The Hegemon That Wasn't: South Africa's Foreign Policy towards Zimbabwe

By Schoeman, Maxi; Alden, Chris | Strategic Review for Southern Africa, May 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Hegemon That Wasn't: South Africa's Foreign Policy towards Zimbabwe

Schoeman, Maxi, Alden, Chris, Strategic Review for Southern Africa


South Africa's policy of quiet diplomacy in the face of the economic and political crises of Zimbabwe has been criticised severely by both domestic and international observers who cite South Africa's "obvious hegemony" as sufficient to take a tough stance against the Mugabe regime. This article explores the extent to which such assumptions about foreign policy behaviour provide an explanation for South Africa's policy and sheds some light on the problems faced by South Africa in trying to be both an "African country" and a good international citizen. It concludes that "obvious hegemony" (being a much more powerful country than Zimbabwe in terms of tangible indices such as military strength and economic power) does not mean "genuine" hegemony and that unless the dominant country's values are acceptable, it cannot exert its influence on weaker neighbours by means of so-called soft power.

   We are what we are by how we interact rather than being
   what we are regardless of how we interact. (1)


South Africa's stance towards Zimbabwe and its foreign policy behaviour regarding the various crises and apparent deterioration of what is broadly the Zimbabwean "state" (including the implosion of the Zimbabwean economy, the political repression of the opposition, the undermining of the rule of law, the farm invasions and lack of a concerted and coherent land redistribution policy) in recent years (2) have left many observers and analysts puzzled. The Mbeki government's insistence on a policy of quiet diplomacy and constructive engagement, its reluctant criticism of the Mugabe regime and its declaration that the presidential election of March 2002 was free and fair have been criticised severely, and in some quarters amazement at the South African policy choice has been evident.

The frustration with and disappointment in South Africa's policy behaviour can be traced to a number of distinct assumptions about foreign policy behaviour. First, the country's economic hegemony in the southern African region and the underlying assumptions of hegemonic theories lead many analysts to believe that South Africa could have done "much more" to address the Zimbabwean crisis. In short, South Africa's economic strength should, at the very least, have been used as an instrument to curb Mugabe's excesses and to ensure free and fair elections. Second, South Africa's identity as a country with a firm commitment to democracy and human rights, based largely on what Mills refers to as the fact that "[a]partheid has given the democratic South Africa a morally prominent position in international relations", (3) raised expectations of a "moral" or "principled" vocal and public stance from the perspective of a normative commitment to liberal values in foreign policy. Such a commitment would see a much more outspoken denouncement of Zimbabwe, backed up by visible sanctions. Added to these assumptions, were the principles of the newly announced New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) initiative--a recovery programme that sets much store by good governance on the part of African leaders. Zimbabwe has been viewed as a first test for the sincerity and commitment of Africa to behave responsibly and to practice the ideals set forth in the document. South Africa's leading role in the development of the programme and its efforts to bring the highly developed countries on board, ipso facto made its behaviour and, in the case of Zimbabwe, its policy towards its neighbour, an early test for the chances of NEPAD to induce change in Africa.

In its turn, Pretoria asserted that tough action would be inappropriate--Zimbabwe was a sovereign state and no other country had the right to interfere in its domestic affairs. That there were problems in Zimbabwe were not denied, but the way South Africa preferred to engage with Zimbabwe, was on the basis of quiet diplomacy and constructive engagement.

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The Hegemon That Wasn't: South Africa's Foreign Policy towards Zimbabwe


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