The concentric circles of South Africa’s foreign policy
It is an often repeated truism in foreign policy that countries can only be strong abroad if they are strong at home.
Post-apartheid South Africa remains one of the world’s most unequal societies. Its white-dominated companies are ubiquitous across the continent.
The apartheid-era army’s destabilisation of its neighbours has also left a profound distrust of South African military interventionism.
However, South Africa is the only African country in the Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRICS) Grouping and the Group of 20 major economies, and is one of only 11 global strategic partners of the European Union (EU).
The recent publication of a 24-chapter volume Foreign Policy in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Security, Diplomacy and Trade – which I co-edited – is thus a much-needed addition to the literature.
The book seeks to bridge the gap between theory and praxis by including six practitioner-authors from South Africa’s foreign, trade and defence sectors. Half of the authors are also from other African countries, as well as from North America, Europe and Asia.
South Africa’s post-1994 foreign policy is examined through four overlapping “concentric circles,” with the first focusing on domestic South African constraints, the second on Southern Africa, the third on the broader African continent and the fourth on relations with the rest of the world outside Africa.
The concept of hegemony is also used to explain South Africa’s leadership role. Nelson Mandela sought to promote a human rights-based foreign policy which sometimes proved difficult to pursue in a world of Realpolitik.
Thabo Mbeki consistently pursued an “African Agenda,” building the institutions of the African Union (AU) and deploying 3,000 troops to Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Jacob Zuma continued to stress “the African Agenda,” while pursuing a national interest–driven foreign policy and a more openly mercantilist trade policy.
In Southern Africa, Tshwane developed strong ties with Mozambique, mediated in Zimbabwe, and developed a strategic partnership with Angola during the Zuma era.
In the Great Lakes, South Africa pursued peacemaking in Burundi and the DRC, but has had fractious relations with Rwanda.
Ties with Nigeria were strategic under the Mbeki era, and this remains potentially Africa’s indispensable relationship. Economic ties have been strong with Ghana, while peacemaking dominated relations with Côte d’Ivoire under Mbeki.
In Eastern Africa, Tanzania has been used to bridge South Africa’s peacemaking efforts in the Great Lakes. Tshwane has also pursued mediation in Sudan and South Sudan.
In North Africa, South Africa has sought to reformulate its policy towards Egypt, Tunisia and Libya in light of the 2011 “Afro-Arab Spring.”
Tshwane’s key sub-regional multilateral ties are within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), institutions that neighbouring states still fear could be used by South Africa and big business to dominate the sub-region.
At the continental level, South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma chaired the AU Commission between 2012 and 2016.
Moving to the world beyond Africa, Anglo-South African relations were mostly warm, with some tensions over Tshwane’s mediation role in Zimbabwe under Mbeki.
Franco-South African ties have seen some cooperation, but also diplomatic clashes over Paris’s efforts to frustrate Tshwane’s role in Côte d’Ivoire, Central African Republic (CAR), and Madagascar.
Americo-South African relations witnessed peacemaking cooperation in Burundi, the DRC and South Sudan but also tensions over the growing American military presence in Africa.
South Africa’s BRICS partner, China, has become its largest bilateral trade partner. The book concludes with an exploration of multilateral ties, focusing on the United Nations, the BRICS, the African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) Group, the EU, and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Tshwane served on the UN Security Council in 2007–2008 and 2011–2012, and played a leadership role in stalemated trade talks at the WTO. Its relations with the EU, in the context of the ACP, has seen tensions in negotiating an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).
While South Africa can be considered a regional hegemony, it lacks the influence to affect institutions of global governance such as the World Bank and the IMF.
However, working with key regional states, could Tshwane formulate a future continental “Monroe Doctrine” that keeps French and American troops out of Africa in search of a Pax Africana?
Prof. Adebajo is director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.
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