South Africa


South Africa’s ANC marches to a different drum than rest of Africa

South Africa’s ANC marches to a different drum than rest of Africa
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) speaks to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia, 24 October 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Sergei Chirikov / Pool)

The ruling party still sees the world as a battleground between neo-liberalism and revolutionary progressivism. 

Reading the foreign policy chapter of the African National Congress’s (ANC) 2022 discussion paper, one gets a sense that South Africa’s ruling party is increasingly marching to the beat of a different drum to the rest of Africa. Yet the ANC is convinced it’s the only one in step.

ANC foreign policy documents have always been shot through with anachronistic-sounding, Cold War-evoking phrases like assessing the “balance of forces” in the world and Africa. The ANC sees the world as the terrain of a mighty Manichaean battle between good and evil. 

On the good side, you have the ‘progressive’ or ‘revolutionary’ forces, of which the ANC regards itself as an important standard bearer. Pitched against them are the counter-revolutionary forces of ‘neo-liberalism’ led by the United States (US), North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), World Bank, International Monetary Fund, etc. 

Globally, the document takes the gloomy view that the bad guys are winning, noting that “right-wing extremism, authoritarianism and illiberalism” are threatening the pursuit of a progressive international agenda. The document makes clear why Pretoria has controversially never condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The ANC sees Russia as having been provoked by America’s alleged agenda to eliminate its world rivals.

However, as Priyal Singh, Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), points out: “While the discussion document very explicitly outlines the ANC’s opposition to the US-dominated international order, by promoting its own brand of “progressive internationalism”, it fails to account for the fact that Russia and China (in particular) are a poor choice of partners to realise this progressive agenda.’

The ANC also sees the progressive and revolutionary forces on the backfoot in Africa. It notes that “The progressive movement is relatively weak amongst mass political formations and the governments on our continent. The same is also true [regarding] practical commitment to Pan-Africanism.”

The ruling party attributes this weakness largely to “the infiltration of the African Union by non-African states through their proxies” — mainly France, the US, Israel and the ‘monarch-led’ Middle East states. Barely a mention of Russia, even though it is extending its tentacles all over Africa, largely through its proxy, the private military company Wagner. 

America’s main crime is to have sucked African states into its global war on terror, particularly in the Sahel and West Africa. ISS Head of African Futures and Innovation Jakkie Cilliers observes that, “No doubt the US invasion of Iraq reinvigorated Isis globally. That, plus Nato’s efforts in Libya are largely responsible for the spread of terror and instability in North and West Africa. So current US efforts to defend those countries are perhaps not inappropriate.”

In the discussion document, France reprises its familiar role as an archvillain in the ANC’s playbook because of its considerable influence in Francophone Africa. Israel is accused of aggressively pursuing relations with African countries and the African Union (AU) — a clear reference to Israel’s efforts to be accredited diplomatically to the AU, which South Africa so vigorously opposed. 

Morocco — though presumably still regarded by the ANC as African — earns its place in the pantheon of anti-progressive villains for its “growing influence.” This is purportedly “inextricably related to the continuing challenge of FrancAfrique which sets French-speaking countries against others including English-speaking African countries in a manner that harms the cohesion of the African Union, its organs and programmes.”

No doubt there is outside meddling in Africa. But the continent — except among the ANC’s fellow former liberation movements in the south — is largely diverging from the ideological preoccupations of the ANC, if it ever shared them. Most African states, one suspects, don’t see the continent primarily as a battleground between neo-liberalism and revolutionary progressivism.

They are increasingly pragmatic and nuanced. Rightly or wrongly, African countries aren’t as bothered about the Western Sahara and Palestine. They see Morocco as an increasingly valuable trade and investment partner and the Israel partnership as useful, especially in fields like water and agriculture. Sahel and West African states probably still primarily appreciate US and French aid in fighting jihadists, even if France lost some ground in Mali, where a military junta recently evicted it. 

“Much of the rest of Africa has moved on from liberation-era politics (and economics) — but not the ANC or its Soviet-era liberation partners in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Mozambique,” says Cilliers. “We continue to pay the price for that delayed maturation.”

The document is not without pertinent introspection. It wonders candidly whether the ANC government might have lost its “revolutionary credentials” as the champion of progressivism in Africa because of its own internal problems. These are referred to as factionalism, the “inevitable compromises” of being in government, the neglect of Africa under Jacob Zuma’s presidency, and growing xenophobia in South Africa. 

The draft policy is also pragmatic in places. It proposes, for example, a review of the 2017 decision to withdraw South Africa from the International Criminal Court (ICC). It notes that the AU has resolved to reform the ICC rather than leave the court, so withdrawing would undermine African consensus. The document even suggests a review of the 2017 decision to downgrade the South African embassy in Israel to a liaison office.

And the discussion document isn’t without insight into Africa’s ills, stating that: “Apart from poverty and underdevelopment, weaknesses and failures of governance probably constitute the single most important threat to the security of both citizens and states.”

But it still places too much faith in its former liberation movement comrades to address such problems and allocates too much blame to external forces. For example, it reiterates the familiar party position that Western sanctions are the root of all Zimbabwe’s ills.

Singh is struck by the fact that the document offers few new solutions. He says it repeats the need for Africa to “silence the guns” and for South Africa to invest more energy in this critical ambition. “Yet, over the last decade or so, South Africa has played an increasingly marginal role in undertaking bilateral peace and security interventions across the continent’s conflict hotspots.” 

So, there’s more rhetoric than substance in this document. Maybe it will firm up at the ANC’s policy conference later this month, where it will be debated. But we probably shouldn’t hold our breath. DM

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.

First published by ISS Today.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    Yes Peter, this is how I also see this. Actually my research points to the fact that Africa’s problems does not derive from the west at all – its’ root cause since independence in the 1960’s is African Nationalist ideology and the blind adherence to it by African leaders. And as soon as they start to deviate from this, the problems start to subside and their countries start to develop. In SA’s case the ANC is still clinging to this outdated and self-defeating Nkrumaist way of thinking. But fortunately for SA, only part of the ANC is African nationalist; nowadays the nationalists are mostly represented by the RET faction (plus a few smaller political parties outside the ANC). That is why there is so much double-speak; the other factions also influence the conversation. And the other factions have the SA Constitution to back them up. So the government has the position that SA must stay neutral in order to not jeopardise our own growth and to maximise any possibility of assisting in a solution to the Ukraine crisis, but the nationalists keep trying to influence things back to the old pro-soviet days.

  • Rg Bolleurs says:

    We side with all the unsuccessful countries of the world with poor hunan rights records and often failing economies

    We should learn from the winners in the world, not its losers

  • Brandon VE says:

    Carl Niehaus’ influence and penmanship I believe. We will see less of this as his exclusion from the ANC lengthens.

  • virginia crawford says:

    The SA Communist Party with its clear Stalinist tendencies run the show, and it’s mostly dated nonsense but the focus on blind loyalty is really dangerous. It’s very hard to reconcile the corruption and ostentatious wealth with a communist party: but then again, Stalin and his cronies lived very well while people queued and went without. It’s crazy that the SACP has the influence it does.

  • Andre Crause Crause says:

    SA is stuck in the past. Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania and even Malawi is moving ahead. African Nationalist Ideology is setting SA back.

  • Gerhardt Strydom says:

    Introspection and a healthy dose of objectivity are two scarce commodities – in people and in governments. Blaming other countries and ‘mysterious forces’ will not achieve anything. When those in power serve themselves before serving the citizens, we have trouble. Look at countries such as Uruguay, where there is little space for extravagance and mismanagement, and then compare with many South American and African countries … dare we hope this could change?

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