“Our identity is very important. It tells us who we are, where we come from and where we are going,” said Prof. Maxi Schoeman. “Debates about our identity at the moment in South Africa create insecurity. We don’t trust our own story about ourselves and how it will play out.”
Prof. Schoeman is professor in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria, a member of the Advisory Board of the African Peace Network of the Social Sciences Research Council in New York, deputy chairperson of the Institute for Global Dialogue and a trustee of the Institute for Security Studies, and was awarded the 2014 Claude Ake Visiting Chair at the University of Uppsala.Prof. Schoeman is also a fellow at STIAS where she presented a seminar on her current project which aims to understand and track the impact of South Africa’s identity on its foreign policy and explore aspects of South Africa’s African policy over the past two decades.
Prof. Schoeman describes the work as a reflection on the foreign policy of an emerging power in a global context and a regional power in a continental context. “The aim is to contribute to a growing body of knowledge about, on the one hand, South Africa’s foreign policy,” said Schoeman, “and, on the other hand, the foreign policy challenges and constraints experienced by emerging powers in an era in which the international political system is undergoing major power shifts.”
“I reflect on the two identities that South Africa has claimed since 1994, that of being an African country and being an emerging power intent on ‘making the world a better place’; on the roles the country has adopted in its foreign policy conduct (bridge/bridge-builder, regional leader, anti-imperialist agent and developer); on perceptions of its performance from a continental perspective; and on the way in which the current reconstruction of national identity (moving from the ‘rainbow nation’ to a pan-Africanist identity) may impact South Africa’s foreign policy roles and performance,” said Schoeman.
“Identity is an implicit theory of self. It is relational and ever-changing and underlies the way in which states view the world and see their interests in it,” continued Schoeman.
Prof. Schoeman pointed out that identity is about historically constructed ideas. It gives distinctness and belonging, and tells us who we are in relation to others, where we fit in and what we hope for the future. She stressed that how states see themselves and others is central to foreign policy because it determines how we allocate resources on some policies and not others.
“Identity matters as it tells us who we are, based on a narrative of where we come from and how we fit into the world, thereby providing a road map for behaviour.”
Prof. Schoeman distinguished between national (internal) identity and international (external) identity.
“Usually our national identity is more fluid and in an ongoing process of construction,” she said. “The international identity is less messy, more concise, slower to change, manufactured by political elites and usually subject to little contestation.”
She highlighted that since the 1990s South Africa’s most consistent external identity has been that of an African emerging power while the internal identity has manifested as the Rainbow Nation.
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw