Author: James Hamill
Source: www.politicsweb.co.za 'To See Ourselves as Others See Us': Why South Africa Struggles to Lead in Africa
Democratic South Africa's standing on the African continent presents us with something of a paradox. Much has been expected of South Africa as an African leader from beyond the continent, from both Western blocs like the G7 or non-Western coalitions such as the BRICS. South Africa has been expected to lead Africa and to serve as its principal interlocutor with the international community. It is also expected to be Africa's chief representative in multilateral organisations, its principal conflict manager and, in some quarters at least, to champion a set of democratic norms and values.
Yet the lesson of the post-1994 period is that South Africa has consistently struggled to deliver under this weight of expectation – and its African record has been punctuated by a series of failures as it struggles to translate material power into tangible foreign policy achievement. Indeed, it is noteworthy and troubling that the calls for South Africa to embrace the role of Africa's leader – its indispensable nation – have been more loudly and insistently voiced from outside the continent than from within it.
This is not to argue that South Africa's African record has been one of unambiguous failure but rather to point out that those failures have been surprisingly frequent for a state widely held to be the continent's natural leader. Under President Mandela there were notable failures in Angola (1994), Nigeria (1995) and Zaire/DRC (1997-8). President Mbeki struggled to return Zimbabwe to a degree of political stability between 2000 and 2008 (not least because of the overtly partisan nature of his 'quiet diplomacy') and President Zuma had major setbacks in Libya (2011) and the Central African Republic (2013).
How then is South Africa's distinctly chequered performance to be explained? A variety of factors are at work which, taken collectively, have compromised and continue to compromise the country's ability to lead in Africa. This article, however, focuses on one key aspect of this debate: the gulf between on one hand South Africa's view of the role it is playing in Africa and, on the other, how it is actually perceived on the continent. It argues that South Africa's deep-seated image or reputational problems on the continent means that it lacks the gravitational pull – the appeal and depth of support – to draw African states into its orbit which is the hallmark of a truly great regional power. An untypical African state
South Africa is not a typical African state and that fact frustrates the continental leadership ambitions it harbours. It is still a relative newcomer to continental diplomacy, it has a substantial and powerful white minority, and an economy which dwarfs those of most African states and is closely integrated with the global economy. It is also politically and constitutionally different from the continent.
South Africa's 1996 Constitution and the various institutions created by it, its independent judiciary, thriving civil society and free media are all firmly rooted in the Western constitutional, liberal democratic tradition. It is certainly true that the damaging excesses of the Zuma era have brought South Africa into a much closer alignment with the typical post-independence African narrative characterised by neo-patrimonialism, 'big man' politics and the rampant accumulation of predatory elites.
However, even that lengthy period of egregious misrule has been unable to erode the basic foundational pillars of South African democracy which have shown a remarkable resilience. In this respect it is worth noting the country's vibrant press and the investigative journalism it has triggered as evidenced by the detailed explorations of the 'state capture' phenomenon in recent books by Jacques Pauw and Adriaan Basson and du Toit. [i]
Robust defences of constitutional government have also been provided by the office of the Public Protector during Thuli Madonsela's tenure, the Save South Africa movement and a whole raft of civil society initiatives, as well as the counter-attack by constitutionalists in the ANC itself anxious to place the organisation on a nobler political trajectory.
The cumulative impact of all this is to effectively make South Africa sui generis
in Africa. That is a double-edged sword, however. It may in theory qualify the country for African leadership – it has assets few others can match - but on another level that very difference attracts hostility and suspicion which makes any attempt to assert leadership and generate 'followership' extremely problematic.
This is highlighted by South Africa's position within global multilateral forums where it has consistently viewed its status as the only African member of the G-20 and BRICS and the sole African state among the European Union's 10 global strategic partners – in addition to its terms as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council – as an opportunity to 'represent' Africa and to advance the 'African agenda'.
It has become a centrepiece of South African foreign policy discourse that the country will use its global status to 'serve the people of Africa', in the words of former foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma [ii]
or to 'discharge its pan-African obligations' in the phrase of President Zuma's foreign minister, Maite Nkoana Mashabane. [iii]
Yet the idea that the South African interest and the wider African interest are synonymous is not accepted on the continent where South Africa's self-appointed status as Africa's advocate is viewed as highly paternalistic and of questionable legitimacy. It is felt that South Africa will naturally gravitate towards other leading states of the Global South in the BRICS or the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) trilateral forum (even if this has failed to develop as originally envisaged) and will have more in common with such states than with the poorer states in its own region.
For example, what qualifies South Africa to speak on behalf of Benin, Togo or Sierra Leone in discussions at the World Trade Organisation, the Bretton Woods institutions or deliberations at the UN? African states believe – not always unreasonably – that South Africa is using its political and economic heft and its membership of these bodies principally as a means of maximising its own interests and securing greater leverage for itself within the international system rather than seeking its democratisation per se or to promote the African interest.
While the obvious retort to this point is that all states automatically pursue their own interests in global diplomacy, South Africa is hampered in this regard by – and will be judged against – its own rhetoric which raised expectations about the role it would play on the continent. To now simply jettison Thabo Mbeki's 'African Renaissance' vision and scale down its commitments to Africa will invite ridicule and disdain in view of these previous undertakings even if there are compelling domestic reasons to do precisely that.
In short, South Africa finds itself hoist with its own petard and risks overpromising and under-delivering, the essence of bad foreign policy. Here we see that South Africa is impaled on the horns of a dilemma – damned if it does, damned if it doesn't - much like the United States at the global level. Attempts to assert itself In Africa are viewed as domineering and unwelcome yet reducing its role and focusing upon domestic priorities will inevitably draw the accusation that it is abdicating its African responsibilities.
This, in turn, is likely to create major diplomatic difficulties for South Africa as the assumption that it will play a welcome, benign and largely uncontested leadership role on the continent is intimately linked to the high global profile it enjoys. For example, that African leadership role was instrumental in securing the 2010 invitation to join the BRICS grouping where South African membership gives an important African dimension to that organisation's work.
Equally, South Africa is viewed in the West as the country best placed to provide continental leadership, we can recall, for example, President George W Bush's 2003 description of President Mbeki as the 'point man' on the Zimbabwe crisis. Should South Africa flounder in Africa not only will it lose much of its influence in the BRICS but the entire rationale for its membership will collapse given how far behind its co-members it lags in geographical size, population and economic weight. South Africa's role as an authentic African leader and its strong global profile are therefore closely interwoven and anything undermining the former invariably damages the latter. Xenophobic attacks
While the South African presumption that it speaks for Africa creates a backdrop of suspicion and resentment, the xenophobic attacks launched against the citizens of other African states in South Africa have served to crystallise many of the concerns those states have about South Africa.
Although those attacks had significant peaks in 2008 and 2015, they remain an ongoing phenomenon in the townships and informal settlements around the country as poorer South Africans scapegoat other Africans for every conceivable socio-economic ill: unemployment, the lack of housing, access to services, HIV/AIDS, and crime.
For African states, however, the murder, dispossession and forced removal of thousands of their nationals in South Africa offers the starkest possible contrast with the support, sanctuary and solidarity they extended to South Africans – not least both senior and rank and file members of the ANC itself – over the four decades of the anti-apartheid struggle.
This has had a destructive impact upon South Africa's standing on the continent confirming the view of many in Africa that South Africa remains a state with a chronically under-developed African identity. In fact, the accusation levelled at the new South Africa in the wake of these attacks is almost identical to that once made against the apartheid regime, namely, that it is a state geographically in
but not truly of
Africa. That such a comparison can even be contemplated is a serious blow to an ANC government whose self-image is that of a state acutely conscious of its obligations and responsibilities to Africa. The new South Africa and regional economic imbalances
The expansion of South African economic engagement in Africa has, alongside the enormous growth in trade with China, been one of the principal features of its foreign economic relations since 1994, even if there remains considerable scope for further expansion beyond the SADC zone. Yet this expansion has hardly been welcomed with acclaim in Africa.
Despite the moralistic pronouncements stressing its commitment to more equitable regional economic arrangements, Pretoria has been accused of being an opportunistic and self-interested actor on trade issues, proceeding largely without reference to the interests and concerns of other African states.
Far from addressing existing imbalances such mercantilist approaches have, it is argued, served to consolidate and extend them. These economic imbalances are most pronounced in southern Africa where South Africa accounts for 68 % of SADC GDP and since 1994 it has continued to enjoy massive trade surpluses within the sub-region. The SADC takes 86% of South Africa's total African exports with South Africa exporting six times more goods to the rest of SADC than it imports (in the rest of Africa this falls only slightly with South Africa exporting five times more goods than it imports).
In addition, South Africa has been accused of utilising a range of non-tariff barriers against other SADC states, particularly targeting food, agriculture and textiles, the very products neighbouring states are looking to export to South Africa. Not only is this a means of circumventing the sub-region's formal adoption of a free trade area, it also repudiates the notion of South Africa as a champion of African development despite the language of solidarity which lace its foreign policy statements.
South African companies have also expanded into the African market since 1994 and are now active across a wide range of sectors on the continent but they too have been met with a lukewarm and often hostile reception. The South African corporate sector continues to be labelled as 'as predatory', 'arrogant' or 'neo-colonial' and generally insensitive to the concerns of host states.
They are accused of stifling local entrepreneurial activity, driving local companies out of business, exploiting cheap labour regimes and generally ignoring any wider sense of corporate social responsibility. While the actions of the private sector are not controlled by the South African state, that distinction may become blurred in African countries and the overall South African 'brand' may be contaminated as a result, particularly as, in many African states, South African companies are the only real point of contact ordinary people have with South Africans.
Of course, many of these charges against South Africa are unfair and one-dimensional scarcely doing justice to its highly complex and varied role on the continent. South Africa has played a valuable, if not always successful, role in African mediation and conflict resolution, in building African institutions, in the provision of disaster and humanitarian relief, development assistance and in wealth redistribution via the Southern African Customs Union. [iv]
Moreover, although their activities are hardly unblemished, South African companies have played a key role in Africa in reviving long dormant economic sectors, rebuilding the transport infrastructure, transferring skills and technology, expanding consumer choice and providing a better quality of goods, as well as bringing more effective managerial skills to African economies.
These are considerable achievements and the fact they have often been buried beneath an avalanche of negativity points to a major failure in the effectiveness of South African public diplomacy – and of the Department of international Relations and Co-Operation in particular – which has been unable to challenge these deeply embedded, if often inaccurate, perceptions of the South African role on the continent.
However, perceptions remain a crucial aspect of politics and these, alongside, at best, an ambivalence towards the South African models of democracy and conflict resolution, continue to place serious constraints on what is achievable for South Africa on the continent. When added to the growing material weaknesses of South Africa - its economy is languishing in the doldrums with lethargic rates of growth and there has been an alarming decline in the capabilities of its military[v]
- it is clear that the country will be compelled to adapt to life in a multi-polar Africa where South Africa, although still much more than 'just another country', will be one of a number of important states seeking to manage the continent rather than the pre-eminent African power.
This may offer scope for constructive partnerships and a welcome burden sharing in the advancement of the African agenda but it may also be a prelude to discord and paralysis which will create greater openings for external powers thus undermining the idea of 'African solutions to African problems' which sustains the African Union. James Hamill is a lecturer in the School of History, Politics & International Relations at the University of Leicester, UK. His new book "Africa's Lost Leader: South Africa's Continental Role Since Apartheid" was published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in January 2018. It can be bought on Amazon Kindle here. Footnotes: [i]
Jacques Pauw, The President's Keepers: Those Keeping Zuma In Power and Out of Prison
(Tafelberg, 2017) and Adriaan Basson and Pieter du Toit, Enemy of the People: How Jacob Zuma Stole South Africa and How The People Fought Back
(Jonathan Ball, 2017) [ii]
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in Suzanne Graham, 'South Africa's Voting Behaviour at the United Nations Security Council: A Case of Boxing Mbeki and Unpacking Zuma' in Lesley Masters Siphamandla Zondi, Jo-Ansie Van Wyk and Chris Landsberg (eds), South African Foreign Policy Review: Volume
2 (Africa Institute of South Africa, 2015), p.74 [iii]
Maite Nkoane-Mashabane in Deon Geldenhuys, The Challenges of Good Global Citizenship: Ten Tenets of South Africa's Foreign Policy', Africa Review
, vol. 3, 2, 2011, p. 183. [iv]
Alexander O'Riordan, 'Is South Africa the World's Most Generous Donor?' South African Civil Society Information Service, 18 March 2015 [v]
Wendell Roelf 'South African Military in Critical Decline, Review Says', Reuters
, 25 March 2014