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.

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.