This year has been one of fluctuating fortunes for South Africa as it seeks to shape Africa’s emerging security architecture and to cement its position as the leading player in continental peace operations. In March, South African troops were withdrawn from the Central African Republic (CAR) after rebel forces overran the capital and ousted the regime of Francois Bozize, which South Africa was defending. The spectacle of South Africa’s humiliating withdrawal, and the deaths of 13 South African troops, jarred with the rather self-congratulatory notions of South African leadership and of South African exceptionalism that had previously informed debates on African security. Nevertheless, in November, South African troops played a key role in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade helped push back and ultimately defeat the M-23 rebels. Coming in the wake of the CAR debacle, this provided an important boost for South Africa and helped restore its tarnished reputation on the continent.
Nevertheless, important questions remain about South Africa’s capacity to lead in these areas. Although the case for South African leadership is a compelling one, those leadership aspirations do not necessarily play well domestically, nor are they always well-received in the wider continent. This makes for a complex, even treacherous, policymaking environment, exacerbated by the South African government’s lack of both a strategic vision and a theory of intervention, as was highlighted by its unhappy experience in the CAR. As a result, South Africa will continue to face challenges in translating its military prowess, economic weight and soft power into enduring influence on the ground.
South Africa’s official position is that instability and insecurity in Africa are detrimental to South African interests in myriad ways, with potential consequences including trade and transport disruption, greater refugee flows and a rise in economic migration. The security of all states on the continent is seen as interconnected, and South Africa cannot flourish as an island of prosperity and stability in a wider sea of conflict and poverty. Thus South Africa must play a role commensurate with its status in facilitating democratization, economic development and conflict management.