Transformation, Continuity and Diffusion: South Africa's Foreign Policy under Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma

By Landsberg, Chris | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Summer-Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Transformation, Continuity and Diffusion: South Africa's Foreign Policy under Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma


Landsberg, Chris, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) went through a fractious period from about 2005 to 2009, which ultimately resulted in the replacement of Thabo Mbeki by Jacob Zuma as head of state. There was a widely held assumption that under Zuma's reign there would be a change in South Africa's foreign policy, not only in style but in substance as well. But this assumption has not held true. The fight between Zuma and Mbeki within the ANC was a fight largely about style and personality, not one over policy, and since Zuma's emergence as president there has, at least on paper, been more continuity than change in South Africa's foreign policy. Such changes as have occurred have been changes in style and refinements here and there, while as regards stated policy, continuity has prevailed. In practice, however, a new ambiguous trend has emerged in a rather diffuse and self-doubting diplomacy. In foreign policy terms, President Zuma has not been the promised "breath of fresh air."

Thabo Mbeki was by all accounts a foreign policy president. During his reign as president, South Africa not only punched above its proverbial weight but had a strategic presence in the world and was taken seriously by most states, from North and South alike. While Nelson Mandela would be remembered for introducing the idea of reconciliation at home and abroad and a difficult to implement foreign policy that was principled and driven by human rights, Thabo Mbeki would be remembered more for following a pragmatic foreign policy orientation, introducing the ideas of socioeconomic transformation at home and in international relations and elevating the salience of development and economic factors in foreign policy.

Transformation was an ideology with political, social, economic and cultural dimensions, with goals of a nonracial society, an end to sexism in the country, a caring society sensitive to the needs of the most vulnerable, respect for the country's cultural and linguistic diversity, poverty eradication and transformation into a modern, dynamic and competitive economy. Foreign policy transformation was a logical extension of domestic transformation policies, and in practical terms it set out to use statecraft to promote peace, democratization, development and nation-building.

Africa first

Mbeki's foreign policy project has left a number of significant legacies. First, there was an emphasis on the African Renaissance: restoring African pride, dignity and strategic positioning. Mbeki defined the African Renaissance as the need for Africans to determine who they are, what they stand for, what their visions and hopes are, how they do things, what programs they adopt, and whom they relate to and how. He often stressed that, along with a major focus on trying to defeat global poverty, underdevelopment and inequality, it was important to empower blacks at home and in the South globally to become confident in challenging their positions of underdevelopment and subjugation in the world.

Whereas white apartheid governments had seen South Africa as an extension of Europe, Mbeki set out to assert the country's position in Africa, with Africa and as part of Africa, and with other forces in Africa favouring peace, democracy and reconstruction and development of the continent. There were calls for South Africa to act as some sort of African hegemon--the one that would lay down the laws to others through imposition and domination. Mbeki shunned such ideas in favour of the notion of South Africa as equal partner on the continent and globally.

Peace diplomacy occupied a special place in Mbeki's foreign policy, and his preferred method was to play the role of peacemaker and peacekeeper throughout Africa by acting through multilateral institutions such as the Southern Africa Development Community, the African Union and the UN Security Council. Instead of emphasizing ego-driven interstate rivalries and balance of power considerations, South Africa generally used quiet diplomacy as a nonconfrontational manner of trying to nudge African elites in the direction of peace and promoting governments of national unity as a way to end conflicts. …

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