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South Africa’s foreign policy under Zuma

02 June 2011

Is South Africa’s foreign policy likely to be fundamentally changed now that a new political leadership has taken over the country and the ANC since 2009? Before addressing this, it may be worthwhile explaining the fundamental shift in foreign policy with the ascension of the ANC to political office in 1994.

The key actor in South Africa’s foreign policy transformation is of course the ANC and in particular its post-Mandela leadership which, for much of the last 15 years, was personified in the character of Thabo Mbeki. This political elite has been defined by two essential characteristics. First, like their predecessors of an earlier generation, they are nationalists whose overriding desire is to overthrow the yoke of colonialism.

This anti-colonial agenda is reflected both in a desire for racial equality at the domestic level, and the goal of a more equitably structured and just global order. In this sense Mbeki (and now Zuma) are no different from an Nkrumah, a Nyerere, a Nasser, or even a Nehru.

In another sense, however, they are fundamentally different. The second generation nationalists of whom Mbeki is one of the more articulate exponents were witness to the unraveling of the anti-colonial experiments. While some acknowledge the mistakes of the earlier nationalist leadership, they also primarily see this unraveling as a product of the machinations of the imperial or ex-colonial powers, and the consequences of a cold war between the United States and Soviet Union.

This second generation nationalist leadership is thus acutely aware of their countries relative weakness and that their anti-colonial agendas will not materialize outside the transformation of the balance of power in the global order.

Mbeki’s foreign policy, reflecting a mix of principle and pragmatism, took as its starting point this need to reform the global order, but recognized that such an outcome will not just happen from either appeasement or delinking from the international system. Instead it recognized the need to engage the global order with a view to reforming it, understand the power relations within the international system with a view to subverting it.

This second generation response also focused on developing mechanisms and alliances that enhanced the leverage of the post-colonial powers with this agenda. It was in a sense the application of a neo-realist paradigm from the south; recognizing the importance of power for configuring international and transnational outcomes, but recognizing that power is always relational, and therefore open to the establishment of mechanisms that could subvert or transform that very structure of power over the long term.

This strategic orientation is both nationalist and second generation. The former identifies the goals and vision of the ANC. The latter defines its methodology; the route through which it hopes to realize its ambitions. It is only through an understanding of these characteristics that one can make sense of South Africa’s foreign policy practice after 1994.

The ANC leadership’s nationalistic impulse has led it to prioritize Africa. This prioritization involves four distinct elements. First, an enormous amount of South Africa’s diplomatic and military energy is deployed in stabilizing the continent. This involves peace building initiatives directed at facilitating negotiations between political and military adversaries.

 Second, South Africa has partnered Nigeria in reconstructing Africa’s institutional architecture. It has played a leading role with Nigeria in establishing the African Union, and is the host to the African Parliament. Mbeki and Obasanjo, together with Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade, were the architects of NEPAD including its peer review mechanism, and the former two played a central role in selling the continental mechanism to the international community including the G8, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). South Africa has also played a leading role in revitalizing the SADC.

Third, South Africa has played a leading role in popularizing the African agenda in the international community. It has insisted that the development of Africa be placed as the centerpiece on the mantle listing the priorities of the G8, the United Nations, the IMF, World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

South Africa also used its chair of the UN Security Council to prioritize African conflicts and their solutions. It has also led by example with regards to investment in the continent. Its corporate footprint has expanded exponentially in the post apartheid era.

By the turn of the millennium, it was active in 20 countries, in sectors ranging from among others, mining, manufacturing, energy, aviation, telecommunications, and research and development. In the first six years of post-apartheid South Africa, the country’s investment in SADC totaled $5.4 billion, outstripping the total British and American investment.

But this market activity also has a dark side. It betrays South African (and other African) political elites neo-liberal economic predispositions with the result that there has been much concern expressed about the consequences of the unregulated march of South African corporates on the continent.

The nationalism of the Mbeki administration also conditioned it into a broader South-South solidarity. Again this is reflected at multiple levels. At the most basic level it is reflected in support for national liberation struggles and what has been perceived by some as ‘rogue powers’. South Africa is one of the most ardent supporters of Palestinian struggle much to the chagrin of Israel and the United States.

It has also retained strong relationships with Cuba and Iran and with Libya when it was isolated. South Africa also has played a role in engaging and building the African Diaspora leading it to provide the ousted Haitian leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, with asylum in South Africa, against the wishes of Western powers and even the domestic human rights lobby.

The Mbeki administration’s impulse to transform structures of power is reflected in its international diplomacy, institutional alliances, and its involvement in global reform initiatives. An early indication of the importance of power as a variable in conditioning foreign policy emerged when South Africa jettisoned its strategic relationship with Taiwan in favor of one with China. Since then, South Africa’s relationship with China has gone from strength to strength.

Essentially the Mbeki administration has, as have many other African nations, used a rising China as a counterweight to both the United States and Europe, trying as a result to wring political, economic and diplomatic concessions from all parties.

This counterbalancing diplomatic game with China, the United States and Europe is supplemented with two more formal alliances. The first is with India and Brazil which emerged after the failure of the trade talks in Cancun and involves annual meetings deliberating on trade, investment, energy, security, transport, partnerships on higher education, and other common interests in global affairs and in trilateral and South-South cooperation.

Obviously the three sets of political elites hope to use this engagement to develop a more substantive collaborative global political agenda believing that this would greatly enhance their respective leverages.

IBSA’s collective commitment dramatically manifested itself in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations when its participants formed the kernel of the G-21 lobby to enhance the developing world’s leverage and negotiating capacities. Emerging around the WTO negotiations, the G-21 involves an alliance of developing countries intent on ensuring that an unpalatable agreement is not forced through by Europe and the United Nations.

Three rounds of trade talks of the Doha Development cycle have as a result ended without substantive agreement imperiling the WTO and undermining the legitimacy of the global trading system. The sticking point remains the concession on agricultural subsidies offered by the United States and Europe, with the G-21 believing it is far below the acceptable minimum to warrant further substantive concessions on their part.

This is a significant development because for the first time developing nations have used their collective muscle to thwart the agenda and ambitions of existing powers. This challenge to existing structures of power also emanates from attempts to reform the multilateral system. Again South Africa has played a leading role in this initiative. With different sets of alliances including the African Union and IBSA, it has advocated through the persona of its previous Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel, for reforms not only of the quotas and therefore the board representation of the IMF and World Bank, but also in the manner in which their leaderships are chosen.

It is also strident in its criticisms of the powers of the UN Security Council, and has again pushed, in alliance with others, for reform of and more equitable representation on this structure. This has involved a demand for the expansion of the Security Council to include developing countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

But perhaps the most controversial attempts to force reforms onto the multilateral system emanated from South Africa’s decisions in the UN Security Council in its capacity as chair and temporary member. In four controversial decisions that alienated the international and domestic human rights lobby, South Africa worked with China and Russia among others to prevent the adoption of Security Council resolutions condemning and imposing sanctions on the military leadership in Myanmar and the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, the condemnation of states using rape as a political and military weapon, and the imposition of sanctions on Iran for violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferations Treaty (NPT).

Its decisions in all four cases were motivated on the grounds that the United States and European countries were either violating existing rules of the UN system by tabling issues in inappropriate structures, or were selectively targeting countries that they were hostile to.

The decisions outraged the human rights community which accused South Africa of betraying its own rich legacy of human rights struggle by opposing the very traditions and strategies that allowed it to become free. Obviously there is merit in this criticism. South Africa in its desire to get the United Nations system to function equitably and fairly was in these actions sacrificing the human rights of victims in Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Darfur. Nevertheless, it must also be said that the human rights lobby was being disingenuous by either not recognizing or being complacent about South Africa’s complaints of the manipulation of the UN system by the big five.

In any case, whatever the merits of the individual decisions, what is evident is that South Africa’s foreign policy decisions and behavior is determined by the mix of traditional nationalist goals and a second generation desire to subvert existing structures of power.

So is this foreign policy likely to be fundamentally changed now that Jacob Zuma is President of both South Africa and the ANC? There will of course be some minor changes. But there is unlikely to be any fundamental change in South Africa’s foreign policy.

It is worth bearing in mind that Jacob Zuma and many of those in his administration, are second generation African nationalists. Also, many in the Zuma camp were integral to the foreign policy apparatus of the Mbeki administration. There is therefore unlikely to be a fundamental rupture in the foreign policy apparatus even though there may be some change of faces on the top and some nuances in foreign policy practice.

It is worth reminding ourselves again that South Africa’s foreign policy agenda and practice has been a product of traditional nationalist aspirations, a second generation nationalist predisposition to engage and transform structures of power, and pressures, responsibilities and obligations that emanate from its structural location on the African continent.

Under the new leadership, this mix of causal variables is unlikely to change dramatically. Continuity in foreign policy must thus be expected.

Adam Habib is Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Advancement at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

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