The End of South Africa’s Honeymoon

The honeymoon is over for South Africa and the international community. Domestic problems and regional instability mean foreign policy is becoming an increasingly rocky road for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government of President Thabo Mbeki.

South Africa’s internal problems, most notably the upsurge in the AIDS epidemic, have been well documented since the ANC came to power more than ten years ago, but the country’s stance as a player within the international community has been less obvious. There were high expectations, both at home and abroad, that South Africa could and would punch above its weight in international affairs, capitalizing on the extraordinary and unexpected constitutional settlement achieved by Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk in 1994.

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Initially, a foreign policy based on Nelson Mandela’s shining global reputation enabled the country to project itself as an exemplary international citizen. The government aspired to play a constructive role across Africa, act as a spokesman for Third-World interests at the UN and elsewhere, and promote an end to the plethora of conflicts bedeviling the continent.

In time, however, as the impact of Mandela’s reputation faded, South Africa became just another country desperately trying to cope with immense social and economic deprivation and anxious for the foreign investment crucial to economic growth. There was also recognition of limits to what the government could achieve on the international stage, despite some important accomplishments such as its helpful role in the renegotiation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995.

The activist trend in South Africa’s foreign policy was initially accelerated under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki after he was first elected in 1999. He extolled the notion of an “African renaissance” in which Africans are committed to find African solutions for African problems. NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, an organization designed to promote decent and appropriate standards of economic and political development throughout the continent, has been at the core of this policy.

Despite its domestic problems and the loss of global visibility that accompanied Mandela’s retirement, South Africa is still perceived as an emerging power comparable in status and aspiration to, say, Brazil, India, and Nigeria. Such powers seek an effective and constructive regional role, and possibly, in some instances, a global one. They tend to have proactive and assertive foreign policies and aspire to more than the middle-power status and limited niche-style influence enjoyed by Canada, Sweden, or Saudi Arabia. South Africa seeks a wider and more influential role reinforced by its obvious standing as a regional hegemon.

But South Africa’s aspiration to play a dynamic role beyond its borders is proving increasingly difficult, primarily because the regional environment – indeed, the continental environment – is not hospitable, defying the best efforts of Mbeki’s government to produce meaningful and sustained political and economic change. The persistence of civil wars, periodic failure of ceasefires and mediation efforts, and protagonists that are sometimes warlords and rapacious militias – rather than states capable of making rational decisions – all add to the difficulty of conflict resolution by diplomatic means and traditional peacekeeping.

Zimbabwe is perhaps the key example of South Africa’s foreign policy problems. Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” has not succeeded. More importantly, South Africa’s ruling elite clearly believes that black liberation solidarity of the kind that links Mbeki with Mugabe inevitably trumps human rights.

The persistence of the Zimbabwean crisis profoundly damages South Africa’s claim to leadership of efforts at African transformation via organizations such as NEPAD, which is largely dependent on Western aid. But any agreement at, say, the G-8 Summit in July to disperse such aid in the massive proportions advocated by the recent Report by the Blair Commission on Africa may be difficult to achieve. In the face of Western and, in particular, American skepticism about South Africa’s failure, and that of the Africa Union, to engineer an acceptable outcome to the Zimbabwean crisis, money may not be forthcoming.

The long-term future of South Africa’s foreign policy is uncertain: its emergence as a power of substance with a claim to a seat in a reformed UN Security Council will ultimately depend on the government’s capacity to attract foreign investment sufficient to help deliver economic and social goods to the country’s black majority. For, as with everywhere else, a successful foreign policy inevitably begins at home.