South Africa: Playing an African part on the world stage

South Africa: Playing an African part on the world stage

by / Comments Off / 55 View / 15th August 2010

South Africa has now shown up to the world party. In its latest incarnation as football World Cup host last month, the country proved itself gracious, displaying hospitality to the world, entertaining its guests and spreading the message to international audiences that South Africa is a promising nation.

Yet the country’s relationship with the rest of Africa is complicated. Seen as a leader by many and a rival by others, the influence of Africa’s biggest economy features inevitably in the life of the continent. There is another organisational body, however, which takes as its raison d’être remaining closely involved with the life and affairs of the continent. This, of course is the African Union (AU), an organisation which sees the unity of the continent as its guiding principle. The question that arises in this context, then, is what is the relationship between South Africa and the African Union? [protected]

As expected, the answer is that their relationship is complex. Trying to gauge South Africa’s foreign policy position from the ruling ANC’s website, brief mentions of cooperation with the AU and the Southern African Development Committee (SADC), a regional trading body do suggest an underlying intent. However, it is difficult to derive too much from this. What is perhaps more telling is that this particular information has not been updated since ‘96. While this might seem an arbitrary observation, or just a misdirected criticism of the ANC, it is exactly this kind of historical information that may be the key to unravelling the relationship in question.

The ANC has been the force in South African politics since the end of apartheid, and arguably looks set to continue in this role for the foreseeable future. So, if they haven’t updated their foreign policy position since just after the end of apartheid, it can be argued that this is still a position which is in flux. Thus, it seems justified to first of all try and work out what this position might be, and then perhaps to make suggestions as to how to move forward with it.

A survey of the AU’s history is revealing. First founded as the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) in ‘63, having been inspired by Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah’s powerful message and essay, ‘Africa must unite’, the organisation had the goal of promoting unity between African states. At the time, of course, the cold war was the main force in international politics. Yet the OAU maintained a neutral stance with regard to world politics, preferring to concentrate its efforts within Africa so as not to be drawn into this partisan struggle. Colonialism was the primary threat to African countries and so the organisation concerned itself with fighting for the promotion of freedom and self-rule.

In the years leading up to the demise of apartheid in South Africa, the OAU worked behind the scenes to attain their goal of African government for African people. During this time, however, the OAU vision did not remain static. Differences of opinion as to how to achieve African unity varied between those promoting a gradual approach and those calling for a ‘maximal’ approach. The gradualists thought that a slower method, promoting increased regional cooperation at first, would lead to greater unity of purpose at a continental level. The maximalists held that immediate unification of the continent into a United States of Africa, with one president and a number of states rather than nations, was the most effective means of progress.

While these events were unfolding, South Africa was focussed on making its own history. The fight against apartheid resulted in the nation’s first democratically elected government under the ANC. The ANC, as an African nationalist party, was and still is motivated by the idea of sovereignty. Having been ruled for many years by undemocratic and foreign forces, this sentiment could only be expected to intensify – South Africa today is a republic.

At present, the OAU is no more, and has become the AU. In ‘02 the OAU’s struggle against colonialism, and its former ideals of solidarity, which included non-interference in the affairs of African states, were superseded by new ideals of cooperation and non-indifference. In 1975, the chairmanship of the OAU by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin undermined the principle of non-interference, and the spread of democracy across the globe meant that intervention by democratic powers in undemocratic regions became widespread.

South Africa celebrated coming out to the world in a new form under Nelson Mandela after ‘94. Under Thabo Mbeki, it flirted with the idea of an African Renaissance, and Mbeki tried to take a leading role in the African Union. However, his perceived lack of the common touch, and arguably South Africa’s internal problems, meant that this renaissance failed to materialise. Under Jacob Zuma, and in light of present events; South Africa is now perhaps firmly in the international spotlight. International relations with the global south are at a high, the country’s reputation after the World Cup is positive. Recently U.S. President Obama singled out President Zuma and South Africa for the country’s commitment to global peace by disarming its nuclear weapons voluntarily (NAA issue 13).

Another choice might be proposed for South Africa: that of taking a greater involvement in the African Union. The position of gradualism does not have to be compromised; in fact a similar version involving increasing regional cooperation has worked for Europe. The modern AU is feeling pressure from the maximalists, under the leadership of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, to commit to an agenda for a United States of Africa. South Africa is playing a meek role in these affairs and is effectively a bystander to proceedings. In keeping with the spirit of the AU, and global democracy, South Africa could be playing its part in the organisation by exerting pressure for democratic principles, good government and cooperation on the continent. Its position is likely to find many supporters.

Currently, South Africa’s foreign policy risks being trapped by history and indecisiveness. On the ground, other Africans, and indeed the majority of South Africans, are shocked by reports of xenophobia against immigrants from other African countries. This is a kind of history South Africa knows only too well, and does not want to be trapped by. By taking a stand on democracy, and standing with other Africans, the country can demonstrate the kind of principles on which democratic leadership should be founded – the very principles which will help to cement Africa’s, and South Africa’s positions, as progressive players on a world stage. Africa must unite, but from the ground up. [/protected]