Human Rights and the Origin Myths of Post-Apartheid South African Foreign Policy

By Braga, Pablo de Rezende Saturnino | Strategic Review for Southern Africa, November 2017 | Go to article overview

Human Rights and the Origin Myths of Post-Apartheid South African Foreign Policy


Braga, Pablo de Rezende Saturnino, Strategic Review for Southern Africa


1. The narrative of South Africa's foreign policy and its origin myths (1))

The historical specificity of the democratic transition in South Africa created an atmosphere of great optimism in the country and in the world, but the 'South African miracle' of a peaceful transition in a polarised and violent political environment forged a scenario which proved much more complex to achieve in reality. The globally recognised moral leadership of Mandela catalysed the almost naive international perception that South Africa would be the new bastion for the promotion of human rights. However, the legacy of colonial exploitation and racial segregation could not be easily suppressed by an ambitious democratic project. Why was South Africa expected to follow a liberal human rights agenda when defining its alliances in the international arena and voting in multilateral organisations? This article argues that this expectation was (and in a way continues to be) the result of a misreading of the historical peculiarity of the South African transition, a perception fostered largely by the worldwide popularity of the campaign against apartheid, a symbol of activism that has spread particularly in the civil societies of liberal democracies. These are the origin myths of South African foreign policy.

The role of the country as a human rights champion was overestimated considering its material limitations and also the geopolitical role of South Africa in the region and in the world. The foundation myths misstate the real historical legacy of the struggle against apartheid and the peaceful transition of South Africa. My proposal is to present a reinterpretation of the legacy of the democratic transition in the country's foreign policy.

The legacy of South Africa's transition is latent mainly in the country's role as a mediator and peacekeeper, especially in African crises. To illustrate this, the international acclamation of Nelson Mandela emphasises his role as a great human rights defender, while his ability to negotiate a democratic transition with the Afrikaner regime remains in the background. The active role of South Africa as a mediator and peacekeeper in several African crises, for instance in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, the Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe, is associated with the historical example of the negotiated transition and also by the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). These arguments will be presented in more detail, starting with a broad analysis of the foreign policy of the 'new South Africa'.

2. The human rights foreign policy of the 'new South Africa'

The article published by Nelson Mandela in Foreign Affairs in 1993 clarifies exactly the basis for the expectations created about South Africa's foreign policy. According to the article, the centrality of human rights in international relations would be one of the pillars of the post-apartheid foreign policy. The article points out that:

South Africa's future foreign relations will be based on our belief
that human rights should be the core concern of international
relations, and we are ready to play a role in fostering peace and
prosperity in the world we share with the community of nations (Mandela
1993: 97).

According to Borer and Mills (2011: 78): "the world expected South Africa to make human rights a priority in foreign policy precisely because South Africa told the world that it would". However, the famous article did not distinguish which principles would guide the country's foreign policy, as Chris Landsberg (2015) and Peter Vale (2015) pointed out in interviews. Vale, who defends Mandela's authorship of the article, stresses that human rights were part of the argument, but not the centrepiece of the article. Then, how do the human rights principles interact with the practice of South African foreign policy? We must analyse the country's foreign policy after the democratic transition to understand this relationship. …

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