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Is South Africa Living Up to Its Responsibility as Africa's Leader?

Discussants: Francis Kornegay, and Tom Wheeler
Updated: April 13, 2007


South Africa, the African continent’s richest country, is also its most influential. President Thabo Mbeki mediated conflicts in Burundi and Congo, and propelled the creation of the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa ’s Development. Yet South Africa has come under fire for its policy of “quiet diplomacy” toward neighboring Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe presides over an unraveling economy and has increasingly resorted to violence to maintain power. Some also criticize the South African government’s recent actions on the UN Security Council and its HIV/AIDS policy.

Two South Africans—Francis Kornegay, a senior researcher at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, and Tom Wheeler, a research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs—debate whether South Africa is living up to its responsibility as Africa’s leader.

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Tom WheelerMost recent

April 13, 2007

Tom Wheeler

Evoking the passing of the old order implies that South African civil society is all of one race and government another. Neither is true. However, the current South African government is starting, after thirteen years in power, to display hypersensitivity to criticism.

UN Security Council members have every right to question and debate any resolution put before them, irrespective of authorship. Ultimately South Africa joined the consensus resolution ratcheting up sanctions against Iran. No “global apartheid” here!

It is important to stop any possibility of Iran building a nuclear weapon before it is too late. South Africa did the right thing to go back to its own first principles and join the consensus, irrespective of the hypocrisy of the P5 [permanent five UN Security Council members] nuclear weapons states. Furthering an agenda aimed at democratizing global governance—a laudable objective—does not require undermining core principles, nor does it necessitate joining Iran in displaying disdain for the West.

Since 1994, South Africa has subscribed to values of “protecting human rights, eradicating poverty and underdevelopment, promoting democracy and good governance, promoting equity, protecting the environment, disarmament, peace-making though dialogue, democratizing international organisations...”. Just look at the strategic plan of the Department of Foreign Affairs for confirmation. The South African electorate has bought into the idea of an ethical foreign policy and expect their government to abide by its undertakings, whether on Myanmar, Sudan or the APRM [African Peer Review Mechanism]. Their voluble condemnation of the Myanmar vote seems to have caught the government by surprise and has required much public relations backfilling to try to undo the damage.

China’s change of heart on Sudan is most welcome, and with such backing [South African President Thabo] Mbeki’s efforts there have more chance of success. The Chinese seem little worried by the possible charge that they have succumbed to “global apartheid.” Instead they have realized that, as Sudan’s main source of foreign exchange for oil purchases, they have unique leverage.

Civil society acts as a watchdog on government to identify breaches of the letter and spirit of processes, such as APRM. To dismiss all foreign policy critics and public watchdogs as people who long for apartheid is academically irresponsible and does an injustice to the many thoughtful people who hope to make South Africa a better nation by pushing it to live up to its own ideals.

Francis KornegayApril 12, 2007

Francis Kornegay

Well, as is so often intoned, a nation’s foreign policy grows out of and is an extension of its domestic politics and priorities. The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) is one of those initiatives that Pretoria’s leadership helped bring into being in the realm of governance at a continental level that is now being applied “at home.”

However, the contentious South African domestic politics of APRM between government and civil society reflects an adversarial level of antagonism that, at some level, reveals a continuing residue of resentment over the passing of an old order dominated by Eurocentric perspectives on South Africa, Africa, and the world, running up against a new order preoccupied in shaping a new identity; one wherein the new elite came to realize that liberation from domestic apartheid only brought the “New South Africa” face to face with the even more daunting struggle against “Global Apartheid.” It is this realization that informs South African politics and governance internally and externally in southern Africa, the continent, and globally.

Beyond the domestic politics of APRM, Pretoria’s recent displays of leadership reflect its priorities. South Africa did not shy away from confronting the UN Security Council Permanent Five plus Germany when it called for a ninety-day time-out on the issue of Iran’s nuclear activities. According to Iranian scholar Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Iran can count on growing support from most of the developing world, which is increasingly disaffected with Permanent Five dominance and “selectivity” to a point where “the developing nations may have no choice but to set up a parallel global organization that would be immune from the rather pathetic state of affairs at the Security Council today.” Pretoria’s leadership individually and within the trilateral collective of the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Dialogue Forum could foreshadow such a trend.

Meanwhile, the criticism that Pretoria came in for on Myanmar within the Security Council is now being offset by increasing Chinese diplomacy with Khartoum on defusing the Darfur crisis. No doubt, South Africa, not having followed the U.S. lead on Myanmar, has been better positioned within the Security Council to engage China on Sudan accordingly. Sudan’s fate, after all, is crucial to a major part of Africa’s “strategic stability.” Stabilizing Africa in the uphill struggle against global apartheid is a crucial precondition to democratizing what Afrasiabi terms “today’s Western-dominated hierarchical global system.”  In the final analysis, this is what defines South Africa’s leadership.

Tom WheelerApril 11, 2007

Tom Wheeler

South Africa has taken positions on better governance at the global as well as the continental level. While it has made some very substantive contributions to peace and security in Africa, some of its own shortcomings will invariably be held up to scrutiny because of its strong pronouncements on democracy, governance, and human rights.

South Africa’s responsibility is not only at the global level, but begins at home. The African Peer Review Mechanism was mainly a South African idea and one that twenty-six African states have signed up to. That naturally included South Africa.

It was always the intention that civil society and citizens would be given a genuine opportunity to critique the quality of governance. Regrettably when it came time for this country’s review, the South African government attempted to dominate the process.

It took some powerful arm-twisting by several organizations, some close to government, to convince the responsible authorities that it was not acceptable to use the government’s own self-congratulatory publicity material as a basis for the complex national report that was originally to have been written in two months, with only perfunctory public consultation.

Even when the consultation process was conceded and comments and critique poured in from South Africans who relished the opportunity to say what they felt about issues of political, economic, corporate and local governance, much of it critical of the party in power, the final report—heavily edited to water down politically sensitive issues, such as party financing and electoral system fairness—was completed almost a year later than the government had initially planned. Fortunately much of the original material that the report was based on was already in the public domain and the Peers consulted that.

What a nasty shock was in store for the government when they received the report of the Peer Review Panel!

But how much worse would it have been if the government had not itself applied the process it had sold to other African states. What a message it would have sent to those African leaders who are not committed to good governance.

If South Africa wishes to retain its credibility as a middle power occupying the ground that no other African state can occupy, it must also adhere to the highest standards of behavior on its own home turf. Otherwise all the other great things it has achieved and continues to achieve will be overshadowed.      

Francis KornegayApril 10, 2007

Francis Kornegay

Regarding the exercise of leadership and responsibility, “the moral high ground” is a rather slippery commodity for any state actor to retain in the cut and thrust of international politics. South Africa is no exception in this regard. It has long since assumed “normalized” status as a country; no longer a pariah and no longer the “rainbow miracle.” To be sure, the country still manages to retain a unique measure of credibility as a “middle power.” This is due to South Africa’s singular history as Africa’s most developed state, the epic nature of its struggle and transition to democracy, and its peculiar strategic centrality both within its African context as “gateway” to the continent’s markets and in its global South positioning midway between Asia and the Americas. Thus, in a sense, South Africa’s leadership reflects an embeddedness inherent in a natural geopolitical-economic positioning transcending its foreign policy choices. No other African state can occupy this ground.

Whether those inclined toward a Western agenda agree with South Africa’s recent posture in the UN Security Council regarding Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and Iran, these controversies are more than offset by Pretoria’s leadership initiatives within Africa and beyond. South Africa’s consistent state-building mentorship of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, peace support engagement in Burundi, chair of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council committee on Sudan’s post-conflict reconstruction, mediation on the Ivory Coast, and African champion within multilateral fora speak for themselves. Beyond Africa, Pretoria’s leadership within the Non-Aligned Movement, the G-77, cosponsorship with Indonesia in founding the Asian-African Subregional Organizations Conference and alignment with India and Brazil in the trilateral IBSA dialogue forum further amplify its leadership as does its “North-South dialogue” membership of the G8 “Outreach Partnership.”

Within the context of Pretoria’s delicate balancing between the West on the one hand and China and Russia on the other, its Security Council stance on Myanmar has to be understood in terms of South Africa’s need to leverage its influence on the intractable issue of Sudan and the Darfur crisis. Placing Zimbabwe on the Council’s agenda would complicate the current southern African strategy toward that country being spearheaded by Pretoria. Neither was South Africa going to automatically rubber-stamp a Permanent Five [UN Security Council veto-holding members] decision on Iran without it having been consulted in its role as president of the Council. This latter stance distinguishes South Africa’s leadership independence in its quest to transform global governance.  

Tom Wheeler April 9, 2007

Tom Wheeler

South Africa’s transformation in 1994 enshrined a series of norms in its Bill of Rights to ensure that “never again” would South Africa repeat the evils of the past. These values were reflected in its post-1994 foreign policy, but many African leaders preferred a united front.

South Africa suffers a double bind: On the one hand, suspicion among Africans that it is acting as a regional hegemon, and on the other, expectations that as a powerful player it should be doing more to advance Africa’s cause on the wider international stage.

President Mbeki’s African agenda has an underlying theme of good governance to create “a better life for all” in Africa. Not all African leaders have bought into this idealistic vision. Mbeki, however, wishes at all costs to avoid public conflict and division among the states of the region.

Zimbabwe fails the governance test and has the potential to create such conflict.

Mbeki has been given a mandate by the Southern African Development Community to mediate the Zimbabwe question, but he has few levers to achieve success. President Robert Mugabe is not susceptible to advice or pressure from outside. In addition, issues of history and African respect for age and seniority complicate Mbeki’s task.

In line with African thinking, South Africa has long argued in favor of democratizing the United Nations, and in particular the Security Council. It seeks to use its seat on the Council to push that agenda. One of its tactics has been to insist that issues be dealt with in the “correct” UN forum. Ironically, the way it has approached this in the case of Myanmar and Zimbabwe is in conflict with the very policy of South Africa’s governing party, the ANC, as articulated as recently as January 8, 2007:

"Our fortunes as a nation are intimately interconnected with the fortunes of our neighbors, our continent, and indeed all humanity. It is on this basis of moral responsibility and collective self-interest that we continue to be actively engaged in the effort to build a better Africa and world."

In spite of its other achievements in fulfilling its responsibility to Africa and strengthening developing world cooperation in multilateral forums, South Africa has opened itself to criticism and is perceived to have lost the moral high ground by acting in a dogmatic, legalistic way on how issues should be dealt with in the Council, rather than in line with its stated ideals.

Francis Kornegay April 6, 2007

Francis Kornegay

Controversies surrounding South Africa’s performance as a nonpermanent UN Security Council member, its “quiet diplomacy” regarding Zimbabwe, and polarizing debates over HIV/AIDS have prompted concerns about whether South Africa is living up to expectations as a leading African power. Is it fulfilling its “responsibility” as “Africa’s leader”? This is a highly subjective preoccupation in which the resulting value judgments may hinge on whether South Africa is seen as living up to Western expectations of “responsibility” and “leadership” or whether there is an appreciation of the independent foreign policy role that Pretoria has fashioned for itself wherein its point of reference is Africa and the global South. South Africa’s perception of its leadership responsibilities hinge on the latter. Yet, these are subject to the constraints that Pretoria must navigate in approaching specific issues like Zimbabwe and Myanmar.

Ever since former President Nelson Mandela was chastened by his lonely confronting of the murderous regime of Sani Abacha in Nigeria [in 1996], Pretoria has prioritized an African multilateralist diplomacy toward contentious African issues such as Zimbabwe. At times, this has placed it in opposition to other African actors. One example is the case of the Great Lakes civil war centering on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where Angola and Zimbabwe intervened militarily while Pretoria promoted a negotiated peace process that ultimately prevailed with Southern African Development Community (SADC) backing.

President Thabo Mbeki has managed to knit together the same SADC multilateralist framework for the new push to orchestrate a stabilizing post-Mugabe transition in Zimbabwe. Moreover, the fledgling inter-African order that Mbeki, along with other leaders, helped forge in the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) has enabled Pretoria to reasonably navigate the minefields of African crises, Zimbabwe included. These have been approached within a multilateral framework that advances regional cooperation and pan-African integration. Major institutional investments from South African government departments have been deployed in these efforts, thereby fleshing out Pretoria’s “African Renaissance” commitment.

This “African Agenda” is complemented by a focus on developing world cooperation aimed at institutionally transforming the global-governance architecture. This is epitomized by its “like-minded” trilateral alliance with India and Brazil, while engaging these powers—along with China and Mexico—in interacting as “outreach partners” of the G8.  Hence, the Afrocentric, South-South, North-South template informs Pretoria’s leadership as it opts for multilateralism as opposed to hegemonic unilateralism. By this yardstick, South Africa’s leadership definitely measures up to expectations. 

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