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The Rise and Decline of South Africa’s Soft Power


Dr Oluwaseun Tella is Director, The Future of Diplomacy, at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for the Future of Knowledge.

South Africa’s credibility has slid in recent years. This stems from domestic constraints and South Africa’s perpetual contradiction of the values – human rights and democracy – it identifies with, which have caused the international community to question its moral authority.

In the immediate aftermath of the demise of apartheid, South Africa was 10-feet tall and punched above its weight in international affairs. Clearly, this significant influence was not a reflection of its medium-sized economy and military force. Instead, it rested on the country’s soft power.

Soft as opposed to hard power refers to a state’s non-coercive qualities that are deployed to achieve its foreign policy objectives. In simple terms, soft power is the power of attraction and hard power is that of coercion. This implies that a state can exercise its attractive qualities (soft power) such as its culture, values and policies to influence the behaviour of other states rather than relying on its coercive capability (hard power) including economic and military might.

In the immediate post-apartheid period, South Africa enjoyed robust soft power that was derived from its liberal constitution, iconic individuals, ideals of democracy and human rights, attractive universities, cultural exports, hosting of major sporting events and conferences, the footprints of its multinational corporations and its multilateral foreign policy and nuclear disarmament.

There is no gainsaying that South Africa’s Constitution is regarded as one of, if not the most liberal in the world and it has served as a template for other countries. Its cultural exports through popular soaps such as Generations, Scandal, Rhythm City, The River and The Queen have challenged illiberal notions such as homophobia and patriarchy across Africa. Its transnational companies have promoted liberal ideas in their host countries in Africa and beyond. South African universities have attracted international students from Africa and further afield. Pretoria’s peacekeeping roles across Africa and its promotion of democracy and human rights have also been internationally recognised. The international clout and charisma of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Steve Biko and Thabo Mbeki among others radiate across Africa and beyond.

These qualities endear South Africa to the rest of the world and provide the moral basis for Pretoria to pursue its foreign policy objectives. They have yielded some obvious benefits such as the country being the sole African member of organisations such as IBSA, BRICS and the G20 and its meaningful roles in SACU, SADC, the AU and the UN. Pretoria has been called upon to mediate in international conflicts; this is evident in its peace keeping role across Africa in places like DRC and Burundi and its offer to share its experience of nuclear disarmament in states such as Iraq and Iran. It has played a significant role in many multilateral forums such as the 1995 extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the 1997 Ottawa Process on the banning of land mines and the 1998 adoption of the Rome Statute that led to the emergence of the International Criminal Court.

South Africa has hosted major international conferences such as the 2000 UNAIDS Conference, the 2001 UN Conference on Racism, the 2002 inaugural summit of the African Union, the 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development, the 2011 UN Climate Change Conference and the 2013 and the upcoming 2018 BRICS summit. Its hosting of major sporting events is also notable. These include the 2003 Cricket World Cup, 1995 Rugby World Cup, 2010 FIFA World Cup, and the 1996 and 2013 African Nations Cup. Major South African banks and telecommunications companies including Standard Bank, Nedbank, the Absa Group, First National Bank, MTN and Vodacom; and retail outlets such as Shoprite, Woolworths and Mr Price are visible across Africa.

However, South Africa’s credibility has slid in recent years. This stems from domestic constraints and South Africa’s perpetual contradiction of the values – human rights and democracy – it identifies with which have caused the international community to question its moral authority. These include political issues such as the Nkandla saga, parliamentary brouhaha and the GuptaLeaks scandal; the economic constraints of poverty, inequality and unemployment; the social constraints of social protest and racism; and the contradictions of xenophobia, support for illiberal regimes and half-hearted commitment to human rights issues.

While some of these impediments such as the economic and social constraints and the contradictions pre-dated the Zuma administration, this administration was directly responsible for the political constraints. This has punctured South Africa’s soft power and by extension, weakens its influence in its sub-region, Africa and the globe. In its immediate region, South Africa could not effect regime change in Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Swaziland opted for an IMF loan to avoid one from South Africa that was laced with democratic conditions.

Robert Mugabe described Zuma’s international relations advisor Lindiwe Zulu as “some stupid, idiotic woman” and “a little street walker” following her comments on Zimbabwe’s electoral process. The recent developments that led to the exit of Mugabe administration were internally orchestrated by Zimbabweans themselves.

At the continental level, South Africa was dealt a double blow in 2017 at the African Union: first, the candidate it supported, Botswanan Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi lost to the Nigerian-backed contestant Chadian Moussa Faki Mahamat for the position of African Union Commission chairperson, and secondly, the organisation’s refusal to adopt South Africa’s proposal that all African states should withdraw from the International Criminal Court. At the global level, South Africa is increasingly being ignored by the G7, a group that hitherto valued its input on global affairs, illustrated by Pretoria being invited to its meetings. These are clear indications that South Africa’s power of attraction has waned in recent years.

The emergence of President Cyril Ramaphosa was greeted with much euphoria. While there have been positive signals such as the strengthening of the rand that weakened significantly during Zuma’s years and the momentum that the administration’s quest to restore investor confidence has gathered, the jury is still out on whether or not Pretoria will be able to once again harness its soft power to win the hearts and minds of the global audience and promote its foreign policy objectives at all levels. DM


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