Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

A House Built upon Sand: South African 'Imperialism' in a Region without Regionalism

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

A House Built upon Sand: South African 'Imperialism' in a Region without Regionalism

Article excerpt


A great deal of ink has been spilled on how South Africa is 'taking over' southern Africa and is the de facto regional leader, if not subimperialist. Yet analysis thus far has confused economic preponderance with political power--and the ability to project it into a region such as the sub-continent. The fact remains that the expansion of South African capital notwithstanding, the values and type of regionalism that Pretoria (at least rhetorically) wishes to promote in southern Africa jars considerably with the modalities of governance in the majority of states in the region. South Africa's ability to thus become a political 'leader' of southern Africa is less significant than many scholars think.


In the global South it is most likely that it is the dominant state within a particular region that tends to drive the regionalist project. We need not rehearse the well-known fact that South Africa is by far the dominant state in southern Africa, something remarked upon early on in the post-transition period (Ahwireng-Obeng and McGowan, 1998). This dominance is historical and specific attempts to lessen such structural imbalance by the peripheral states in the region--in the form of the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference (SADCC)--failed, though it did perhaps foster a sense of regionalism that has outlasted apartheid.

In the post-apartheid era, Pretoria's elites have been particularly occupied with promoting a rejuvenation of the region (institutionalised now as the Southern African Development Community--SADC), whilst at the same time pressing for an economic and political transformation. Although initially reluctant to be seen as the dominating hegemon, anti-interventionist reluctance has been largely replaced by a more activist engagement, and South Africa has taken on the characteristics of a regional driver of an aspiring emerging market. In doing so, the need for 'good governance' and 'democracy' alongside the discourse of 'growth' and (to a lesser extent) development--all linked to the need to develop closer regional cooperation, leading to greater integration--is frequently invoked. This is underpinned by an explicit connection between governance and growth, all within the context and framework of the world economy.

This broad project has consistently been cast by South Africa's government as an attempt to integrate the region closer together and increase southern Africa's drawing power vis-a-vis international capital. In short, South Africa's regional efforts 'may be regarded as a strategy to lure investment and trade opportunities, suggesting as it does that Africa is a worthwhile economic prospect' (Bulger, no date). This courting of transnational capital, Thabo Mbeki asserted, meant that 'South Africa ha[d] the potential in terms of its economy, in terms of its politics, and so on, to strike out on this new African path [the "African Renaissance"]'--leading by example and exhortation as it were (quoted in Sunday Independent (Johannesburg), July 13, 1997).

Since South Africa's re-engagement with the rest of the region, however, Pretoria has been frequently accused of sub-imperialism and arrogance. Questions have also been asked about whether a country such as South Africa, with its brutal and racist past, can be realistically accepted as a regional leader. For instance, in one word, claiming to move 'beyond' realist discussions of interacting states, one author claimed that despite Pretoria's 'manipulation' of state structures and elites in the region for its own ends, apartheid drew people together, reinforcing integration. Claiming that transnational solidarity and a 'single regional economy' eliminated distinctions between national and international politics, the same writer asked whether South African 'domination' could be overcome through 'cosmopolitan' political arrangements (Vale, 2003). Not only did this confuse Pretoria's economic supremacy with political dominion but it also completely neglected the reality of politics within the region which has consistently negated any willy-nilly projection of South African leadership and 'values' throughout southern Africa. …

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