum of interests among the parties in government, there will be far less scope for pushing a party line and a need for more pragmatism. 

Leveraging multilateral initiatives

South Africa is a big proponent of multilateralism. The country’s ability to project independently its influence overseas is constrained – it has limited military and diplomatic capabilities compared to other middle or emerging powers.  

Multilateral initiatives, including the BRICS grouping, offer South Africa avenues for building relationships and finding consensus on its priorities such as global governance reform and the Global South. 

They also provide platforms to exercise its principles on issues where it feels it has a moral authority – as exemplified in the ICJ case. It has been able to make a significant impact with limited means.

The foreign policy consensus that emerges from the coalition will be broadly consistent with the previous administration. Its new foreign minister takes office with a lower international profile than his predecessor but with a reputation for encouraging departmental proficiency.

Lamola now has one year at the helm of ministry before South Africa hosts the G20 in 2025. The summit will offer a government that embodies political compromise an opportunity to push issues that matter to it, such as green financing and the equitable reform of global economic governance.