5. Foreign Policy in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Security, Diplomacy and Trade – Nicholas Westcott

Reviewer: Nicholas Westcott
Review Publisher: International Affairs
Author: Adekeye Adebajo and Kudrat Virk (eds.)
Date: 1 July 2018

This is a timely book on an important subject. South Africa is one of the three giants of the African continent—along with Nigeria and Egypt—and since the end of apartheid it has been finding a new voice and a new role in the world. This excellently edited collection of authoritative chapters by scholars and practitioners provides a comprehensive study of the issue.

The book analyses South African foreign policy in a series of ‘concentric circles’. Initially Adekeye Adebajo and Kudrat Virk look at the domestic drivers and policy themes, including peacemaking, defence, human rights, and economic and commercial interests. Widening the circle, the book turns to describing South Africa’s key bilateral relations within Africa, with a chapter on each main region, including the Great Lakes. Next the edited volume moves from looking at bilateral to multilateral relations in Africa with the African Union (AU), the Southern African Development Community and the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) all examined extensively. Moving beyond the African continent, the focus shifts to South Africa’s key bilateral relations with the United States, the United Kingdom, France and China. The final part of the book assesses South Africa’s relations with global multilateral organizations—such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries—as well as looking at the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Adebajo’s introduction and Virk’s conclusion provide perceptive overviews that knit the themes together.

The editors identify a number of key themes to emerge from the volume. Domestic policy appears to be overwhelmingly oriented towards supporting South Africa’s own political transition, and exporting the country’s peacemaking model is prioritized in regional policy. In southern Africa, South Africa has effectively played the role of hegemon (as underlined in Richard Gibbs’s valuable analysis of SACU), but its aspiration to do so on a continental level has met resistance from other regions. Under President Thabo Mbeki, priority was given to peacemaking as well as to his initiatives for an ‘African renaissance’ and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). However, under President Jacob Zuma, foreign policy has been more openly focused on South Africa’s own strategic and economic interests.

But some themes remain more implicit. Several chapters highlight the underlying schizophrenia of South African foreign policy. On some issues, the African National Congress (ANC) plays the leading role—especially in policy-making and implementa- tion—through its network of contacts with liberation movements throughout the conti- nent. The government’s efforts to help peace in South Sudan are built mainly on such party links and the rapprochement with Angola benefited from the ANC’s role. But, increasingly, state interests, and particularly commercial interests, have tugged South Africa in a different direction. With regard to human rights, as Nicole Fritz underlines in relation to the Inter- national Criminal Court, the virtuous principles of the constitution and decisions of the courts conflict with the South African government’s wish to show solidarity with fellow African leaders. Second, partly as a result of this schizophrenia, the dramatic post-apartheid economic expansion of South African business across Africa has been predominantly driven by the private sector—not by the state—despite it being critically important for South Africa’s economic future.

The volume’s third theme is the determination of post-apartheid South Africa to assert its role on the African and world stage, which has had mixed results. President Nelson Mandela’s almost mythical status led outsiders to project onto South Africa their own views and they were disappointed when it acted as a normal state. Mbeki’s African narrative had real influence, and the inclusion of South Africa in the G20 and BRICS were significant diplomatic successes—even if the latter owed as much to China’s desire to add a friend as it did to South Africa’s persuasiveness. However, the country’s moral and political asser- tiveness within Africa has sometimes bred resentment. The very public celebration in the AU building after Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s victory over what they called ‘the French andidate’, Jean Ping, for chair of the AU, did significant damage to South Africa’s reputa- tion on the continent. Interestingly, the only real account of this occurs in the chapter on South Africa’s relations with France, even though it took years to repair relations with many fellow African states—including with Nigeria and many francophone countries. Overall, the book perhaps also underestimates the damage Zuma’s presidency did to South Africa’s reputation, following the fiascos in the Central African Republic and Ivory Coast as well as its tolerance for Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Robert Mugabe.

One problem with the book, as with any such edited collection, is that there is a degree of overlap between the chapters—South Africa’s important involvement in the peace process in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is covered several times from different angles. Another drawback of the book is its lack of a single key set of statistics demonstrating the changing pattern of South African trade and investment over these years. These would have revealed so much about the realities of its foreign policy, the declining influence of the UK and the EU and the rise of Chinthe need for a serious study of South Africa’s post-apartheid foreign policy.

Nicholas Westcott, Royal African Society, UK