South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) went through a fractious period from about 2005 to 2009, which ultimately resulted in the replacement of Thabo Mbeki by Jacob Zuma as head of state. There was a widely held assumption that under Zuma’s reign there would be a change in South Africa’s foreign policy, not only in style but in substance as well. But this assumption has not held true. The fight between Zuma and Mbeki within the ANC was a fight largely about style and personality, not one over policy, and since Zuma’s emergence as president there has, at least on paper, been more continuity than change in South Africa’s foreign policy. Such changes as have occurred have been changes in style and refinements here and there, while as regards stated policy, continuity has prevailed. In practice, however, a new ambiguous trend has emerged in a rather diffuse and self-doubting diplomacy. In foreign policy terms, President Zuma has not been the promised “breath of fresh air.”

Thabo Mbeki was by all accounts a foreign policy president. During his reign as president, South Africa not only punched above its proverbial weight but had a strategic presence in the world and was taken seriously by most states, from North and South alike. While Nelson Mandela would be remembered for introducing the idea of reconciliation at home and abroad and a difficult to implement foreign policy that was principled and driven by human rights, Thabo Mbeki would be remembered more for following a pragmatic foreign policy orientation, introducing the ideas of socioeconomic transformation at home and in international relations and elevating the salience of development and economic factors in foreign policy.

Transformation was an ideology with political, social, economic and cultural dimensions, with goals of a nonracial society, an end to sexism in the country, a caring society sensitive to the needs of the most vulnerable, respect for the country’s cultural and linguistic diversity, poverty eradication and transformation into a modern, dynamic and competitive economy. Foreign policy transformation was a logical extension of domestic transformation policies, and in practical terms it set out to use statecraft to promote peace, democratization, development and nation-building.

Africa first

Mbeki’s foreign policy project has left a number of significant legacies. First, there was an emphasis on the African Renaissance: restoring African pride, dignity and strategic positioning. Mbeki defined the African Renaissance as the need for Africans to determine who they are, what they stand for, what their visions and hopes are, how they do things, what programs they adopt, and whom they relate to and how. He often stressed that, along with a major focus on trying to defeat global poverty, underdevelopment and inequality, it was important to empower blacks at home and in the South globally to become confident in challenging their positions of underdevelopment and subjugation in the world.

Whereas white apartheid governments had seen South Africa as an extension of Europe, Mbeki set out to assert the country’s position in Africa, with Africa and as part of Africa, and with other forces in Africa favouring peace, democracy and reconstruction and development of the continent. There were calls for South Africa to act as some sort of African hegemon – the one that would lay down the laws to others through imposition and domination. Mbeki shunned such ideas in favour of the notion of South Africa as equal partner on the continent and globally.

Peace diplomacy occupied a special place in Mbeki’s foreign policy, and his preferred method was to play the role of peacemaker and peacekeeper throughout Africa by acting through multilateral institutions such as the Southern Africa Development Community, the African Union and the UN Security Council. Instead of emphasizing ego-driven interstate rivalries and balance of power considerations, South Africa generally used quiet diplomacy as a nonconfrontational manner of trying to nudge African elites in the direction of peace and promoting governments of national unity as a way to end conflicts.

Africans, Mbeki believed, had to gain the conviction that they were instruments of their own destiny rather than wards of benevolent guardians. On the basis of that belief, Mbeki played a key role in developing an African blueprint, assisted by heads of government in Algeria and Nigeria. This led to New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), a development plan that focused on political and economic modernization and made the link between democracy and governance on the one hand and peace and security on the other.

He was also the architect of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), which promoted democracy and political governance, socioeconomic development, economic governance and management and corporate governance. This mechanism did not rely on punitive measures, and it involved governments, civil society organizations, business organizations, members of communities and families in reflecting jointly on achievements and challenges. Many of the continent’s political elites regarded the APRM as a tool to make themselves attractive to donor partners, while donors tried to use it as a mechanism to discriminate between Africa’s “good guys” and “bad guys.” Mbeki was key to South Africa’s becoming the host for the NEPAD and APRM secretariats, using Rand (the South African currency) diplomacy to portray his country as Africa’s most pivotal state.

By the time of Mbeki’s abrupt removal from office in September 2008, South Africa’s diplomatic presence in 47 of the continent’s states – more than any other country – positioned it to be influential in Africa and elsewhere. As part of this “Africa first” policy, Mbeki was instrumental in the founding of the African Union. He stayed away from the notion of a federalist, supranationalist United States of Africa (USAf) promoted by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, instead favouring an architecture based on states living with common institutions, norms and values and a rules-based common order. Under Mbeki’s functionalist approach Africa comprised five subregions, with a sixth extending to the African diaspora. During his presidency, South Africa also established the African Renaissance Fund (ARF) to grant loans and financial assistance to other African countries. This fund put South Africa at the table with other donor nations; it is now being transformed into a development agency. Whether the government will provide the wherewithal and convince local largely cynical domestic constituencies of the need to commit large sums of money for continental development remains an open question.

Enhancing South-South cooperation

In addition to strategies directed specifically toward Africa, building ties between countries in the global South also featured prominently in Mbeki’s foreign policy. This effort built on the legacy of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, who in the 1950s spearheaded the Non-Aligned Movement. In this way Nehru and his allies sought to carve out an independent stance for the countries of Africa and Asia, most of which had until recently been colonies, in relation to the East-West Cold War rivalry. The 1955 conference in Bandung, Indonesia, was a crucial event in the creation of this movement.

Mbeki was pivotal in renewing these relationships for the 21st century when another Bandung Conference in 2005 drew Asian, African and South American countries. The renewed “Bandung Spirit” led by Mbeki focused on economic development goals: expansion of trade; poverty reduction through growth; modernization through infrastructure development and technical cooperation; and addressing common socioeconomic challenges related to poverty, education, health, population, women and children.

Mbeki worked hard to get institutions from the South, including the Non-Aligned Movement, the G-77 + China and others, to adopt common positions on strategic matters such as the transformation of the global political, security and economic architecture. He also championed an economic development pact among Southern nations. In November 2002 he brought forward the idea of strategic ties between Asia and Africa as a special guest at the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This effort culminated in the New Asia-Africa Strategic Partnership (NAASP) when he and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono cochaired the Africa-Asia Summit held in Jakarta in April 2005.

Transforming North–South relationships

Under Mbeki, South Africa commanded an influence in world affairs usually reserved for great powers. Moving beyond a “dialogue of the deaf” between North and South, Mbeki promoted a view of development as a universal and strategic challenge. In this view, there needed to be change in the international balance of power and significant financial resources committed from the North.

Mbeki almost singlehandedly put the question of a new relationship between North and South on the agenda, moving away from a paternalistic relationship to a new paradigm of genuine partnership in the policy, development and intellectual spheres. His government maintained that a heavy burden rested on the shoulders of the formally colonized and that the developing world had legitimate claims for compensation from the West. Just as Europe received a massive injection of capital after World War II, so Africa needed an injection of capital to achieve its development objectives.

With Nigeria and Algeria, he was instrumental in negotiating a strategic partnership between Africa and the G8, encompassing not only governments but also the private sector and other organs of civil society. This partnership was to be based on mutual respect, responsibility and accountability, and led to numerous North-South commitments in areas of health, innovation and knowledge through science and technology, infrastructure, trade and investment, increased official development assistance, debt relief, private sector growth, agriculture and food security, and education.

Mbeki’s role was so prominent that South Africa was rewarded with a number of strategic positions in world affairs. It became one of six African nations to attend the G8 summits, and was the only African nation to be part of the G8 Plus Outreach Five countries, joining India, China, Brazil and Mexico. The European Union elevated its relationship with South Africa to the SA-EU Strategic Partnership, a status reserved for only five other countries – the United States, China, India, Russia and Brazil. South Africa served a two-year term on the UN Security Council from 2007 to 2009, and then was elected again in 2011. Mbeki used these opportunities to promote mutual accountability, the NEPAD partnership, the African agenda and the acceleration of the Millennium Development Goals. South Africa chaired the G20 in 2007, and when Mbeki stepped down South Africa was the only African state represented at the G20. Shortly afterwards it was the G20 – and not the G8, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – which took centre stage during the world financial crisis.

Transforming the global politico-economic architecture

Despite the financial crisis in 2008−09, Africa is more democratic and growing more rapidly than before, and this is in part because of the economic strategies put in place by Mbeki and his partners. With the change in the development paradigm to engage the development partners as equals based on programs drawn up by Africans, continental policies sought commitments from industrialized powers in trade, debt relief and market access, and massive resources for Africa’s conflict resolution and peace diplomacy initiatives. For Mbeki, the fundamental challenges flowing from the irreversible process of globalization included poverty, underdevelopment, the growing North-South gap, racism and xenophobia, gender discrimination, ill health, violent conflicts and threats to the environment.

Mbeki advocated a transformation of the global financial architecture and the balance of forces within financial institutions to give a voice to Africa and the South and respond to their needs. Global political and financial institutions such as the UN, the IMF and the World Bank needed to mobilize sufficient resources for sustainable development, and elimination of the agricultural subsidies that exclude imports from developing countries was urgently required to provide increased market access. He pressed for transformation of international institutions including the UN Security Council, the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, as well as a change in the role of the G8. On nuclear weapons, he urged that the “have states” commit to arms control, disarmament and the complete elimination of such weapons and the “have nots” to nonproliferation, while defending the right to develop nuclear capacity for civilian use and energy purposes.

There is no doubt that Mbeki left a legacy of a well-thought-through foreign policy. South Africa commanded a strategic presence in the world, and notwithstanding the President’s personality shortcomings, he established South Africa as a key player in global diplomacy. Rich and poor, developed and developing states all came to recognize South Africa as a pivotal player in world affairs. This was the situation that the Zuma government inherited after Mbeki was ousted in 2008.

Drifting: The diffuse foreign policy trajectories of the Zuma government

While it is not often openly acknowledged, the falling out between Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki, which resulted in Mbeki being recalled as president by the ruling ANC in September 2008, was a personality clash and a fight over Mbeki’s style. However, many of Mbeki’s critics insisted that this was a battle over policy, and thus that the Zuma government needed to introduce policy changes to show that it has made a break with the Mbeki past. This insistence has led South Africa into lots of costly and awkward policy U-turns and reversals. While there is an attempt to deny continuity with Mbeki’s foreign policy approach, in reality continuity has prevailed, at least in terms of stated policy. The government and the ANC cannot even bring themselves to recognize Mbeki’s post-2008 role as African Union envoy to Sudan and his mediation efforts in other mandates. Yet, to work with Mbeki on these efforts could only serve to bring synergy and coherence to South Africa’s foreign policy.

The irony is that while South Africa has a clear macro foreign policy map that spells out the country’s broad strategic thrusts, the government is reticent about following that map. Policy states that the Republic will pursue a “broad developmental agenda” and an international strategy driven by “national interest.” As President Jacob Zuma declared in his first state of the nation address to Parliament in June 2009, “The main goal of government for the medium term is to ensure that our foreign relations contribute to the creation of an environment conducive to sustainable economic growth and development.” This pro–national interest policy will seek to consolidate the African agenda; deepen South-South cooperation; expand South-North relations; participate in the global system of governance; and strengthen foreign political and economic ties.

The Minister for International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, laid out the policy in more detail. As she put it, “the thrust of our foreign policy” includes the consolidation of the African agenda, which entails, among other things, the need for Africa’s growth and development; economic integration at the regional and subregional levels; trade and investment; and democratization and good governance. Also included in these “thrusts” is strengthening of South-South dialogue, notably ensuring that it remains a force for political and socioeconomic emancipation of developing countries and promotes interdependence and cooperation among countries of the South and the South’s common fight for a world free of economic and political injustice, poverty and inequality.

In Nkoana-Mashabane’s account, strengthening of North-South cooperation is an important priority as well, and focuses on the need to work together to confront challenges of poverty, development, peace and security, and post-conflict reconstruction, and soliciting the support of South Africa’s partners in the North to give momentum to the reform of UN and other institutions of global governance. She also emphasized two further “foreign policy thrusts”: participation in the global system of governance and strengthening of political and economic relations. The first places priority on working actively toward global political and socioeconomic stability within the multilateral system and promoting development, security, human rights and international law through South Africa’s participation in the UN system and other forums. The second reinforces the importance of the consolidation of South Africa’s traditional bilateral political partnerships as vehicles for promoting the country’s domestic priorities, as well as establishing focused and strategic platforms of cooperation for the socioeconomic development of the country and the region.

From this it is clear that the Zuma government opted for the tactic of merely sticking different labels on policy without changing the policy itself. At the same time, however, its journey without a map has rendered South Africa’s foreign policy unpredictable and erratic.

The new government pursued its policy under the banner of “Open for business … in a big way,” suggesting that commercial interests would become salient in South Africa’s foreign policy. Since Zuma came to power, it has engaged the United States in a “strategic dialogue” under this theme of “South Africa open for business,” with the aim of promoting “mutually beneficial trade and investment.” U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Donald Gips recently boasted of a “significant, positive improvement in the relationship” between Washington and Tshwane/Pretoria, and this is evidence of how Washington is trying to cultivate South Africa.

President Zuma’s state visit to Britain (including a welcome by Queen Elizabeth), during which the World Bank approved the first-ever loan to South Africa to the tune of US$3 billion, and state visits to Brazil, India, China and Russia were all undertaken under this new banner. When in March French President Nicolas Sarkozy met in Paris with his “good friend President Jacob Zuma,” the two leaders described their countries as “strategic partners” that would cooperate closely on a range of diplomatic and economic development projects. In its April 2011 issue, Africa Report magazine referred to the Paris-Tshwane/Pretoria relationship as “a north-south business and development axis.”

Thus, whereas under Mbeki economic diplomacy was going to be a key feature, under Zuma the government’s emphasis would be on “commercial policy.” What the deal with the World Bank showed is that the government would not only continue to engage multilateral institutions, including international financial institutions, but would be more conservative in engaging them. London, Washington and other Western governments would dish out red carpet treatment to South Africa in part because they hoped that Zuma would be a more pliant “customer” than Mbeki, who was not shy about speaking out against Western imperialist tendencies and unilateral conduct. They also hoped that if they cosied up to South Africa at a time when China was making inroads throughout Africa, Tshwane/Pretoria would become a pro-Western counterweight to Beijing.

As for Zuma’s African agenda strategies, in Zimbabwe the government has opted to show support for both Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and the two parties that came out of the 2005 split in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, in spite of earlier threats that it would distance itself from ZANU-PF. It offered to help the factions in the Government of National Unity, which were facing major difficulties of cohabitation, iron out their differences. Zuma and his advisers called for “free and fair” future elections, just as Mbeki did, and never expressed themselves on recognition by South African courts of claims exercised by dispossessed Zimbabwean farmers and their right to seize Zimbabwean assets in South Africa. While the Zuma government promised to make public a document on the controversial 2007 report on poll results in Zimbabwe, in the end it chose not to, maybe because it is in agreement with how the Mbeki government handled the Zimbabwe controversy. It was more successful in getting Southern Africa Development Community heads of state to take a more critical stance toward Mugabe and ZANU-PF, while being less critical of Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC. Meanwhile, reports of a sharp decline in President Mugabe’s health suggest that natural forces may resolve the Zimbabwe crisis, after which that country will be set on the path of a genuine transition.

South Africa’s position on the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire revealed a lot of indecisiveness and dilly-dallying. South Africa first toyed with supporting the Angolan position in favour of former President Laurent Gbagbo, after which it tried to align itself with the position of the African Union, which argued in favour of Alassane Ouattara, who was widely regarded as having defeated Gbagbo in the November 2010 election, while also pushing for a negotiated settlement between the two Ivorian protagonists. It took a visit to Paris by President Zuma for a clear position to emerge: South Africa eventually came out in defence of Ouattara and called for Gbagbo’s departure. The handling of the Côte d’Ivoire crisis showed a great deal of confusion and even bewilderment, and muddling through and uncertainty became new hallmarks of an emerging diffuse foreign policy.

But it was South Africa’s return to the UN Security Council as a nonpermanent member that raised the greatest controversy. There was much speculation in New York and elsewhere that this return to the Council, where it joined Nigeria, was a precursor to formalizing a permanent status for Africa’s two seats, and that Egypt would likely be shut out if Africa had its way (Gabon is the other current African member of the Council). It should be remembered that South Africa’s return to the Council scarcely two years after the end of its initial term coincided with its being invited to join the Brazil-Russia-India-China – or BRIC – association. All four BRIC countries happen to be current members of the Council (Russia and China are permanent members). BRIC became the five-member emerging nations – BRICS – of which Mbeki was an important promoter. But in its very first test as a new BRICS member, South Africa provided the tenth vote that allowed the Security Council to approve the intervention in Libya, while all its BRIC partners chose to abstain. This soon became a matter of concern as Russian President Dimitri Medvedev used the occasion of South Africa’s initial attendance at the BRICS summit to appeal to his South African counterpart for closer “coordination” on international crises like Libya.

South Africa’s relatively smooth handling of the impact of the financial meltdown of 2008, during which its solid financial institutions allowed it to weather the storm better than the United States and Europe, helped make the case for its being welcomed into the BRICS fold. BRIC members also invited South Africa in because of the opportunities it represents in Africa. These states regard it as an economic giant in Africa, one that is even in the process of setting up its own development assistance agency for the continent, to be known as the South African Development Partnership Agency (SADPA). Whether South Africa will find the resources to sustain a commitment to SADPA remains to be seen, especially against the backdrop of pressing socioeconomic challenges at home. The Zuma government will also be hard pressed to continue to play the role of Africa’s foremost peacekeeper and peacemaker, into which South Africa propelled itself during the Mbeki years.

Several challenges remain for South Africa in the context of BRICS. First, Tshwane/Pretoria will have to justify its membership not purely on political grounds but on a sound economic footing as well. This challenge is complicated by South Africa’s ongoing and debilitating unemployment crisis at home, which compels it to pursue a strategy of cultivating an aggressive foreign direct investment strategy vis-à-vis the West as well as emerging markets like China, India and Brazil. In the long run, South Africa will have to distinguish itself as a partner that can make significant economic contributions to the continent. How South Africa manages itself economically, how it goes about realizing its development aspirations and how it manages its democracy will in the final analysis determine its standing in the world.

Also, there is no guarantee that other countries will buy into the idea that South Africa will represent them and speak on their behalf. BRIC members might view it as an African representative, but other African states will not necessarily share this view. A demonstration that it could get Europe and North America to live up to their commitments to Africa even in the aftermath of the global financial meltdown would help it leverage African support. Another question is whether South Africa can turn its presence on the G20 and BRICS into real strategic benefit for Africa. One such opportunity will present itself in November–December 2011 when South Africa hosts the all-important Conference of the Parties (COP 17) climate change summit. It needs to demonstrate that it can take the lead in negotiating a deal that will represent a real compact and keep the feet of the industrialized powers to the fire.

Beyond the Mbeki-Zuma battle

Noting the confusion in South Africa’s new highly diffuse foreign policy orientation, The Economist in its March 26–April 1 issue described Tshwane/Pretoria’s diplomacy as “all over the place.” According to The Economist, South African foreign policy often appears to be pursuing “contradictory sets of values” − defending sovereignty, for example, while also being committed to the responsibility to protect (R2P).

South Africa voted in favour of UN resolution 1973 imposing a “no fly zone” over Libya, only to complain after the vote that it never intended to give NATO a blank cheque for “regime change” and an oil war as its diplomats failed to anticipate the real intentions of Washington, London and Paris. Both the Mbeki and Zuma governments appear not to have learned the advantages of an abstention on the Security Council and stuck out their necks with brave and controversial votes, resulting in major damage to the country’s international reputation and standing.

It may turn out that South Africa’s Libya vote was part of a tradeoff for cooperation in support of a postponement of the indictment and arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. That would help South Africa restore some of its dented credibility in Africa following the controversial Security Council vote. “The result,” asserted The Economist, “is a mishmash of unpredictable responses to apparently similar situations in different countries.” There is a clash between policy as stated on paper and the often impulsive directions it takes in performance.

In short, in practice South Africa is trying to pursue a nice foreign policy amid the diffusion and blurriness, keeping everybody happy and trying to please all states all of the time. It may soon learn that such a nice diplomacy, relying as it does on vacillation and ad hockery and making things up as it goes along, could be costly. Becoming a nice country, following a nice diplomacy, means that many states would come see South Africa as fickle and there to be taken advantage of. As the old warning goes, “If you don’t stand for anything, you are likely to fall for everything.”

Thus, the real problem is that such a fluctuating and wavering posture may soon come to define South Africa’s international identity, and the country could gradually lose its strategic place in world affairs. Yet it could avoid this international hesitancy if it could learn to embrace and show confidence in its own map and get over the Mbeki-Zuma battle, for that belongs to the past.