South Africa’s global ambitions – A foreign policy of ambiguity

Development Policy21 Feb 2013Jean-Paul Marthoz

A foreign policy of ambiguity

In 1994, the new South Africa emerged as a promising foreign policy actor. It launched ambitious plans to develop the continent and expressed a strong commitment to the global South. The country has become a legitimate voice of Africa on the world scene but its foreign policy is plagued by ambiguities.

South Africa’s foreign policy has come a long way from the apartheid period, when the Pretoria regime was mostly focused on protecting white minority rule in an increasingly hostile international environment. In 1994, President Nelson Mandela announced an ethical foreign policy that was meant, on the one hand, to establish South Africa as a ‘model global citizen’ and, on the other, to transform the country from the preserve of a racist, unjust and authoritarian regime into a non-racial, just, prosperous and democratic nation.

The challenges have been immense. South Africa had to create a new foreign policy from scratch, linking with dozens of countries that had boycotted the apartheid regime, joining dozens of international organisations that had banned the country, reforming a foreign affairs bureaucracy mainly focused on the defence of white supremacy, redefining relations with countries that had been complicit with South Africa’s ‘rogue policies’ and redirecting international economic relations that had been constrained by United Nations sanctions.

Two decades later South Africa has fully reintegrated itself into the international community. It worked hard to establish the African Union (AU) and is serving a second term on the Security Council. However, although South Africa is undoubtedly the most powerful African nation, it has not succeeded in fully implementing its proclaimed idealistic foreign policy. Nor has it been successful in resolutely addressing the social and economic domestic problems that this international ambition was supposed to help alleviate.

A divided policy

South Africa’s foreign policy appears contradictory, torn between ethics and interests. It reflects the tensions between two major ingredients of the anti-apartheid struggle: democracy and human rights, on the one hand, and antimperialism and South-South solidarity, on the other.

The issue of military-humanitarian interventions provides an example of this split vision. Although international sanctions were instrumental in undermining the political legitimacy and economic sustainability of apartheid, South Africa is wary of foreign interference. This approach reflects the roots of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) as falling within the third­worldist tradition, its rejection of the apartheid state’s bullying policies in the Southern African region, and lingering resentment towards Western countries’ ambivalence towards or even complicity with the apartheid regime.

The failure of successive ANC administrations to profoundly transform South Africa and uplift its black majority from poverty also affects its foreign policy. On the one hand, it fans a populist and at times anti-Western mood that tends to align the country with authoritarian ‘anti-imperialist’ regimes. On the other, it reinforces a ‘pragmatist’ foreign policy where economic necessity and ambitious domestic growth and developmental goals inevitably trump idealistic values.

This pattern has been reflected abroad by the adoption of a “foreign policy of transformation”. According to University of Johannesburg professor Chris Landsberg, who coined the concept, South Africa not only prioritises issues of poverty and inequality, but also advocates a “fundamental redistribution of both power and resources at the global level”. 1 Initiated under Mandela, this doctrine was particularly developed during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, who both prioritised the African continent and tried to reform the international rules of the game in favour of the global South.

African priority

Early on, the new South Africa made its mark in the region. It effectively worked to strengthen the Southern African Development Community. It acted to transform the discredited Organisation of African Unity into what was hoped would be an energised AU. It also launched with great fanfare the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) as a powerful lever to bring Africa out of poverty and backwardness by promoting good governance. The core idea was to foster an African Renaissance that would turn the ‘forgotten continent’ into a vibrant actor on the international arena under the mantra of ‘African solutions to African problems’.

The understanding that South Africa’s fate is directly linked to that of the continent has dominated the country’s foreign policy. Africa is a primary outlet for the country’s manufactured products, a source of raw materials for its industry and a lever for its global ambitions. But it is also a continent of armed conflicts, arbitrary rule and poverty. This inevitably spills over into South Africa through clandestine migration, illegal trade and transnational crime that undermine the country’s own external security, economic prospects and internal civility.

‘Global apartheid’

The ‘Africa first’ policy was complemented at the global level by a resolute rapprochement with the global South, and in particular with new emerging powers like Brazil, China and India. South Africa has sided with the developing countries on matters of debt relief, global free trade and the reform of multilateral institutions such as the IMF, in order to make them less beholden to Western interests.

This ‘pluralisation’ and ‘Southernisation’ of foreign relations also expressed the deep conviction that the future lies mostly in the South, and particularly in Asia, the East and no longer in the economies of the North. It moreover reflects a particular view of the world based on a particular view of South Africa. “South Africa is made of two nations”, Thabo Mbeki said in 1998, “one which is rich and predominantly white, another the poorest of the poor who in the main are … black”. 2 This analogy was applied to the world and its ‘global apartheid’: overcoming these divides should be elevated as strategic foreign policy goals.

This strategy, however, is not a panacea. If South Africa has benefited from the forum created with India and Brazil (IBSA) 3, it is much more ambivalent in its relations with China. Although the government and the ANC have intensified the country’s relations with Beijing and trade ties are growing, a strong current within the ruling Tripartite Alliance 4 and, in particular, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), sees China as a threat to South Africa’s economic interests and even evokes the spectre of a new era of colonialism. Others, for economic reasons and out of fear that the ANC would be tempted by China’s political model of an authoritarian developmental state, underline the need to maintain strong relations with the US and the European Union (EU), which has signed a strategic partnership with Pretoria.


South Africa’s transition to democracy has been heralded as a model, in particular its constitution of a government of national unity and the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In a clear rupture with the militaristic policy followed by the apartheid regime towards its African neighbours, the new South Africa has moreover been keen to play a positive role on the African continent as a mediator, peacemaker and peacekeeper. This ‘peace diplomacy’, however, is also inspired by the acute awareness of the negative impact of conflicts on the country’s economic and social development.

From the first years of the Mandela administration, South African diplomats have mediated in African conflicts, especially in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Madagascar, Ivory Coast, Angola, Comoros and Zimbabwe. This policy has been institutionalised by the creation of a Secretariat for Peacebuilding within the Department of International Relations and Co­operation (DIRCO, the country’s foreign affairs ministry). 5

South Africa has also taken part in peacekeeping operations, particularly in the DRC, Darfur (Sudan) and Burundi. Former president Thabo Mbeki headed the AU’s High-level Implementation Panel that helped ensure a peaceful solution in Sudan’s north-south conflict, while the South Africans, with backing from Norway, are training the new police force in South Sudan. 6

However, in parallel to this commitment to peacebuilding, South Africa insists on its rejection of ‘great power’ interference’. In March 2011, although wary of any form of ‘gunboat diplomacy’, South Africa voted in favour of UN Resolution 1973 on Libya, recognizing its commitment to the Responsibility to Protect. But it soon backtracked and came to believe, as stated by Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim on September 16th 2011, that “NATO misused United Nations resolution 1973 to carry out its bombing escapades on a defenceless African country”.

Human rights diplomacy

“Human rights will be the light that guides our foreign policy”, Nelson Mandela declared in 1993. In practice, this lofty statement has been hampered by the weakness of the local human rights constituency and the presence of authoritarian factions within the ANC. It was also constrained by other considerations: many repressive regimes that had supported the ANC during the apartheid struggles were exempted from overt criticism; under the Africanist agenda the principle of national sovereignty was invoked to shield other repressive states from public condemnation; while South Africa’s economic and corporate interests also regularly trumped human rights considerations in Africa and on the international scene, particularly in terms of its arms sales to countries with dubious human rights records. 7

In fact, most international human rights organisations consider that the new South Africa has been disappointing. They have been particularly critical of its approach to the Zimbabwean crisis and of its voting record at the UN on Burma/Myanmar, Belarus, Cuba and Iran, which put the country in the company of authoritarian states like China or Russia. Internal developments further weaken South Africa’s human rights diplomacy. Although the country has one of the most advanced constitutions in the world, the ANC has shown signs of intolerance towards its critics and the South African Broadcasting Corporation is under tight political control. Corruption undermines the rule of law and the exemplarity of the country in its promotion of good governance elsewhere on the continent. In July 2012, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the authorities initiated a criminal investigation into three journalists of the liberal weekly Mail & Guardian who had sought to report details on a multibillion arms deal scandal. 8

The foreign policy establishment

South Africa’s foreign policy is not DIRCO’s preserve. In fact, many diplomats complain that the ministry is underfunded, understaffed and mostly forced into the secondary role of an implementing agency.

The foreign policy decision-making process reflects the reality of a ‘party state’ in which the ANC plays a decisive role at the risk of blurring the lines between itself and state institutions. At the same time, factionalism within the ANC often paralyses decision-making. The Youth League in particular, sees a link between the slow pace of black empowerment at home and a foreign policy allegedly kowtowing to Western liberal values and interests. The president of the country, who controls the ruling party’s powerful Foreign Affairs Committee and is the centre of power when it comes to foreign policy, has not been able to unify the diverging viewpoints. The public’s interest in foreign affairs is rather low, except when issues have direct national repercussions, like migration from poverty and conflict-ridden Zimbabwe. The government, however, has learned that key civil society actors have the capacity to cause problems. In 2008 South Africa’s trade unions, for instance, blocked the unloading of a Chinese ship that was carrying weapons bound for Zimbabwe. And in 2011 South Africa’s refusal to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama also stirred a heated controversy.

SolvencySouth Africa is undoubtedly the leading continental economic power – it produces one third of sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP). It is also hailed as the natural and strongest voice for the continent, more so than Nigeria, and benefits from considerable goodwill due to the symbolism of the anti-apartheid struggle and the country’s political transition to democracy.

However, some observers question South Africa’s ambition to play such a prominent role and even talk of a ‘vanity project’ when Pretoria refers to it membership of BRICS (Brazil, India, China, South Africa) or IBSA.“South Africa’s capabilities are overstated”, says Landsberg. “It is an anchor state in Africa but it is not a hegemon.” Its domestic problems (inequality, violence, AIDS, a weak education system, etc.) partly resulting from the harsh legacy of apartheid, but also from flawed ANC policies, also undermine its international capacity. Indeed, South Africa has been less successful than Brazil or China in bringing millions of people out of poverty and into the middle classes, and its economic base is much less firm, technology-driven and diversified than the other BRICS countries.

South Africa also lacks the resources to effectively assume all the responsibilities that are expected of an emerging power. “Our country is overstretched”, says Tom Wheeler of the South African Institute of International Affairs. “We sit on the G-20, the UN Security Council, the UN Human Rights Council, without the resources to effectively operate. Our peacekeeping capacity has also reached its limits.” 9

Many think that South Africa has been punching above its weight (especially during the Mbeki presidency) and that the time has come to adopt, as Walter Lippmann famously said, a “solvent foreign policy”, i.e. one that “bring[s] into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, a nation’s commitments – economic, political, military – and a nation’s power”. 10

African suspicions

Since 1994 and especially during the Mbeki period, South Africa has emphasised its anchor in Africa and the global South. Its readiness to disagree with the West does not erase the fact that a major pillar of South African power, namely its multinational mining, telecom or banking corporations, retains considerable links, interests and affinity with the global North.

South Africa has consistently emphasised its non­hegemonic nature in its relations within the region and the African continent. “South Africa has tried not to bully the other countries that could feel offended by its hegemony”, insists Liesl Louw of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies. 11 However, it has not been able to dispel all fears and suspicions. Countries like Angola or Nigeria resent Pretoria’s leadership drive.

That quintessentially South African project NEPAD has even been described by some as a ‘neoliberal initiative’ mostly tailored to South Africa’s assets and interests, at the risk of increasing regional and social disparities. 12

South Africa’s ‘moral narrative’ – its reference to its titanic fight against apartheid, its iconic peaceful political transition or the proclaimed ‘centrality of human rights’ – has also riled several African rulers. Although South Africa has adopted the principle of universality in its international relations, it has also successfully pushed for the introduction of common norms and forms of collective responsibility (‘sovereignty as responsibility’) in the AU – in particular the African Peer Review Mechanism, the ‘principle of non-indifference’, and the Peace and Security Council – that are perceived in some quarters as undermining national sovereignty and condoning international intervention in African states. “Mbeki’s propagation of these precepts for the entire continent”, says Geldenhuys, “exposed him to charges of being ‘un-African’ and ‘pro­ Western’.” 13


South Africa has established itself as an influential international actor, especially in Africa, based on its size, population, economic strength and military capabilities. Besides this hard power, “it has drawn on its soft power to take on the role of an international norm entrepreneur”, says Geldenhuys. “It has been remarkably successful in getting its ideas adopted in Africa – witness the new institutions of continental governance.” 14

In the next years South Africa’s relevance on the continental and global scenes will depend increasingly on its economic assets and its political choices more than on the nostalgic memory of its long liberation struggle. It will be linked in particular to its capacity to solve its deep-rooted domestic problems, particularly its acute levels of social injustice. A peacebuilding diplomacy will lack credibility if the country is seared by social violence, and it will lack sustainability if such efforts are seen by public opinion as a waste of resources and a distraction from pressing domestic issues.

A longer version of this article was published by NOREF and can be accessed here.


  1. Author interview with Prof. Chris Landsberg, Johannesburg, 3 November 2011.
  2. Thabo Mbeki, speech at the opening of parliament, May 29th 1998.
  3. BSA served as a platform for South Africa’s transformational foreign policy and as a laboratory for the exchange of experiences in key areas of development (health, education, etc.).
  4. Comprising the ANC, which dominates the alliance, COSATU and the South African Communist Party.
  5. South Africa has also actively supported international negotiations and agreements on nuclear non­proliferation, the banning of landmines, the non-proliferation of small arms, the use of mercenaries and the recruitment of child soldiers.
  6. This peace agenda has been complemented by the promotion of corporate social responsibility in the context of armed conflicts, like the Kimberley process on conflict diamonds.
  7. See J. Létourneau, “Zimbabwe, diamonds and the wrong side of history”, Ottawa, Partnership Africa Canada, March 2009.
  8. See South African journalists questioned over scandal
  9. Author interview with Tom Wheeler, Johannesburg, November 1st 2011.
  10. James Chace, Solvency: The Price of Survival, New York, Vintage Books, 1982, p 19.
  11. Author interview with Liesl Louw, Pretoria, October 31st 2011
  12. See Pierre-Paul Dika & Raphael Porteilla, “La politique étrangère de la nouvelle Afrique due Sud: les dilemmas l’après Mbeki, Recherches internationales, January-March 2009.
  13. Author interview with Geldenhuys, 2011.
  14. Author interview with Geldenhuys, 2011.