Provinces must ‘start managing their own international relations’


Provincial governments no longer need to remain silent and watch as the national government takes a stand against Israel on the international stage or steps in for Russia.

Provinces – especially the Western Cape where the ANC is not currently in power and residents generally align themselves closer to the West – do not have to watch as diplomatic ties are forged or broken on their behalf.

This is because provinces are empowered to manage their own international relations, says Martin van Staden, head of policy at the Free Market Foundation.

“The ability to handle foreign affairs is a defining characteristic of an independent, sovereign government. This is why central governments, even in federations, tend to monopolize the function entirely, at the expense of subnational governments.

“But that’s not the whole story,” explains Van Staden.

He points out that the South African Constitution does not expressly reserve all foreign policy matters for the exclusive domain of the central government.

“According to article 231 of the Constitution, the central government only has an exclusive mandate to get involved in the ‘negotiation and signing of all international agreements’ which are binding on South Africa as a whole.”

Van Staden says the Western Cape, where the DA is currently in power and residents generally do not share the central government’s views on foreign policy, is at this stage the only province that can manage its own international relations.

However, according to Van Staden, the province can inspire others to do so after this year’s election.

“If the Western Cape takes the initiative, it will empower other provinces that may be governed by opposition coalitions from 2024 to take similar steps when the time comes.

“The Western Cape – and any other South African province, but primarily the Western Cape because it is the only province not governed by the ANC – can, if it wishes, take the initiative to set up a foreign office together with a establish a minister of foreign affairs, who will be responsible for the foreign and international dimensions of their provincial (and municipal, where appropriate) powers.”

Van Staden explains that municipalities, which according to the Constitution have a much greater scope for self-government than provinces, can also delegate some of their powers upwards to their provinces. The municipalities of the Western Cape can also designate the provincial government as the international representative of their municipal interests.

He believes that the Western Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism already has a similar institution called the Directorate of International Relations. The directorate states its own mission very strongly: “To promote healthy international relations, provide strategic advice, manage protocol, and administer the provincial honors and service award system”.

“So on paper the province already has a foreign office,” says Van Staden. “But this ‘directorate’ appears to be the black sheep of the provincial government, which no one takes seriously.”

Not unheard of

Van Staden says it is not unheard of for provinces to manage their own international relations.

The Canadian province of Quebec and the Belgian provinces of Flanders and Wallonia have their own foreign offices. “It is therefore not excluded for sub-national spheres of government in federations – of which South Africa is undeniably one – to at least partially conduct their own foreign affairs.”

Representation, representation, representation

But what can a provincial foreign office do if a province cannot sign binding international agreements?

Van Staden believes that the value of pure representation is underestimated.

“There was a time when parliaments themselves were not primarily ‘legislative’ entities. They were meetings where the views of ordinary people outside the political class would be represented.

“Representation, in itself, of people or of viewpoints, is important and politically powerful.”

Van Staden also refers to the time when the now former US President Donald Trump tweeted about the South African government’s plans to expropriate property without compensation and South Africa became a subject of international concern.

“It would have been powerful at the time if a Western Cape minister of foreign affairs could have stood on the international stage and declared that the central South African government had gone rogue in its decision to water down constitutional institutions, and that the province opposed to this policy.

“It would have been pure representation of more than seven million South Africans at world level, even if that minister could not do anything binding,” Van Staden believes.

“The central government will naturally challenge provinces that try to run their own foreign affairs. This is to be expected, and not necessarily a bad thing,” says Van Staden.

“The character of the great federations of the world – the United States, Canada and Australia – was largely forged on the battlefield of courtrooms.

“If South Africa’s provinces start conducting their own foreign affairs, this necessary litigation may be a starting point. Perhaps then federal decentralization will finally begin to get the attention it so desperately needs at a time when the state is collapsing,” says Van Staden.