Our embassies must operate as business centres


It is time for South Africa to take its position in the international community through progressive economic diplomacy.

Economic diplomacy is essential to economic growth. Hegemony in global politics requires the country’s ability to build on its economic foreign policy relations with global institutions.

Such institutions are meant to assimilate, promote and enhance the hegemon’s economic, political and cultural ideas in the international community. The institutions become platforms for the battle of competing interests to dominate in the international sphere, even if the system is said to be anarchic.

The focus on international institutions for some politicians and scholars has always been on the role of multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations, World Economic Forum and Bretton Woods institutions, including the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. The narrow focus on such institutions neglects the role played by economic diplomacy through embassies and consulates. As a result, the potential of embassies and consulates as strategic pioneers of economic growth stagnates.

In South Africa, this matter is worse. When appointments to important positions in the diplomatic corps are made, retired politicians, political figures that have fallen from popularity and people who are perceived to be threats to the political interests and stability of any sitting head of state and his or her allies are appointed. This has made many people think that the diplomatic corps is for political recycling, completely misdirecting focus on the important role that South African embassies and consulates should be playing.

Due to the fact that the embassies and consulates have become political recycling bases, their number in the global arena has risen without any results. Some embassies and consulates exist in countries that South Africa has not been able to create any economic bilateral relations with. This does not mean that political and cultural relations are not crucial, but that efforts have to be supplemented by economic relations through the notion of economic diplomacy. Once economic relations are established, maintained and protected, political and cultural relations become crucial. The Diplomacy of Ubuntu is meaningless without economic stability.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his economic advisory team have sleepless nights. They always think of progressive mechanisms that can be implemented to advance direct investments and posture South Africa’s specialisation process as one of the best in the international community. But the arduous task before the president is that of institutionalisation. South Africa does not need to build institutions similar to the current Bretton Woods institutions to assimilate its ideas; there are no resources to do this. But our country can focus on strengthening its economic abilities on a global scale through the existing embassies and consulates as gateways to business.

The Chinese have proven to be the best players in this game through the “non-interference” foreign policy outlook. China is not concerned with the task of building institutions that will enhance and assimilate its political, economic and social ideas. Instead, the Chinese Embassy plays a pivotal role in building economic hubs meant to expand Chinese corporations, investments and to some extent create sites to dump Chinese products in the economy of the host country.

China is not concerned with the battle against financial globalisation — for instance, it does not offer alternatives to it, but it is actively participating in trade liberalism. China is willing to trade with anyone, and its economy continues to rapidly grow.

South African corporations must be integrated into the political and cultural relations that the diplomatic corps through embassies and consulates have created. This will create opportunities for domestic corporations to co-exist with the multinational corporations in the global market and strengthen links in ordinary people-to-people relations through economic opportunities. It is much easier to conduct economic activities, especially trade relations, through embassies and consulates because they are independent in a foreign land, and they belong to South Africa.

The late Alfred Nzo best captured the reality in which South Africa finds itself when he said:

“The position in which South Africa finds itself is that it has features both of the developed and the developing world. It is truly at the point of intersection between both worlds — an industrialised state of the South which can communicate with the North on equal terms to articulate the needs, the concerns and the fears of the developing world. Conversely, we can interpret the concerns and the fears of the developed world.”

It is time for South Africa to take its position in the international community through progressive economic diplomacy.


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