By Jessie Taylor

Zooming in on DIRCO

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) promotes South Africa’s national interests and values within the international community. DIRCO, under the leadership of the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor, is mandated to carry out bilateral and multilateral interactions to promote the country’s foreign policy objectives.

Minister Pandor’s role is to champion the government’s vision for South Africa’s international relations and Africa’s role on the global stage. As South Africa’s top diplomat, Minister Pandor often represents the country at key meetings to negotiate South Africa’s position and promote the nation’s interests and values. But DIRCO’s role goes beyond just diplomacy – the department also monitors international developments and advises the government on policy and other domestic matters while providing a link to home for South Africans travelling, working or living in other countries through its almost 300 representatives abroad.

A voice for the developing world

As South Africa’s diplomatic representative, much of Minister Pandor’s role lies in speaking for the county during international conventions and negotiations. She recently led the South Africa delegation at the G20 summit in Rome, Italy, when President Cyril Ramaphosa was unable to attend due to commitments on home soil in the run-up to the local government elections. While at the summit, Minister Pandor engaged with other leaders on the topics of access to vaccines, free security debt, and support for women’s empowerment.

The G20 grouping is an important political structure, formed in 1999 between nations that make up 85% of the world’s GDP, 80% of world trade and two-thirds of the world’s population. The G20 has worked towards improving economic and financial transparency, as well as strengthening financial systems. South Africa is the only African member of the G20 and has become a significant voice for the continent during negotiations.

Acting as a voice for the continent has become critical during the pandemic. According to UNICEF, G20 countries have received 15 times more Covid-19 vaccine doses per capita than countries in sub-Saharan Africa. This figure highlights the stark inequality of vaccine distribution between developed and developing nations, with the world’s health officials calling on wealthier nations to assist global vaccinations. “Vaccine inequity is not just holding the poorest countries back – it is holding the world back,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.

“Wealthy countries with more supplies than they need have generously pledged to donate these doses to low- and middle-income countries via COVAX, but these promised doses are moving too slowly. Of the 1.3 billion additional doses countries have pledged to donate, only 356 million doses have been provided to COVAX.”

Building trade partnerships

Last month, Minister Pandor attended another key international summit: The 21st Indian Ocean Rim Association’s (IORA) Council of Ministers (COM) meeting. The meeting was the last meeting that South Africa attended as a member of the IORA Troika, as the Association’s past Chair (2017-2019), and where Bangladesh will take over the chairship from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with Sri Lanka becoming the Vice-Chair. However, South Africa will continue to lead the IORA Working Group of the Blue Economy. It will also become the Chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Academic Group (IORAG) as well as remain very active as a Cluster Group Member of the majority of Working and Core Groups of IORA.

The grouping is an important one for the country, as the government works to harness the economic potential of its oceans through programmes such as Operation Phakisa – a programme designed to help the country take advantage of the untapped potential of South Africa’s coastline. The IORA meeting focused on harnessing the opportunities of the Indian Ocean sustainably for inclusive development, as well as the effects of the global pandemic. Minister Pandor used the meeting as an opportunity to address the Member States and Dialogue Partners at a Strategic Dialogue session on: “The Impact of COVID-19 and perspectives of economic recovery in the Indian Ocean Region”.

Minister Pandor said IORA is an important body upholding its principles, with its members working independently of any powerful nations and their instructions. The visit to Bangladesh aimed to give the South African delegation an insight into the investment potential of Bangladesh special economic zones and hi-tech parks. Minister Pandor said the delegation was exploring the potential of increasing engagement in trade and commerce.

“Potential of Africa has not yet been recognised by Bangladesh while the potential of Bangladesh is not recognised by the African market,” Minister Pandor said. Also under discussion was the development of a national park, halal trade and cricket. She said South Africa had developed expertise in national park management and global recognition of halal food production.

She also said South African would look to expand its consular facilities in the country. While in Bangladesh, Minister Pandor visited the Joyeeta Foundation to learn about women’s economic empowerment. She visited the stalls of entrepreneurs creating garments, handcrafts and home décor. The Joyeeta Foundation provides infrastructural, physical and technical support to the women entrepreneurs in the country with a view to increasing their earnings, living standards and ensuring women economic empowerment.

Securing diplomatic ties

But Minister Pandor’s work does not only lie in securing key trade partnerships with other developing nations. She has recently undertaken a number of visits to European countries to foster stronger trade relations and diplomatic ties. In November, Minister Pandor visited Belgium to strengthen cooperation between South Africa, Belgium, and the rest of the European Union (EU). She met with representatives of the EU and Belgium to discuss the possibility of collaboration in trade and pharmaceutical research, especially in light of the global pandemic.

Belgium is one of South Africa’s most important economic partners, with many of South Africa’s exports entering Europe through the Belgian Port of Antwerp. In 2020, Belgium was South Africa’s 11th largest export market and sixth largest source of foreign direct investment. The country is also an ideal partner for South Africa’s ambitions to increase vaccine production – it has a reputation as a work leader in research and pharmaceuticals. During her visit, Minister Pandor discussed the possibilities for further collaboration between South Africa and Belgium in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following her visit to Belgium, Minister Pandor visited its neighbour, the Netherlands. Here she took part in the Second Meeting of the South Africa-Netherlands Joint Commission for Cooperation. The Commission will focus on expanding cooperation between the two countries, particularly in the areas of trade and investment, agriculture and water, arts and culture, as well as science and innovation. Trade between South Africa and the Netherlands increased by 28%, from R70 billion in 2020 to R89 billion during the twelve months to the end of June 2021. The increased trade has been attributed to a surge in commodity exports. Minister Pandor also toured the Port of Rotterdam. The Port has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Northern Cape Economic Development Agency for the development of the Port of Boegoebaai.

Leading trade and diplomatic delegations require a vast range of experience and knowledge, which Minister Pandor acquired during her service to South Africa.  She has held the position of Minister of Higher Education and Training and the Minister of Science and Technology. Minister Pandor has been a Member of Parliament since 1994, during which time she served as ANC Caucus Whip and Chairperson of the NCOP as well as Member of the Portfolio Committee on Education. Her education lies in the fields of Education and Linguistics, and she obtained a Doctorate in Education from the University of Pretoria in 2019.

It’s no small task leading the country’s diplomatic efforts, especially at a time when the world will need to work together to overcome the pandemic and its effects. Minister Pandor not only speaks for South Africa, strengthening the country’s trade and international relations, but she is also a key voice in expressing Africa’s needs and potential to the rest of the world.

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