South Africa’s careful quest for an international role

by Oscar van Heerden

Thabo mbeki - world economic forum on africa 2008
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Photo by World Economic Forum, via Wikimedia Commons

Thabo Mbeki’s vision of an African Renaissance was a mammoth undertaking. At the centre of this vision, frequently expounded during his 1999–2008 presidency, was the need to demonstrate that Africa’s challenges could and would be solved by Africans themselves. South Africa’s foreign policy choices were not so easily discernable however. There were several hot topics pertaining to its foreign policy at this time: Zimbabwe, South Africa’s role in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and the way in which South Africa positioned itself on the continent.

The brinkmanship between Mbeki and Robert Mugabe to find a lasting solution to the difficulties in Zimbabwe was easier said than done during the mediation process. A newly democratic South Africa was also elected as a non-permanent member to the UNSC; however, an unreformed UN system presented numerous complexities in this regard, especially in the realm of the often obvious and logical rhetoric by the permanent five members. Furthermore, a globalised world also meant that trade relations were all but obvious and straightforward when negotiating a massive trade deal with the European Union and its implications for South Africa’s neighbours in the Southern African Development Community.

The intricacies of foreign policy meanderings and game theory are all but certain when you are dealing with sophisticated objectives and your own national interests as a country. This has continued since 2009 under Jacob Zuma’s presidency, during which the constitutional provision of ‘separation of power’ has been tested like never before. The Pretoria High Court ruling that the process of withdrawing from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is unconstitutional and hence invalid, must be looked at both politically and legally.

The government nowhere argues that the legal requirement for the ICC is in doubt. In fact, South Africa was one of its strongest proponents when the statute was constituted. Crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes can never be condoned, and South Africa, in keeping with its human rights foreign policy, will certainly not object to efforts at accountability. Legal wrangling nevertheless continues regarding the interpretation of diplomatic immunity when there is an arrest order against a head of state.

Politically, though, the South African government is taking serious issue with the function of the court, whose cases are concentrated on the African continent, and with the fact that the jurisdiction of the court is subject to the permanent members of the UNSC, most of whom are non-signatories to the Rome Statute.  And finally, the matter of justice which cannot trump peace. Which brings me to my final argument.

International relations post-World War II have taken on a duality in the application of rights and responsibilities, and this is cause for concern. On the one hand, we are told that the intervention in Syria by Russia and Syrian armies is tantamount to ‘war crimes’, but the continuous shelling and bombings in aid of the Iraqi military in Mosul to stem the tide of ISIS are apparently acceptable. In both cases, many women and children are dying daily and the ICC does and says nothing: the same court that was quick to institute charges against President al-Bashir. In short, the more powerful countries (the victors of World War II) have configured global institutions in a manner that benefits them and not the rest of the world.

To illustrate, the UNSC is configured to have five permanent members (the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia), who have the final say over all decision-making on global security affairs. These permanent five each hold a veto power which they can use to stop any decision with which they don’t agree. The World Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Monitory Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (collectively referred to as the Bretton Woods institutions) represent the same duality. They agreed that the IMF president can only come from the EU and that the head of the World Bank can only come from the USA.

South Africa is carefully navigating the rough seas of global politics. The aim is to ensure that it occupies a key role in the region and, to achieve this, uses soft-power strategies to inculcate its hegemony. It strives at all time to advocate a sense of belonging among Africans in the world, and that Africa needs to take its rightful place as an equal member among the constellation of nations.

In so doing, South Africa hopes to gain the trust of its region and the continent, to be seen as a responsible state not directed by Western ambitions, which put Western concerns and approaches before everything else. This, it hopes, will lead to South Africa being seen as the rightful facilitator, a voice and an arbitrator of continental and regional challenges within the global governance structures. And this, I argue, is intended to lead to its improved standing in the international order. By representing and leading a region, South Africa is modelling a process of fairer global relations, in which regional blocs are fairly represented in global forums that are not dominated by post-war cliques.

Oscar van Heerden’s book: Consistent or Confused: The politics of Mbeki’s Foreign Policy years 1995-2007 was published in July 2017. He spoke about it in Cambridge on Friday 3 November at an event hosted by the Centre of Governance and Human Rights and the Centre of African Studies.

About the author

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Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of international relations,focusing on international political economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and South Africa in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge.
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