President Cyril Ramaphosa’s appointment of Naledi Pandor as minister of international relations may be a positive step toward improving South Africa’s relations with the United States. Pandor is part of a Ramaphosa’s trimmed-down cabinet whose positions are split equally between men and women.
The bilateral relationship between the United States and South Africa has been correct but hardly special and even at times frosty. It soured under former President Jacob Zuma, who was hostile to the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya and had been drawn in Russia’s orbit with a now-defunct nuclear deal. South Africa’s foreign policy is fiercely independent, but has tended to avoid confronting authoritarian regimes in its neighborhood, particularly those of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Joseph Kabila in Democratic Republic of Congo, much to the chagrin of the United States.
Naledi Pandor comes from the “struggle establishment.” Her grandfather, Z.K. Matthews, and father, Joe Matthews, were icons of the anti-apartheid movement. In her early years, Pandor was educated in Botswana. While there, she met her future husband, a Muslim, and converted to Islam. After receiving a bachelor’s in history and English from the University of Botswana, she received a master’s from the University of London and from Stellenbosch University. She has also lectured at the University of Botswana and the University of Cape Town. In April 2019, she received her doctorate in higher education from the University of Pretoria.
For the past decade she has been in the cabinet. As a minister she developed a reputation for competence with demanding portfolios: higher education (2009–2012, 2018–2019); home affairs (2012–2014); and science and technology (2014–2018). Pandor is a close ally of Ramaphosa in the internecine struggles within the governing African National Congress. She was Ramaphosa’s choice to be deputy president, but she did not win sufficient party support.
With her multi-cultural background, strong academic credentials, and extensive ministerial experience, it can be anticipated that she will engage with other governments more productively than her predecessors. Embassies in Pretoria have welcomed her appointment. She is the fourth woman in a row to hold the position. She is likely to return to the Mandela tradition of emphasizing human rights in South Africa’s foreign policy.
Her immediate predecessor, Lindiwe Sisulu, held the position for only a year, perhaps as a place-holder before the 2019 elections; Sisulu is now the minister for human settlements, water, and sanitation. But, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane was in the office for a decade (2009-2018), as was her immediate predecessor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, (1999–2009). Mashabane’s tenure as foreign minister coincided with the now-discredited administration of Jacob Zuma, while Dlamini-Zuma’s with that of Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, for which she was criticized for her inaction during land invasions and farm murders in Zimbabwe. Many western diplomats found Mashabane a difficult interlocutor, while Pandor has a much more positive reputation.
The next two years will be significant for South African foreign policy. It occupies an Africa seat on the UN Security Council for the 2019–2020 term and it will take over the chair of the African Union from Egypt in 2020. Pandor has the experience and talent to turn the relationship around, but the Trump administration will need to reciprocate if she reaches out.