Strategic Posture Review: South Africa

Strategic Posture Review: South Africa

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In his state of the nation address to parliament on June 3, 2009, although speaking against a bleak recessionary backdrop, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was at pains to stress policy continuity, referring to the country’s “functional constitutional democratic system” as the basis for celebrating “our culture of continuity and collective responsibility . . . [which makes] us a unique country in many respects.” Zuma further committed South Africa, among other things, to prioritizing Africa, strengthening regional integration in southern Africa, and supporting peace on the continent.

His address was all the more poignant since among the many dignitaries present sat the two former presidents, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. The acrimonious schisms within the African National Congress (ANC) that led to Mbeki’s messy and controversial recall and the formation of a splinter party, the Congress of the People, seemed a distant memory, as Zuma not only invoked the iconic status of President Mandela but also recognized Mbeki’s contributions.

The significance for South Africa’s foreign policy is that the three presidents represent and symbolize three generations of a new Zeitgeist since the country’s democratic transition in 1994. A constitutionally defined democratic system replaced the narrow hegemony of apartheid, thereby universalizing the state, its institutions and civil society. This produced a new imagery stressing democratic institutions, individual liberties, human rights, rationality in public policy, inclusive norms and values, and a common national identity. This new constitutional architecture in many ways framed the imperatives of foreign policy with regard to how South Africa would engage a radically altered world.

The Mandela era was thus one of transformation and heroism, seeking to translate the government’s foreign policy principles into a grand universal and cosmopolitan vision. Nevertheless, the durability of principle and its idealist moorings — with an emphasis on human rights, the promotion of democracy worldwide, a strong belief in international cooperation and international law, and a deep and abiding commitment to the interests of Africa — would all be tested in the crucible of realpolitik and within the limitations of material resources, diplomatic skills, and a contested national identity.

In redressing the conundrums and incongruities of the Mandela era, the Mbeki presidency from 1999-2008 brought a greater pragmatism to bear in institutional management, coordination and focus. At the same time, however, Mbeki promulgated a messianic discourse about the possibilities of an African revival, concentrated on forging greater developing-country synergies while realizing the strategic importance of strong relations with the axis of developed countries, especially the G-8.

The orthodoxies and axioms that guided the first two presidential periods will, it seems, be maintained and affirmed in the era of Zuma, albeit with a more streamlined menu and shorn of many of its ideological and crusading shibboleths. At least this is what the last party conference in December 2007 resolved. The Zuma era thus promises to be adaptive and continuous in terms of the normative charters that guided his predecessors, with the center of gravity less concentrated in the presidency than was the case during the Mbeki years. And, as the Zuma presidency itself was a product of intra-party politics that had sought to address the concerns of the ANC’s key constituency, there is also a stronger pull of domestic concerns.

This review will attempt to highlight the road travelled by South Africa in conducting an ambitious foreign policy since 1994. In the main, it will be informed by the tensions between the ethical multilateralism and the instrumental pragmatism that have anchored debates and discussions about South Africa’s post-apartheid engagement with the region, the continent and the world.

The Institutional and Diplomatic Dimension

In the process of exorcising the memory of almost four decades of apartheid-era international relations, which mainly aimed at insulating the country from opprobrium and sanctions, the newly installed Mandela government had to restructure the institutional architecture of foreign policy in a manner that would allow it to pursue a diplomacy of active internationalism in a changed post-Cold War global order. Thus by 1995, South Africa had established 93 resident missions abroad and, indicative of its continental focus, established full diplomatic relations with 46 African countries. By the end of 1994, there were 136 countries with representation in South Africa. It joined or was readmitted to 16 multilateral organizations, concluded 86 bilateral agreements and acceded to 21 multilateral treaties. President Mandela could therefore justifiably proclaim in 1999, “For a country that not so many years ago was the polecat of the world, South Africa has truly undergone a revolution in its relations with the international community.”

But it was no easy task to change the foreign policy establishment’s institutional culture. The move to achieve representative racial and gender balances in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) was a particular source of tension and acrimony. The resentments caused by racial criteria in the composition of the department were further compounded by the antithetical worldviews of its old- and new-order officials.

Another challenge for post-apartheid foreign relations was the emergence of multiple actors in shaping, determining, and finally implementing policy. This presented the DFA with serious problems of coordination, reflecting the impact and relevance of globalization on international affairs. In this regard, DFA often found itself at odds, if not in diametrical opposition with a range of other actors, including parliament and other government departments such as Trade and Industry, Defense, Intelligence and Finance. This gave rise to accusations of incoherence and opaqueness in policy formulation. The critical voices of academics, research institutes and NGOs formed another site of scrutiny and debate, often resulting in recriminations. Moreover, in those early years, President Mandela’s command and seeming domination of every major foreign policy decision and issue was so complete as to almost overshadow the roles of DFA, the cabinet, and parliament.

In Mandela’s time in office, criticism often focused on the strategic ambiguities and incoherent approaches to policy. There was, for example, a palpable tension between South Africa’s perceived commercial, trade, and political interests, and its role as a moral crusader in promoting global human rights and democracy. However, when Mbeki assumed the presidency in 1999, he brought a stronger sense of purpose and a more all-embracing vision to foreign policy. As Mandela’s deputy, Mbeki had been very influential in shaping the contours of policy. But he was fully aware that he could not fill Mandela’s shoes, and knew he had to carve his own niche in matters of personal style, strategic impulses, and political temperament. Following the country’s second democratic election in 1999, Mbeki concentrated overwhelming political control in the hands of the office of the presidency, placing him and a close circle of trusted colleagues and confidants at the helm of policymaking.

The change in leadership sparked by the ANC’s Polokwane Conference in December 2007, which ultimately led to Mbeki’s ouster, marked a new shift toward establishing greater scrutiny and control over government foreign-policymaking by party stalwarts at the ANC’s headquarters in Luthuli House.

Multilateral Activism

South Africa’s principled belief in multilateralism stems from the conviction that international cooperation and upholding the canons of international law offer the best possibilities for promoting global justice. Through both presidential periods, reform of the multilateral system has been an important impulse, although even more so during the Mbeki era as part of a better-defined strategic calculus.

South Africa’s multilateral credentials were certainly enhanced by a demonstration of its principled commitment and activism as a “norm entrepreneur.” It played leading and important roles in the 1995 indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the 1997 Ottawa Process on the banning of land mines, and the 1998 adoption of the Rome Statute to set up the International Criminal Court. By voluntarily relinquishing its nuclear arms capability, South Africa led the finalization of a text to declare Africa a nuclear weapons-free zone, which resulted in the adoption of the Treaty of Pelindaba. Its disarmament leadership helped to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention. It also played a leading part in the New Agenda Coalition on nuclear disarmament, and participated actively to control the spread of conventional weapons in Africa and globally. For this it was rewarded with election to the standing U.N. Conference on Disarmament.

Concurrently, South Africa began to assume leadership roles in multilateral institutions, although it had a controversial tenure as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council from 2006 to 2008 — especially with regard to contentious human rights issues in Myanmar and Zimbabwe. In the WTO, as a member of both the Africa Group and the G-20, it became a vocal advocate with other like-minded countries in promoting a fairer and more balanced outcome in terms of the Doha Round negotiations.

South Africa has benefited from the global and regional conference circuit to build its reserves of “soft power.” The country was thus able to host major international conferences such the UNAIDS conference in 2000, the U.N. Conference on Racism in 2001, the inaugural summit of the African Union in 2002, and the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. South Africa also hosts and funds the infrastructure of the Pan-African Parliament. Major international sports competitions in rugby and cricket have taken place in South Africa, and it will bring the FIFA soccer World Cup to the African continent for the first time in 2010.

South Africa has played a major role in the Kimberley Process for regulating “conflict diamonds,” which have funded and driven some of Africa’s worst and bloodiest conflicts in countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and the DRC. It hosted a major conference on the subject in 2000, and helped to draft the 2003 certification scheme. As a champion of the interests of Africa and the global South, President Mbeki is credited with putting trade, aid and debt relief squarely on the G-8 agenda. South Africa also started examining the possibilities of progressive South-led tactical alliances for enhancing global governance, and as such, hosted a “Third Way” conference in 2006 with India, Brazil and the Nordic countries. This type of engagement was made possible by the role South Africa played in establishing the India, Brazil, South Africa (IBSA) Dialogue Forum in 2003.

This heady record of activism, however, is not without contradictory tendencies. Essentially, the government’s normative impulses often collide with the instrumental needs of the state and, at times, the ruling party. South Africa’s faith in the ethical foundations of multilateralism must do battle with its own domestic political requirements and national interests, as they are expressed through foreign policy. For example, in March 2009, a storm of mainly civil society protest erupted after South Africa — under considerable pressure from its major trading partner, China — refused to grant the Dalai Lama a visa to participate in a soccer-sponsored peace forum with other Nobel laureates, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk.

Further compounding the changing international perceptions of South Africa was its record as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council between 2007 and 2008. Western expectations that South Africa would take a leading role in criticizing human right violations in Zimbabwe and Myanmar/Burma proved to be misplaced, as Pretoria instead sought to carve out a position in defense of national sovereignty. Stung by a torrent of criticism, the South African government struggled to explain its stance in terms that sounded to NGO ears as excessively technical and devoid of normative concerns.

Trade and Economic Diplomacy

Multilateral trade policy is seen as a very important vehicle not only for spurring the country’s economic growth, but also as a means through which South Africa can help reverse the economic marginalization of Africa through its own investment and development initiatives, and by supporting market access for African goods into key developed-country markets. The normative dimensions of the South African government’s economic policy very much take account of the extent to which African public goods are sensitive to the entropic tendencies in global markets.

In seeking to address the legacies of apartheid-era deprivation and high levels of social and economic underdevelopment, South Africa has deliberately adopted an outward-looking trade and economic policy. One practical element of this posture is to engage in different international and multilateral economic forums on the basis of partnership, cooperation, and mutual benefit. Such an approach also takes into account the structural bases of the South African economy, which cries out for diversification: It is overwhelmingly oriented to services, which account for up to 70 percent of GDP, with a fairly efficient and robust commercial agricultural sector, and a capital intensive “minerals-energy complex.” A relatively strong manufacturing sector contributes about 18.5 percent of GDP, but suffers from supply-side, competitive and entrepreneurial deficiencies.

In terms of its external thrust, South Africa’s engagements are framed by four concentric circles: within the Southern Africa Customs Union (SACU), the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), Africa, and the World Trade Organization.

SACU is the oldest customs union in the world, established in 1910. One of South Africa’s priorities, as part of its post-1994 regional trade agenda, was to renegotiate an arrangement that would benefit the smaller and more fragile economies of Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, and Swaziland (BLNS), in terms of a revised revenue-sharing formula. South Africa thus provides considerable and generous compensation to these countries — in some cases, accounting for 70 percent of budget support — in return for the trade benefits that flow to its economy as a consequence of the customs union.

In SADC, South Africa has played a major role in reforming the region’s trade and economic regimes. By 2000, with investment exceeding $5.4 billion, South Africa was by far the largest investor in the region. While there is enough criticism about the dependent and skewed linkages between South Africa and its 13 SADC neighbors, which is defined by a hub-and-spokes model, South Africa made major asymmetric commitments in the trade protocol that came into effect in 2008, particularly as these relate to the reduction of its industrial tariffs in order to offset regional trade imbalances. Both SACU and SADC are involved in multipronged negotiations with other countries and regional blocs to establish free-trade areas and preferential trading arrangements. In this regard, South Africa has stood up to the divisive effects of the EU’s Economic Partnership Agreements, which are designed to eliminate non-reciprocal EU trade concessions and establish free-trade regimes that are WTO compatible — but which could undermine the growth, development and integration prospects of the region.

It is in Africa, however, that South Africa’s economic conduct is the most controversial. In 2003, exports to Africa (mostly manufactured goods) stood at $5.9 billion, while imports were a mere $1.2 billion — an unacceptably high imbalance of nearly 5-to-1. Often labeled neo-mercantilist, the South African economy’s six key sectors have been reproduced across the African economic landscape: mining, retail, construction and manufacturing, financial services, telecommunications, tourism and leisure. A perception persists that South Africa enjoys an unfair economic advantage, and that its companies behave in a manner that is often arrogant, disrespectful and careless. As a result, the often-unbridled pursuit of profit and market penetration, coupled to an expansionist corporate drive, stands in stark contrast to a foreign policy that is dedicated to promoting development and contributing to peace and resolving conflict.

In the WTO, alongside countries such as India and Brazil, South Africa has played a commendably assertive and active role in advancing the trade and development objectives of the Doha Round. As such, it is committed to promoting a rules-based multilateralism to achieve fairer trade and more-balanced trade governance. This approach characterizes its coalition-building diplomacy in the G-20 to achieve greater trade equity in agriculture, as well as in the NAMA-11 to develop a more pragmatic formula for balancing industrial tariff reductions. For an economy that is marginal in global terms, South Africa has emerged as an important geostrategic player in Africa and globally.

Security Policy, Conflict Mediation, and Arms Sales

Transforming the apartheid regime’s South African Defense Force (SADF) into a military reflecting the interests and needs of a new multi-racial democratic dispensation was a key objective after 1994. The task of integrating the white-dominated SADF with the military wings of the ANC and its other anti-apartheid cohorts were further complicated by the problem of the military and paramilitary forces of the former “bantustans.” Mandela’s own inclusive instinct led him to appoint Gen. George Meiring as commander of the newly formed South African National Defense Force (SANDF), putting him under the new Minister of Defense Joe Modise, a former head of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

South Africa’s security policy continues to be defined by frameworks adopted in the 1990s: the 1996 White Paper on National Defense, the 1998 Defense Review, and the 1999 White Paper on Peace Missions. An attempt was made in 2004 to update the 1998 review, but this has so far not been accomplished. South Africa’s increasing continental peacekeeping responsibilities have been cited in the massive $7.5 billion arms procurement package negotiated over a period of years starting in 1996, which consumed 45.8 percent of the defense budget in the medium term. This procurement initiative has been mired in controversy, corruption intrigues, and mismanagement, including the cancellation of eight new A400M Airbus aircraft meant to provide transport support for peacekeeping. Intense public debate also surrounded the decision to embark on this arms purchasing spree, which included replacement of aging fighter aircraft, new naval vessels and submarines.

Problems related to transforming the defense establishment and integrating the military wings of the liberation movement and former homeland formations continue to plague the effectiveness of the SANDF. Following a review by the British Military Advisory Group in early 1995, the Ministry of Defense engineered a restructuring process that sought to establish a fully integrated conventional military force. Top military officers within Umkhonto we Sizwe were gradually brought into positions of authority, and the majority of senior white officers with combat experience went into retirement, despite efforts to retain them.

Added to this are an over-aged military force with serious problems of HIV/AIDS in its ranks, a reluctance to serve abroad, and racial tensions, all of which have an impact on the country’s crisis-response capability. There are currently 30,500 regular uniformed personnel, augmented by 4,500 civilians and a reserve force of 11,000.

South Africa faces no real conventional threat, other than the scourge of high crime at home and possible terrorist infiltration, especially around the 2010 soccer World Cup. Rather, the country must contend with an ensemble of new security threats — such as environmental problems, water shortages, food insecurity, poverty, illegal migration, money laundering, small arms proliferation, and cross-border criminal networks — most of which originate in its immediate region or elsewhere on the African continent.

One of South Africa’s great “soft power” attributes has been the attraction and power of its post-apartheid transition, given harbingers at the time of an apocalyptic future and fears that the country was destined for a racial Armageddon. This has given South Africa a certain moral authority and prestige to play critical roles in conflict resolution and mediation. The quest for peace, mostly embedded in the African environment and its state system, has provoked ongoing debate about South Africa’s foreign policy disposition: whether it acts as a pivotal state in promoting partnership, consensus and cooperation, or rather has aspirations of becoming hegemonic by aggressively pursuing its own economic and trade interests.

Indeed, South Africa’s diplomacy has been severely tested in the crucible of managing and resolving some of Africa’s more difficult conflicts. It has played an important role in norm-setting, where the Organization of African Unity (OAU) took a rather sclerotic approach in matters of governance. In particular, South Africa helped to shape a new ethical frontier by insisting that the African Union (AU) abide by a different code of conduct. The result was the famed Article 4(h) of the AU’s Peace and Security Council Protocol, which empowers the AU to intervene in African countries where there are war crimes, crimes against humanity, or cases of genocide.

These developments were preceded by a lengthy period during which South Africa came face to face with the difficult and often intractable realities of African politics in crisis situations such as Nigeria, Lesotho and Zimbabwe. Policymakers had to negotiate a steep learning curve to make the country an effective peace advocate, starting with Gen. Sani Abacha’s brutal execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Ogoni cohorts in Nigeria in 1995. A military intervention in Lesotho in 1998 still casts a long shadow that is reminiscent of South Africa’s aggressive destabilization campaign during the apartheid years. The crisis in Zimbabwe, fueled by President Robert Mugabe’s repressive autocracy, directly affected South Africa’s immediate interests and challenged its ambitions to continental leadership.

Major peacekeeping deployments started in 2002 with 650 troops sent to Burundi and 1,270 to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2003. By the end of 2003, there were 2,300 South African peacekeepers variously deployed across Africa. Those numbers had already increased by May 2008, when more than 3,000 troops were involved in AU and U.N. missions in Burundi, the DRC, Côte d’Ivoire, Darfur, Eritrea/Ethiopia, Sudan, and Uganda, making South Africa the 17th largest contributor to U.N. peacekeeping efforts. Its future role in this regard could, however, be compromised by declining defense expenditures, which dropped from an average of 4.4 percent of GDP in the late-1990s to 1.9 percent in 2009.

This overall record of trying to promote peace operations in Africa while attempting to become a virtuous paragon of human rights promotion has been sullied by South Africa’s controversial record in the global arms trade. Part of the ANC’s “ambiguous inheritance” was an arms industry that in 1994 was the 10th largest in the world. By 1997, it was selling weapons to 61 countries, accounting for $1.15 billion in export earnings.* However, notwithstanding preventive benchmarks, arms sales to dubious clients continued, due to loopholes in the government’s export-approval system.

This made sales to the Rwandan Hutu government possible, despite a U.N.-imposed arms embargo. In late-1996, there were reports that South African weapons were being used in Zaire’s civil war. Its rocket launchers were helping to fuel conflict in Congo-Brazzaville. A year later, it was reported that South African-manufactured weapons were being used by both the government of Sudan and its opponents, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. South Africa’s relations with the government of Angola took a turn for the worse following reports that South African arms were being secretly supplied to Jonas Savimbi’s rebel movement, UNITA. In North Africa, human rights abuses in Algeria did not stop a $30 million arms package for its government. In the Middle East, much larger shipments took place, such as an $850 million artillery system to Saudi Arabia. A shrinking global market, rather than human rights considerations, has resulted in greater attention to defense conversion processes.

Development Assistance

Hidden in the interstices of its more high-profile engagements in Africa and on the global stage is South Africa’s emergence as an aid donor. As a matter of fact, its total multilateral and bilateral development assistance surpasses the U.N. target of 0.7 percent of GDP — a remarkable achievement for a middle-income country with its own raft of socio-economic and growth challenges. South Africa’s aid flows to Africa have been impressive. By one estimate, in 2002, they amounted to about $1.3 billion, increasing to about $1.6 billion by 2004. The bulk of these funds came from the Defense Department to underwrite South Africa’s peacekeeping obligations.

Importantly, the statutory African Renaissance and International Cooperation Fund was established in 2000 with $30 million to enhance cooperation with other African countries, to promote democracy and good governance, and to assist with conflict resolution and socio-economic development. The fund is located in the Foreign Affairs Ministry and is supplemented by presidential appropriations of about $18 million annually. Between 2003 and 2007, projects worth $40 million have been funded. Examples include support for the elections in Zimbabwe, the Burundi peace process, post-conflict reconstruction in the DRC and Comoros, humanitarian assistance in Western Sahara, building public administration capacity in southern Sudan, helping the transitional government in Liberia, support for the AU’s Commission on Terrorism in Africa and small-business development through the SADC Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

All these activities have led to an exploration of new institutional arrangements and common principles to better manage a growing development-assistance regime as well as an expanded mandate. Thus when incoming President Jacob Zuma introduced his new cabinet in 2009, he also announced that the Department of Foreign Affairs would be renamed as the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, in keeping with a resolution of the ANC’s policy conference. He further announced in his state of the nation address that a South African Development Partnership Agency (SADPA) would be established, and will be in place in the course of 2010. It will be charged with better harmonization and rationalization of activities in the core areas of promoting socio-economic development and good governance, supporting peace and post-conflict reconstruction and development, and strengthening regional integration in southern Africa.

The Scourge of Xenophobia

South Africa’s noble goals in Africa and further afield as well as the celebratory legacy of its transition have been severely compromised and undermined by its treatment of the many foreigners, migrants, and refugees from Africa who have come to the country in search of a better life and improved economic prospects. Migratory welfare pressures and settlement patterns since 1994 have been compounded by the harsh existential realities still experienced by the majority of black South Africans in the form of high levels of poverty, crime, disease, unemployment, violence, insecurity, and inequality. Most migrants and refugees become hostage to these, but also find themselves caught in a Darwinian cycle of competition with local populations in meeting their basic needs.

The spasm of anti-immigrant violence that erupted across poor townships and informal settlements around mid-2008 bore testimony to and was symptomatic of how deeply intolerant and resentful South Africans were towards foreigners — but with tragic irony in the case of those from African countries where the South African government has concentrated so much diplomatic energy and financial resources.

The ruling ANC was very mindful that it had to extend a hand of friendship to African countries and their citizens in the same manner and spirit that made possible the hospitality, and material and moral support that it enjoyed during its difficult years in exile. It is not surprising that the post-apartheid constitution and relevant legislation embed progressive rights and legal entitlements for refugees in conformity with international standards and requirements. What the government could not and did not anticipate were the successive waves of migrants, beyond asylum seekers and recognized refugees, who began streaming into South Africa’s metropolitan areas from 1994, swelling already congested informal settlements, urban slums, and squalid townships.

The once-stable migrant population of about 500,000 — mainly from Nigeria, Somalia, DR Congo, Angola, Mozambique, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and Cameroon — witnessed an explosion of refugees from Zimbabwe starting in 2000. Droves of Zimbabweans streamed into South Africa as they fled economic hardship and generalized political violence at home. Currently, it is estimated that more than 2 million have settled in South Africa — some legally, but most illegally. Their plight has hardly been relieved by the administrative bungling, irregularities, corruption and incompetence of the Department of Home Affairs, responsible for determining their status and issuing critical documents. Under such circumstances, it became difficult to gain access to basic services, let alone health and welfare, and employment and housing opportunities. This state of utter despair and the sheer imperative of survival led many a migrant down the path of criminal activity, while others have fallen foul of improper detention and deportation, or police harassment, extortion, and brutality.

The government’s response to the dismal circumstances and difficult dilemmas experienced by migrants from Africa was rather desultory and often given to platitudes. At all levels of government — national, provincial and local — this indicated a lack of urgency and seeming indifference in confronting a looming crisis that traversed the spectrum of ethnicity, national origin, citizenship, and legal status. Attacks, beatings, and in some cases murder of migrants were treated as isolated incidents. Evidence, however, showed that the short fuse of xenophobia had reached the powder keg. As the daily economic conditions and hardships of country’s predominantly poor African citizenry were deteriorating, anti-foreigner rhetoric was becoming more strident, inflammatory, and vulgar.

Nevertheless, the government was caught unaware in May 2008, when riots and mob anger targeted at migrants erupted with violent ferocity, killing many, destroying their property, and displacing thousands. Under the current Zuma administration, a more concerted effort is being made to improve the legal, administrative, and social infrastructure for migrants in South Africa, but they remain a vulnerable population. As long as they do, South Africa’s claims to continental leadership will increasingly ring hollow, and doubts about its sincerity and bona fides in Africa will continue.


Foreign policy during the Mandela presidency was driven by a heady mix of idealism and aspirations, but it soon became evident that these were poor anchors in the often-stormy and turbulent waters of international relations and African politics. During this period, South Africa resembled an overburdened and overstretched state trying to come to terms with a precarious world order and a fragile but politically charged African environment. By virtue of its widely extolled transition, South Africa was also expected by the international community to punch above its weight. While the “embedded idealism” was retained in the course of the Mbeki administration, there was a decided turn to pragmatism and moderation in goals, means and ends, along with a shift to more-technocratic management of the foreign policy agenda.

South Africa’s forays into assisting with conflict management and mediation have come up against the many morbid symptoms of Africa’s political terrain, including hunger, poverty, famine, human insecurity, weak state institutions, militarized violence and so on. The picture that emerges reflects the limitations on the scope and efficacy of its action in an environment where the sanctity of sovereignty and regime security are more important than cosmopolitan values such as human rights and democracy.

While having many of the trappings of a hegemonic power, South Africa has thus struggled to translate these attributes into concrete foreign policy gains simply by resorting to its “soft power” assets. Where it has been successful, Mbeki’s role in asserting South Africa’s unambiguous African identity has certainly been a factor. Dealing with the dialectic of identity construction has also boosted South Africa’s legitimacy and credentials along the South-South and North-South axes.

However, the pathologies of xenophobia have critically dented South Africa’s image at home and abroad, and somewhat reversed the gains registered in making South Africa an attractive interlocutor in African affairs. Even its positive overtures to Africa as an emerging donor have to contend with a realpolitik that plays off the limits of South Africa’s capabilities compared to more-established Western donors.

Current debates are not so much about content as they are about shifts in style and emphasis under the new administration of Jacob Zuma. In philosophy and practice, we can expect the pendulum of foreign policy authority to swing back to the renamed Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation, while President Zuma concentrates more of his energies on meeting his election promises and addressing pressing domestic concerns such as poverty, unemployment, crime, better service delivery, and economic growth.

Furthermore, with the growing assertion of Luthuli House over policy, the shape of policy formulation is beginning to reflect more closely the concerns and divisions within the ruling party and its coalition partners. With Cosatu, the country’s largest federated trade union organization and a key partner in the governing alliance, expressing concerns over South African government positions toward Zimbabwe’s government of national unity — and especially toward the opposition Movement for Democratic Change — the stage is set for a more-visible contestation over selected foreign policy issues.

The foreign policy framework established by Mbeki will, nevertheless, continue to serve as a guide for the Zuma presidency. As is already evident, the ambition during the Mbeki years to transform regional and international institutions has been pared down to reflect the current state of South Africa in the world: a middle power with serious problems on the home front.

* Editor’s note: The original version of this article placed the value of South Africa’s 1997 arms sales at $158 million. WPR regrets the error.

Dr. Chris Alden is Reader in International Relations at the London School of Economics.

Dr. Garth le Pere is senior partner at DAJO Associates in Johannesburg and former executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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