No. 363: SA's Leadership Role on Continent an Evolving Strategic Web / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
3 May 2016
The obsessive focus on President Jacob Zuma's weakening political position has distracted attention from the broader strategic goals of SA's leadership role in Africa.
Zuma undertook a widely under-reported, but potentially groundbreaking visit to Nigeria in March.
Last month, he went on an important tour of Botswana, Swaziland and Namibia: three of SA's neighbours, and fellow members of the Southern African Customs Union.
The most important shift in SA's foreign policy under Zuma was ending the frosty relationship forged between Thabo Mbeki and Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos.
The strategic partnership that was established subsequently has given the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) a more influential political role, and provided a powerful ally in both subregional and continental diplomacy. Whereas Mbeki sought leadership at African Union (AU) level, which he was sometimes unable to translate into leverage at sub-regional level, Zuma's Southern Africa diplomacy has given SA greater influence at the continental level.
However, his foreign policy has been less strategic and more openly mercantilist than Mbeki's.
SA and Tanzania drove the establishment of the 3,000-strong Sadc intervention force that routed M23 rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2013. More recently, Pretoria has been encouraged to play a greater mediation role in Burundi, where it led peacekeeping efforts between 2003 and 2006.
SA has an impressive 44 embassies in Africa. However, the country's diplomatic ambitions have not been matched by its military capacity. Although Pretoria has continued to play an active peacekeeping role in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — SA's Gen Derrick Mgwebi is the Force Commander of the United Nations (UN) mission there — and, more recently, in Lesotho and South Sudan, the killing of 13 of its soldiers in the Central African Republic in 2013 exposed its lack of regional knowledge in parts of Africa.
The 78,000-strong South African army lacks air-defence capacity; half of the navy's ships are obsolete; the country has no maritime patrol aircraft; and long-range airlift and sea lift are almost nonexistent.
Pretoria's military brass hats often complain of being overstretched: conducting peacekeeping missions; patrolling SA's 4,471km land border; and hunting rhino poachers in the Kruger National Park.
Some estimates note that half of the country's defence budget goes to paying salaries. A low-growth economy in one of the world's most unequal societies, however, means prioritising guns over butter is politically difficult.
This, perhaps, explains SA's recent decision to withdraw all 797 of its troops from the UN mission in Darfur. Pretoria also appears to be tiring of its leadership role in the volatile eastern Congo. The one reason that will, however, maintain SA's commitment to regional peacekeeping is the prospect it could win a permanent African seat on a reformed UN Security Council.
To compete with countries such as Nigeria, Egypt and Ethiopia, SA will need to maintain its credibility as an international peacekeeper. As Nigeria has done in Liberia and Sierra Leone, SA should insist the UN ensure more equitable international burden-sharing in future peacekeeping missions.
The African National Congress (ANC) government still believes SA should play a leadership role on the continent, but also recognises that the country needs to get its domestic house in order before it can fulfil such an envisaged role.
However, the party damaged its international reputation by publishing a bizarre foreign policy discussion document in September last year that described the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests as part of a US-backed "counter-revolution", and condemned US policies in Africa and the Middle East as having the "sole intention" of toppling democratic governments.
At the party's general council a month later, the ANC — angered by criticism of its failure to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir during the AU summit — announced the country's intention to leave the International Criminal Court.
Although SA has energetically gained membership in key institutions such as the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA) grouping and the Group of 20, it is still too early to tell — especially with Nigeria having overtaken SA in 2013 as Africa's largest economy — whether such a role might come to constitute "representation without power".
Dr Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, and visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg