05 Sep 2014

SA needs broader support for its role as Africa's leader

Written by  Mark Paterson and Kudrat Virk

No. 309: SA needs broader support for its role as Africa's leader / Mark Paterson and Kudrat Virk / Business Day
5 September 2014

The centrality of Africa to SA's foreign policy was recently emphasised by President Jacob Zuma's close engagement with his African peers at the African Union's (AU's) summit in June in Equatorial Guinea. At the meeting, he affirmed the importance of the summit's guiding focus on agriculture as a means to create sustainable development. He also met other African leaders to discuss the mobilisation of resources for an interim military force to intervene in security crises on the continent.

Zuma's adoption of a leadership role in seeking to create this force represented an affirmation of the high-profile "practical" role SA appears increasingly prepared to adopt on the continental stage.

Zuma's diplomacy at the summit also reflects an understanding of the interdependence of sustainable economic growth and peace in Africa that has informed SA's approach to the rest of Africa for 20 years.

In 1993, a year before he became SA's first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela emphasised the centrality of Africa to SA's foreign policy in the postapartheid era. In particular, he sought to promote greater regional co-operation to support the continent's economic development.

Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, also prioritised accelerated economic growth as a building block of Africa's development and identified the need to restructure the continent's regional organisations in order to strengthen its political and economic clout.

Since 2009, Zuma has continued these policies, but with a greater emphasis on promoting SA's own national economic interests as part of the broader development of Africa. Since 2010, Zuma has repeatedly declared that SA is "open for business" and has promoted the country's role in helping foreign companies to access the broader African market during state visits to the US, China, India and Brazil.

His administration has also adopted a higher profile in directing the day-to-day business of the AU since successfully orchestrating the election of former foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as chairwoman of the AU Commission in 2012.

Dlamini-Zuma's nomination was strongly opposed by Nigeria, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. However, SA argued that it was Southern Africa's turn to occupy the post and that her election formed part of a series of practical measures designed to boost the AU's capacity and overcome a lack of political will among many African governments to implement important continental decisions. These practical measures have included promoting the north-south transport corridor linking Durban to Dar es Salaam, which has been sponsored by Zuma; the rationalisation of the AU's administrative and human resources structures; and concrete support for regional economic communities such as the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and the East African Community in realising their integration agendas.

In this regard, the recent summit's focus on agriculture sought to promote the wider implementation of the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme of 2003. This worthy policy framework, which focuses on developing the agri-business sector that accounts for 35%-40% of Africa's wealth, has suffered from sluggish implementation. By last year, only 26 AU member states had adopted the programme.

Like its parent body — the New Partnership for Africa's Development, which was established in 2001 — the programme is more a set of high hopes for the continent's development prospects than an effective instrument for economic change.

In this regard, the Zuma administration's adoption of a "practical" approach to African economic and political integration seeks to address an apparent lack of political will among AU member states to implement their regional commitments.

However, SA's adoption of such a leadership role also smacks of hubris to some critics. This view is fuelled by SA's real and perceived sense of "exceptionalism" — the idea that it is somehow not really an African country. Beyond the public sphere, the country's corporate image is also problematic, with South African companies sometimes viewed with hostility on the continent for their perceived mercantilism.

Countering such views, successive South African governments have since 1994 been sensitive to a need to overcome the legacy of the regional destabilisation policy pursued by the apartheid regime. SA has thus adopted a prominent role in Sadc's peacemaking efforts in Madagascar and Zimbabwe and has further played an active part in peace missions elsewhere in Africa, contributing troops to United Nations (UN) interventions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, and South Sudan at present. SA has also played an important role as a standard bearer of human rights and accountable governance on the continent. After SA joined Sadc and the Organisation of African Unity in 1994, it led successful efforts to outlaw unconstitutional changes of government in Africa.

SA has sought to anchor this African agenda by forging strong relationships with strategically important countries on the continent, such as Nigeria, Algeria, Libya and Egypt, which, together with SA, contribute 75% of the AU's regular budget.

Angola and Tanzania are also important strategic partners. The African focus has further shaped SA's ambitions at the UN. As a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council in 2007-08 and again in 2011-12, SA advocated a more efficient division of labour between the world body and Africa's regional bodies in maintaining peace and security on the continent. SA has also led calls to reform the Security Council, which continues to reflect the geopolitical realities of 1945 and favours powerful, rich western countries at the expense of Africa.

However, despite, or indeed because of, SA's high profile in African and global diplomacy, institutional capacity constraints have resulted in "diplomatic overstretch". As a result, SA's engagement with the continent can often seem poorly co-ordinated.

In addition, there is some concern that SA's foreign policy may not be able to sustain the moral and political values that inspired SA's liberation struggle. SA's international leadership as a "norm entrepreneur" — promoting, for example, the responsibility of national governments to ensure the human rights of all their citizens — depends to a large extent on its success in consolidating its own democracy at home.

SA remains the world's most unequal society and has an unemployment rate of about 40%. Many South Africans are unaware of the role that the country's postapartheid diplomacy has sought to play in national reconciliation, domestic democratic consolidation, and the country's socioeconomic development.

In this regard, SA needs to build stronger popular support for its foreign policy, particularly its prioritisation of Africa. This should include explaining the historical anti-apartheid contributions of African countries to ordinary South Africans; and the benefits that may accrue from SA's engagement in African multilateral organisations, as well as its efforts to reform the world's political and economic order in support of a fairer deal for the "global south".

Paterson is a senior project officer, and Virk a senior researcher, at the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR). This article is based on a CCR report of a meeting on "Post-Apartheid SA's Foreign Policy After Two Decades", held in Cape Town.

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