Skip Navigation Linksopinion–leviathan-on-the-limpopo Opinion – Leviathan on the Limpopo?


Opinion – Leviathan on the Limpopo?


Publishing Date: 5/28/2018 3:45 PM

Written by Professor Adekeye Adebajo

The arrival of President Cyril Ramaphosa in the Union buildings in February offers South Africa the chance to "reset" its foreign policy and play an effective role as a leader on its own continent and beyond. However, post-apartheid South Africa remains one of the world's poorest and most unequal societies. This could constrain Tshwane's hegemonic ambitions, unless it can link its foreign and trade policies to reversing its domestic socio-economic inequalities – writes Prof Adekeye Adebajo.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is the Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), and the co-editor of Foreign Policy in Post-Apartheid South Africa (2018).

South Africa's official unemployment rate is 27%. Its white-dominated companies are ubiquitous across Africa, sometimes creating resentment in local markets. The apartheid-era army's destabilisation of its neighbours has also left a profound distrust of South African military interventionism, particularly in Southern Africa. The country's economic, military, and educational institutions remain stubbornly untransformed two and a half decades after the formal end of apartheid, raising serious questions about its African identity. However, South Africa is also the only African country in the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) grouping and the Group of 20 (G20) major economies, and is one of only 11 global strategic partners of the European Union (EU), all of which has increased Tshwane's global prestige.

Nelson Mandela had famously outlined five core principles in 1993 to guide South Africa's foreign policy: the centrality of human rights; the promotion of democracy; respect for international law; the pursuit of peace through non-violent mechanisms; and international cooperation to promote economic development. At a foreign policy retreat in 2001, president Thabo Mbeki identified five key priorities for South Africa's external relations: restructuring the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC); reforming regional and international organisations such as the United Nations (UN), the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF); hosting major international conferences; promoting peace and security in Africa and the Middle East; and fostering ties with the Group of Eight (G8) industrialised countries, while devising a global South strategy.

Mbeki also pursued an "African Agenda", and was more prepared than Mandela to send peacekeepers abroad, deploying 3,000 troops to Burundi and the DRC. President Jacob Zuma continued to stress "the African Agenda", while pursuing what some described as a "national interest–driven" foreign policy: a more openly mercantilist trade policy seeking to position South Africa as "open for business" and  the "gateway to Africa". South Africa's entry into BRICS by 2010 was a diplomatic triumph for Zuma. Whereas Mbeki sought leadership at the continental AU level, which he was sometimes unable to translate into leverage at the sub-regional level, Zuma – in securing strong sub-regional support through Angola – gave South Africa greater influence at the continental level, as evidenced by former South African foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's controversial SADC-driven appointment as AU Commission chair in 2012.

South Africa's foreign policy can be assessed through a series of four "concentric circles" starting with an inner circle representing the country's domestic environment; a second larger circle representing its immediate neighbours in Southern Africa; a third circle depicting the broader African environment; and a fourth circle illustrating relations with the world beyond Africa. Tshwane's foreign policy should be conducted simultaneously within these four overlapping circles in a complementary manner that prioritises its domestic base, its geographical location in Southern Africa and Africa, while leveraging relations with the world beyond Africa to strengthen its position within its own sub-region and the broader continent.

In Southern Africa, South Africa's ties in Mozambique were particularly close under Thabo Mbeki and Joaquim Chissano; Tshwane led mediation efforts between Zimbabwe's squabbling political parties; and relations with Angola's José Eduardo Dos Santos became particularly close under Jacob Zuma.  In the Great Lakes, Tshwane was an active peacemaker in the Congo and Burundi, with critics accusing it of attempting to "export" its government of national unity model to both countries. Some critics also sought to link Tshwane's peacemaking role to its economic interests in the Congo's mining and telecommunications sectors. Relations with Rwanda badly deteriorated amidst acts of assassination – successful and attempted – against Rwandan dissidents in Johannesburg.

South Africa's relations with West Africa's three largest economies - Nigeria, Ghana, and Côte d'Ivoire - has involved God, gold, and glory. "Glory" represents South Africa's rivalry with Nigeria for leadership in Africa; "gold" represents Tshwane's relationship with fellow gold producer, Ghana; while "God" represents South Africa's efforts to promote peace and reconciliation in Côte d'Ivoire.

South Africa's relationship with Nigeria is Africa's potentially most strategic. Its nadir was reached after the brutal hanging of human rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight of his Ogoni campaigners, by General Sani Abacha in 1995. A deeply betrayed president Mandela called for the imposition of oil sanctions on Abacha's junta and advocated Nigeria's expulsion from the Commonwealth. South Africa, however, learned the intricacies of African diplomacy the hard way: seeking to isolate Abuja, Tshwane instead found itself isolated on the continent, accused of being a Western Trojan horse in breaking African solidarity. In contrast, the golden age of this relationship occurred during the presidencies of Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-2007) when both countries spearheaded the building of the institutions of the African Union and led peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts across Africa.

While Tanzania has acted as a bridge for South Africa's peacemaking role in the Great Lakes, Tshwane has struggled to have as great an impact in conflict management efforts in Sudan and South Sudan. In North Africa, South Africa has sought to reformulate its foreign policy towards Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria in light of the "Afro-Arab Spring" of 2011. 

With this assessment of South Africa's bilateral ties in Africa as a foundation, a bicycle strategy – involving key hubs and spokes - can be used to describe the country's contemporary foreign policy on the continent. Based on history, population, sub-regional political clout, trade, and the importance of bilateral ties developed over the past two decades and a half, the 16 countries identified here are among the key actors for promoting South Africa's bilateral interests in Africa.

South Africa's key multilateral ties in its sub-region are with SADC and the Southern African Customs Union (SACU). Many of Southern Africa's other 220 million citizens still fear today that these contemporary institutions could be used as instruments by a black-led government to fulfill the historical aims of South Africa's albinocratic leaders – from Cecil Rhodes to F.W. de Klerk - and big business, to incorporate neighbouring "vassals" into a South African–dominated "constellation of states".

Moving beyond Africa, Anglo-South African relations were mostly warm under the anglophile Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, though there were some tensions over Mbeki's policy of "quiet diplomacy" towards Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe. Franco-South African relations have seen both cooperation and competition in which Gallic companies have invested in the South African market (with Paris having helped to develop the apartheid nuclear programme), while diplomatic tensions were evident in both countries' approaches to peacemaking in Côte d'Ivoire, Madagascar, and Central African Republic (CAR).

Both Mandela and Mbeki opposed the American military role in Africa, while cooperating with Washington in peacemaking efforts in Burundi, the DRC, and South Sudan. Jacob Zuma acceded to US president, Barack Obama's call to support the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) intervention in Libya in 2011, before becoming a vocal critic under pressure from the ruling African National Congress (ANC). China is now South Africa's largest bilateral trading partner, though diplomatic relations were only established in 1998. Tshwane, however, tends to treat its ties with its fellow BRICS member far more strategically than Beijing's more pragmatic approach, as noted by Chinese scholar Liu Haifang.

South Africa has an impressive 44 embassies in Africa. In terms of its multilateral global diplomacy, it served on the 15-member UN Security Council in 2007–2008 and 2011–2012, and is set to rejoin the Council in January 2019.  Tshwane has also played an important role in the WTO; while its citizens have held high-profile international positions: Navi Pillay served as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights between 2008 and 2014; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has headed UN Women since 2013; while General Derrick Mgwebi served as the Force Commander of the UN missions in the Congo and Burundi.

While clearly able to act as a regional hegemon, South Africa is far from being a global power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and consummate weight in such global institutions as the World Bank and the IMF. Though Tshwane has energetically gained membership in key institutions such as BRICS and the G20, it is still too early to tell whether this role might come to constitute "representation without power", and whether Pax South Africana can develop the capacity, legitimacy, and followership to act as an effective Leviathan on the Limpopo.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Johannesburg. This article was first published in The Star, 25 May 2018.



 Live Video Feed