Despite the turbulence in South Africa’s domestic politics during the troubled presidency of Jacob Zuma, South Africa has continued to be viewed as the African continent’s natural leader, its principal conflict manager and its chief interlocutor with major external powers and international organizations. However, within the space of a week in late March and early April 2014, two separate yet related developments combined to bring this conventional wisdom into serious question for the first time.
The first was on March 25, when the 2014 South African Defense Review—details of which were leaked to Reuters—highlighted a “critical state of decline” in the operational capabilities of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). The second came on April 6, when Nigeria officially overtook South Africa as the continent’s largest economy after a revised estimate showed its 2013 GDP almost doubling to $510 billion—60 percent larger than South Africa’s 2013 GDP. Although Nigeria’s supplanting of South Africa as Africa’s largest economy has been the more eye-catching development, it is the steady erosion of South Africa’s military capacity that poses the greater long-term threat to its position as Africa’s hegemonic power.
South Africa’s economy retains many advantages relative to Nigeria’s, suggesting that South Africa can remain Africa’s most sophisticated, if not technically its largest, economy. In addition to Nigeria’s overreliance on the oil sector and its corruption level, which is among the worst in the world, Nigeria also lacks South Africa’s democratic institutions and political stability. At the same time, Nigerian per capita GDP is still less than half that of South Africa and levels of absolute poverty—those living on $1 dollar per day—are significantly higher in Nigeria, at 60 percent of the population.