Can South Africa Return to the Global Stage?

In January, South Africa will fill a seat on the UN Security Council for the first time since the presidency of Jacob Zuma, whose support for “state capture” enabled cronies to exercise outsized influence over public entities and coffers, denting South Africa’s image abroad while decimating the economy at home.

The timing for joining the UN’s most influential body could hardly be better: UN Security Council membership can accelerate efforts by President Cyril Ramaphosa—who ousted Zuma earlier this year after becoming head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC)—to resuscitate South Africa’s global brand and return the country to its previous position, established by former president Nelson Mandela, as a defender of democratic governance and human rights. Ramaphosa, who has a strong grounding in foreign policy, has an opportunity to be a leader with influence beyond South Africa and a counterweight to growing global authoritarianism.

Mandela’s Legacy, Zuma’s Retreat

During Mandela’s presidency (1994-1999), South Africa had the world’s attention and sought to advance a foreign policy that emphasized human rights. Mandela premised South Africa’s engagement with the world “on the belief in the compatibility of human rights, democracy, solidarity politics and [South Africa’s] own development needs.” He made concessions to realpolitik though, for example, abandoning the “two Chinas” policy; the ANC had close ties to Taiwan during the final years of apartheid but abandoned Taipei to benefit from economic relations with Beijing.

Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, largely continued this approach, while placing greater emphasis on pan-African solidarity and African economic integration, under the brand of an “African Renaissance.”

Zuma undermined much of this, and under his leadership, South Africa’s global standing declined rapidly. By the end of his near-decade in power (2009-2018), Zuma was not taken seriously by other leading heads of state, especially in the West, and was regarded with suspicion because of his strong personal relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin, emphasis on the BRICS construct (the coalition of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) at the expense of broader engagement, and close relations with China. At the G20 meetings in Hamburg in 2017, while all other heads of state conducted numerous bilateral meetings, Zuma had just one, with the Chinese president.

Over time Zuma’s administration turned increasingly inwards, anxious to avoid international scrutiny and wary of co-operation with perceived Western interests and governments, not least because Zuma periodically blamed the West and its intelligence agencies for the challenges faced by his government.

On issues of democratic governance and human rights, South Africa under Zuma retreated from its earlier strong positions. At the UN General Assembly and in the UN Human Rights Council, South Africa’s voting record was disappointing, to say the least, its diplomats consistently voting against or abstaining on resolutions seeking to defend human rights in Syria, Iran, North Korea and elsewhere. After refusing to arrest Sudanese president Omer al-Bashir when he traveled to South Africa in 2015, despite a warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC), South Africa sought to leave the ICC. As part of its effort to curry favor with China, South Africa repeatedly refused to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama.

Change Afoot?

Ramaphosa’s ascension to the presidency in February—defeating Zuma’s preferred successor, his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma—was greeted with a mix of relief and enthusiasm. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau went out of his way to extend an invitation to Ramaphosa to attend the G7 meeting hosted by Canada in June, and other world leaders have sought to engage Ramaphosa after shunning Zuma.

Ramaphosa comes to the job with significant experience in international relations. He has been involved in major conflict negotiations, including in South Sudan and Sri Lanka. It was to Ramaphosa that Tony Blair turned in the late 1990s to help secure the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland; Ramaphosa played a significant role in helping to shift the hardline negotiating positions of Sinn Fein and other key parties. Like his ANC predecessors, Ramaphosa has strong liberation credentials and was a central player in negotiations to end apartheid and chaired the process that delivered South Africa’s widely-admired final constitution. Ramaphosa’s business career, through which he became enormously wealthy, prepares him for the massive challenge of revitalizing South Africa’s sluggish economy, though his business dealings are also the source of some controversy.

Ramaphosa’s fundamental instincts around rights, governance, and multilateralism are essentially progressive, but his inherent pragmatism and the urgency of addressing South Africa’s torpid economy and mobilizing investment mean his foreign policy cannot be taken for granted. The slender nature of his victory within the ANC last December—52 percent-48 percent, with the National Executive Committee of the ANC, almost equally divided and many Zuma loyalists remaining in powerful positions—constrains his reform agenda, though throughout 2018 he has consolidated power in government and within the ANC.

With elections in May of 2019, all policy has to serve Ramaphosa’s primary domestic policy goals centered on job-creating economic growth. Foreign policy could be neglected, but it could equally serve as a means to advance the new government’s desire to become a reputable, member of the international community, in service of the strategic objective of increased foreign investment. (Early in his presidency, Ramaphosa set a target of $100 billion in new investment.) Ramaphosa likely recognizes that the decline of South Africa’s international reputation undermines prospects for economic growth, including prospects for foreign direct investment, and seeks a return to the days when South Africa punched above its weight in multilateral forums.

Much of the task of restoring South Africa’s international reputation falls to Lindiwe Sisulu, whom Ramaphosa appointed as minister of international relations and cooperation. She has significant political influence as a former minister of defense and minister of intelligence; ally of the president; and daughter of Walter Sisulu, one of the most revered anti-apartheid leaders. She has been clear in her commitment to restoring South Africa’s image and commitment to defending human rights. In a high-profile speech in May, Sisulu said, “We want South Africa to be once again a moral compass and a voice of reason in a world increasingly overcome with selfish, narrow interests. We want to be the hope for all in times of despair.” She affirmed that “the fundamentals of our foreign policy are based on human rights, peace, equality, freedom from oppression and racism, freedom from poverty.”

To support her efforts, Sisulu has appointed a review panel of experienced foreign policy hands charged with learning from South African foreign policy since 1994 and advising her on reforms. Part of their task is to look at how to revitalize the beleaguered Department of International Relations and Cooperation—South Africa’s foreign ministry—which suffered under Zuma as career diplomats were often sidelined in favor of politically-connected appointees, many of them ill-suited to their positions.

There are signs that policy is changing. South Africa recently announced that it is reversing its position on an upcoming vote in the UN General Assembly to condemn human rights abuses in Myanmar and will now support the resolution. Sisulu also announced changes that will lead to greater scrutiny of all votes in international fora, with her approving each vote.

Backlash and Challenges Ahead

Ramaphosa and Sisulu will face resistance to their reform efforts, including from within the ANC. The party platform currently includes little explicit reference to traditional human rights, features language strongly supportive of the BRICS configuration, and affirms the ANC’s previous resolution to withdraw from the ICC. Some Zuma loyalists remain in powerful positions, and for some in the ANC and the broader policy community, the language of human rights continues to be associated with a “Western agenda” and suggestions of “regime change.” There is evidence of a disconnect between Ramaphosa and Sisulu’s new rhetoric and the reality of policy execution. For example, in July, South Africa joined China and Russia in voting against a proposal at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to strengthen monitoring mechanisms; and in the September session of the UN Human Rights Council, South Africa abstained on a resolution to extend an international investigation into human rights violations in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels.

The “economic diplomacy” priorities of the Ramaphosa presidency may come into sharp conflict with a more rights-orientated approach. Already, in the early months of the new Ramaphosa administration there was debate within government and the ANC leadership about carrying out the ANC’s resolution to close South Africa’s embassy in Israel. Opponents argued that such a move could undermine possible foreign investment.

Another example of the potential conflict arose with Ramaphosa’s July trip to Saudi Arabia and the announcement that his visit had secured a pledge of $10 billion in Saudi investments. The South African delegation traveled bearing a briefing note concerning the Saudi role in the conflict in Yemen, in which millions have suffered. But it is unlikely that Ramaphosa would have wanted to complicate his economic pitch. The brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and global backlash raise additional questions about South Africa’s closer engagement with the kingdom, as does a possible partnership between the countries’ two state-owned arms manufacturers—Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) and South Africa’s Denel SOC Ltd.—whereby SAMI would potentially invest up to $1 billion in Denel.

Within Africa, Ramaphosa is tested by two issues that won’t wait until elections next year. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), President Joseph Kabila has evaded term limits, prolonged his time in office and slow-rolled election preparations. Zuma protected Kabila and was rumored to have significant personal investments in the DRC. Elections are now scheduled for December 23, in part because of increasing pressure on Kabila from South Africa, Angola, and the West. But elections are likely to be deeply flawed, and Kabila may yet seek to remain in office. If he does, Ramaphosa may be one of the few figures with the leverage and stature to influence his calculations. If the elections are blatantly rigged in favor of Kabila’s hand-picked successor, South Africa’s reaction will help set the tone for the global response.

In Zimbabwe, President Emerson Mnangagwa, who ousted Robert Mugabe in a coup last year, won deeply flawed elections in August, followed by violence that left at least six people dead. (A commission investigating that violence is led by former interim South African President Kgalema Motlanthe.) Zimbabwe’s economy is once again in crisis, forcing many Zimbabweans to emigrate to and seek economic opportunity in South Africa. If conditions worsen, Ramaphosa may be forced to intervene politically, as Mbeki did previously, in the interests of regional stability. Both the DRC and Zimbabwe are members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the regional organization in which South Africa is by far the most powerful voice. Whether bilaterally or through SADC, Ramaphosa will be compelled to focus on both troubled countries.

The Case for Global Engagement

Will South Africa be prepared to offer global leadership? The primary argument in favor should be that South Africa has a responsibility to help progressive forces and institutions overcome attacks from those who oppose a rules-based international order and multilateralism. This provides an opportunity to re-brand South Africa while lending support to the defense of multilateralism, a principle that has traditionally been close to the ANC’s heart. As South Africa prepares to join the UN Security Council, Ramaphosa’s ANC supporters and civil society should push for South Africa to assert itself in defense of multilateralism, fundamental rights, and democratic governance. His supporters should press for progressive positions, in alliance with like-minded countries, and be persistent in asserting that such positioning is consistent with South Africa’s wider interests, including its need to attract investment in job-creating parts of the economy. The rotation on the UN Security Council will ensure that foreign policy remains high on Pretoria’s political agenda and presents an opportunity for the country—at least while Ramaphosa remains in power—to begin rebuilding its lost reputation as a principled member of the global community.

Jon Temin is the director of the Africa program at Freedom House and a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He was previously a member of the Secretary of State’s policy planning staff. Richard Calland is associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town, a founding partner of the Paternoster Group: African Political Insight, and a fellow of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Richard Calland

Jon Temin