Reflections on a new Democratic South Africa’s role in the Multilateral Trading System

The paper argues that South Africa’s participation in the World Trade Organization (WTO) since the birth of its democracy in 1994 was informed by its domestic development challenges. It claims that South Africa’s values were derived from its long struggle against apartheid and its transition to a new democracy. South Africa’s political leadership in the Doha negotiations was also strengthened by its deep democratic institutions and consultative processes. South Africa’s values, articulated by Nelson Mandela, reflected a deep commitment to multilateralism and consensus building, fairness and justice, inclusiveness, and a concern to support and promote development, within South Africa, and also in developing countries, especially the African continent. The paper argues that the experiences of South Africa in the multilateral trading system have been inspired by the vision and principles set out by Nelson Mandela. This vision is based on the ‘idealist and aspirational’ discourse in foreign policy rather than the narrow ‘interest driven discourse of realism’.

Policy Implications

  • South Africa’s experience in the multilateral system suggests that a normative or value based approach based on principles and values can be more successful in building consensus and fair and balanced multilateral agreements than the mercantilist and realist approaches adopted by the US in the Doha round.
  • Raising the awareness of US trade and foreign policy makers on the need to avoid being taken hostage by their narrow minded lobbies will be crucial for the success of multilateral negotiations.
  • EU trade and foreign policy makers need to build greater coherence between their more mercantilist approaches of their trade negotiators and human rights based approaches of their foreign policy negotiators.
  • Other members in the BRICS group, such as China, India, Russia and Brazil, can learn from the experiences of South Africa and strive to adopt more idealist and normative approaches to their multilateral trade negotiations, ensuring that they are more responsive to the needs of the smaller and poorer developing countries.
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