The “glory days” of South African foreign policy were synonymous with the Thabo Mbeki administration. Under Mbeki’s tutelage South Africa’s International standing was second to none, South Africa was a relatively new, small African middle-income country making significant strides in the international political arena. To describe South Africa’s foreign policy successes, commentators and observers alike coined the phrase which suggested that “South Africa was punching above its weight”.
Mbeki managed to craft and articulate a grand vision for not only South Africa in the international community but for the African continent at large. This vision was encapsulated by the so-called African Renaissance, the aim of this vision was to ultimately position South Africa and Africa as formidable actors and interlocutors among their international peers. Renowned foreign policy scholar Professor Adekeye Adebajo observed that Mbeki “encouraged South Africans to embrace an African identity and sought to promote the continent’s political, economic and social renewal. He also sought to integrate Africa into the global economy”. For South Africa, this also cascaded down to the “African Agenda” which would see the African continent being the apex priority of South African policy.
To date the lion’s share of South Africa’s foreign policy spending is dedicated to its diplomatic engagements on the African continent. A study conducted by the South African Institute of International Affairs concluded that a total of 30% of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation’s budget spend is allocated to operations on the Africa continent. This illustrates that the South African foreign policy commitment to Africa is matched by an allocation of resources. The African Renaissance vision was also followed by policy interventions which sought to prioritise the development of the African continent by ensuring that Africa became the primary driver of its own developmental priorities. These priorities included poverty reduction, the consolidation of democratic governance, the attainment of peace, security and political stability and the creation of economic opportunities for the continent’s burgeoning youth population.
Such policy interventions would be overseen by policy frameworks such as New Partnership for Africa’s development (NEPAD) and the Africa Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) to name but a few. To see this vision come to fruition, Mbeki would forge strategic alliances with some of his continental peers. These included Abdoulaye Wade, former president of Senegal, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, former president of Algeria, Olusegon Obesanjo, former president of Nigeria and Benjamin Mkapa, former president of Tanzania, among others.
The emergence of this alliance gave rise to a constellation of what would be known in diplomatic circles as “anchor states” in driving this new post-colonial revival of the continent, described as the African Renaissance. During this period, South Africa also gained a prestigious non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), further re-enforcing the notion of the country “punching above its weight”.
What also gave credence to Mbeki’s leadership role on the continent and international stature was South Africa’s domestic political landscape. The South African economy experienced unprecedented levels of economic growth, and the governing party consolidated an overwhelming electoral majority, which saw Mbeki and his governing party garner nearly two-thirds of electoral support. This is notwithstanding the notable and well documented blunders made by the Mbeki administration. This is important to highlight as it underscores the all-important domestic foreign policy nexus, ie how domestic politics inexorably influence foreign policy.
In 2009 Jacob Zuma took over the reins as president of South Africa, this turn in political leadership produced mixed consequences for South African Foreign policy. however, with the benefit of hindsight we can conclude that South Africa lost a significant degree of the international stature it had painstakingly built up during the Mbeki years. The temptation for many observers and analysts alike has been to proffer simplistic explanations of the decline in South Africa’s international standing under Jacob Zuma’s administration and in the process, also ignore key foreign policy achievements accruing to the Zuma administration.
The Zuma administration ably maintained the focus of the African continent as an apex foreign policy priority, maintaining key continental engagements such as contributions to peace keeping operations and continued mediation in the pursuit of peace, security and stability on the continent. Under Zuma’s stewardship, South Africa also saw its accession to the Brazil Russia India China South Africa forum (BRICS), thus opening the country up to trade and other opportunities in alternative markets. South Africa also signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement with the world’s second biggest economy in the form of the People’s Republic of China, which elevated South Africa-China relations to the highest level, an opportunity that China extends to a select few.
The decline of South Africa’s foreign policy fortunes during this period stemmed primarily from domestic factors. There can be no doubt that domestically, Zuma’s administration could be described as nothing short of calamitous, as his administration meandered from one scandal to the next. International credit ratings downgrades, declining economic growth, rising unemployment and public financial malfeasance on an unprecedented scale in democratic South Africa became synonymous with the Zuma administration. This ultimately resulted in well-conceived foreign policy priorities being placed on the back burner as South Africa’s focus became subsumed by the domestic political agenda. That this would carry significant foreign policy consequences would be unavoidable; during this period South Africa was perceived as having withdrawn from the role of being the credible and engaged continental leader and international partner that it once was.
Perhaps the single most considerable development which significantly dented South Africa’s international standing was its mishandling of the visit of president Omar al-Bashir of Sudan to South Africa, under the auspices of an African Union engagement. As was known, al-Bashir had been indicted by the International Criminal Court with an arrest warrant against his name. South Africa’s status as a signatory of the Rome Statute placed an obligation to have al-Bashir arrested and sent to The Hague to answer to charges of war crimes and human rights violations among other things. Ultimately, South Africa did not act on its Rome Statute obligation and al-Bashir left the country under a cloud of confusion, litigation and a cacophony of criticism levelled against the Zuma administration.
This saga ultimately culminated in South Africa announcing its withdrawal from the International Criminal Court. In turn this move courted significant international backlash, tarnishing South Africa’s international image and sent shock waves through the international community.
The recent elevation of Cyril Ramaphosa to the South African Presidency, following his ascension to the presidency of the ANC (African National Congress) in a tightly contested political battle, brought about a sense of new vigour in South Africa’s political life. This injection of optimism became known as the “new dawn” and was accompanied by a promise of a restorative domestic political agenda. While it may yet be far too soon to tell what implications this new dawn would have on foreign policy, the initial signs are certainly ones that signal much promise. Flanked by his newly appointed chief diplomat in Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, President Ramaphosa has begun to craft a restorative international agenda for South Africa which hitherto has been well received by his international peers. Moreover, the messages emanating from Pretoria have engendered a new confidence in the country’s foreign policy machinery.
In her maiden budget vote speech Minister Sisulu reasserted South Africa’s foreign policy priorities, chief among them being the prioritisation of the African continent “as we consolidated our political relations on the Continent by expanding our diplomatic footprint, through 47 Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates General; South Africa has also rapidly advance her economic relations in Africa… South Africa has grown her bilateral trade portfolio with countries on the continent from R11.4-billion in 1994 to the current R429-billion”.
Sisulu underscored the continued serious nature of South Africa’s foreign policy’s approach to engaging with Africa, the commitment of resources and increased trade activity. Moreover, she signalled the intent to confront some of the long-standing internal departmental challenges to ensure a well-oiled foreign policy machine, equipped to meet the country’s international obligations.
On 5 July President Ramaphosa hosted his maiden incoming state visit when he welcomed the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo. Much like Ramaphosa, President Akufo-Addo is known for championing a restorative political agenda. Akufo-Addo has been at pains to articulate the pursuit of a new continental agenda akin to Mbeki’s African Renaissance. He’s gone to great lengths to call for an African continent that is independent of donor charity as a means to finance its development.
Akufo-Addo has also centered a commercial foreign policy agenda geared towards attracting Foreign Direct Investment and stimulating a continental industrial base that will domesticate industrial value chains. It seems like Ramaphosa has found an ally in Akufo-Addo as Ramaphosa has also set out a similar developmental agenda. At the beginning of his term Ramaphosa announced his bid to attract $100-billion dollars (R1.2-trillion) in Foreign Direct Investment and thus far has managed to secure R857-million of that target on a visit to the United Kingdom and $10-billion from a recent state visit to Saudi Arabia.
That Ramaphosa would first host his Ghanaian counterpart is rather telling, it could very well signal the emergence of a new constellation of anchor states on the continent, which will champion this new African industrialisation agenda also encapsulated in the Blueprint Agenda 2063.
While one would be cautious to definitively conclude that a new dawn is upon us where foreign policy is concerned, one could comfortably say that the steps taken by Ramaphosa thus far certainly bode well for the possibility of a revitalised foreign policy agenda for South Africa. DM
Sambulo Mathebula is an International Relations Practitioner in the Public Sector. He holds a Master’s degree in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand. He has been an international relations practitioner for over 10 years, working across various sectors and organisations such as the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Southern African Liaison Office (NGO) the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa and SA Human Rights Commission.