South Africa's relations with Africa were historically suffused with a sense of "civilising mission" to spread enlightenment to the "dark continent". Post-apartheid South Africa still struggles to shake off a perception that it is a western Trojan horse.
Many South Africans remain ambivalent towards the continent. Immigration policies have tended to be skewed against black Africans. Between 1994 and 2000, South Africa deported 600 000 migrants amid growing hysteria about a flood if "illegal aliens". Immigrant Africans are still widely derided as amakwerekwere. Xenophobia remains rife, as graphically illustrated by incidents like the killing of two Senegalese and a Mozambican by a mob — flung to their deaths from a moving train — in September 1998, and the murder of 30 Somali street traders in Cape Town in 2006.
Many Africans have expressed unease about such attitudes, accusing South Africa's leaders of ingratitude after decades of support for liberation from apartheid — at enormous cost to their own countries. The destructive military policies of successive apartheid regimes left profound scars on South Africa's neighbours and the distrust will take decades to overcome — even with a black-led government.
Democratic South Africa under Nelson Mandela's leadership sought to present a difference face to Africa by leading peacemaking efforts in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Lesotho. The most significant event in South Africa's efforts to promote human rights in Africa was undoubtedly the bruising battle with Nigeria. After General Sani Abacha's regime executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni campaigners in 1995, Mandela called an SADC summit to take collective action. However, not even Mandela could rally a single state to sanction the Nigerian government. Instead, it was South Africa that was being accused by many African leaders of sowing seeds of division and undermining African solidarity.
President Thabo Mbeki has consistently sought multilateral solutions to regional conflicts. He has been more prepared than Mandela to send peacekeepers abroad, increasing South Africa's credibility as a major player in Africa. The country has been the chief mediator in Côte d'Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Africa has hosted two high-profile UN conferences on racism and sustainable development.
Despite its ignominious past, South Africa has transformed itself from being Africa's most destabilising power to being its most energetic peacemaker. It cannot, however, easily become the exporter of human rights that some of its admirers would like it to be. The country simply lacks the economic and military muscle, and the political legitimacy to impose its preference on the sub-region, let alone the continent.