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South African Solutions for African Problems: A New Dawn for Peace and Security?
December 19, 2013, 6:54 pm

As the end of the year is closing in, it is worth looking back, analyzing and revisiting achievements, challenges and controversies. For South Africa’s foreign policy, the year 2013 is full of major successes breaking new grounds but there is definite need for a sober reassessment.

South Africa is now the clear leader in matters of peace and security in Africa, says Brosig [AP]

South Africa is now the clear leader in matters of peace and security in Africa, says Brosig [AP]

No doubt South Africa was making many international headlines in 2013. It was holding the first BRICS summit on the African continent in Durban, for the first time the world economic forum was convening in Africa, Cape Town, the OAU (Organization of African Unity) was celebrating its 50th birthday under a South Africa Commission chair and the rainbow nation also bid adieu to global icon Nelson Mandela, whose funeral was attended by more than 100 heads of state. Undoubtedly South Africa is currently the most influential country in Africa.

This is astonishing, considering on the one hand, the country has never fully recovered from the 2008 global financial crisis. In contrast to many other sub-Saharan countries the South African economy is growing sluggishly not being able to create enough jobs for the many unemployed. Instead mass-strikes are reported frequently even as memories of the Marikana tragedy of 2012 remain fresh in which dozens of workers were killed by security forces.

Still South Africa has witnessed a remarkable upward trend in foreign policy and security matters. Surely this also results from the fairly stable neighbourhood in Southern Africa and the demise of some of the traditional leaders in major African countries. Both Nigeria and Egypt among Africa’s most populous and powerful countries are embroiled in domestic infighting which is considerably weakening their foreign policy influence.

The difference between South Africa and Nigeria could not be bigger. While Nigeria is expected to take over leadership in terms of GDP as Africa’s first economy, its foreign policy ambit is in decline. It recently had to withdraw some of its peacekeepers from the UN mission in Mali in order to fight the Islamist insurgency at home. The opposite can be observed for South Africa. Despite the disappointing economic outlook and growing dissatisfaction with poor government delivery, the country has significantly extended its foreign policy range and is now the clear leader in matters of peace and security in Africa.

While in previous years South Africa has been a rather cautious international player known for its mediation approach which is based on the national experience of reconciliation aimed at solving conflicts by sponsoring numerous peace agreements for example in Burundi the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or Sudan. However, the emphasis on preventive diplomacy at times also received international criticism and at some occasions degraded South Africa to a role as a by-stander questioning the practicality of its narrow application. Examples are: – the quiet diplomacy approach towards Zimbabwe or the failed attempts to promote power-sharing agreements and seeking a political solution in the cases of Ivory Coast and Libya in 2011. In the latter two cases South African mediation efforts had been outperformed by the UN, NATO and France. Especially France has returned to Africa and seems to acquire its well-known role as gendarme in Francophone Africa again.

File photo of an African Union (AMISOM) tank on August 17, 2011 in Mogadishu, Somalia [Getty Images]

File photo of an African Union (AMISOM) tank on August 17, 2011 in Mogadishu, Somalia [Getty Images]

These competitive pressures have certainly impacted on Pretoria fostering the adoption of a more assertive foreign policy on the continent. The vigorous campaign for the new AU Commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in 2012 who had to go through two election rounds was signaling that South Africa was willing it put its full political weight behind the African Union’s security architecture.

The crumbling of the political system in Mali in early 2013 once more openly demonstrated the inability of African-led peacekeeping missions (ECOWAS and AU) to intervene early enough to prevent a further destabilisation of the country and the region. In the end, it was France, which in a last minute effort, intervened militarily and succeeded in pushing back the Islamist militias and the Tuareg rebellion.

The Malian experience provided the final impetus for South Africa to promote the idea of an African intervention force. And with it the acceptance that in certain situations the use of force for peace is an acceptable means. This new approach was summarized by foreign minister Maite Mashabane when saying that “So yes, preventative diplomacy, intervening when there are situations of strife, when we are called upon to do that, we will always be there, we will never say no.” Henceforth President Zuma pushed for the establishment of an African intervention force named African Capacity for the Immediate Response to Crisis (ACIRC) which was in principle accepted by the AU Assembly. So far only a few African states have pledged troops under this scheme and it remains to be seen how it can be integrated into the existing security structures of the AU, especially the African Standby Forces.

However, even without a rapidly deployable African intervention force operational at the moment, South Africa has become more assertive militarily. Within the UN mission in the DRC, an intervention brigade staffed mainly with South African troops was set up with a mandate to neutralize rebel forces. Together with the DRC national army, this offensive military strategy seemed to have paid off, as in late 2013 the notorious M23 had to surrender.

Much more controversial has been South Africa’s engagement in the Central African Republic (CAR). South Africa sent a military training mission to the CAR in order to support the CAR’s national army and president Bozize. The South African involvement turned into a disaster when the Seleka rebels entered Bangui and engaged the South African troops in a fierce battle which led to the death of 13 South African soldiers. The death of these soldiers caught the South African public by surprise and forced Zuma to bring the troops back home rather hastily.

There is no doubt that the year 2013 has seen a fundamental shift in South African foreign and security policy, moving decisively from a mainly negotiation based approach to accepting that the use of force can be an adequate means for peace creation. Still there remain a number of critical challenges the country has to deal with in the coming years: –

First, with its military engagement in various conflict hotspots in Africa through the deployment of troops via the UN and AU, South Africa is reaching maximum deployment levels. The requirements for combat troops are particularly demanding and thus it is rather unlikely that the country will be able to extend its military engagement much further.

Second, the success of the South African contribution rests, to a significant extent, on its ability to craft effective coalitions of support both on the African continent and beyond. However, the current weakness of key African players such as Egypt and Nigeria pose a certain risk to the ambitious South African plans. Furthermore, on highly political issues such as military intervention and peace enforcement, African disunity is more likely to emerge than on softer questions such as political conflict mediation. Political support for more affirmative action is anything but guaranteed but it requires multilateral blessing in the end.

Third, the death of 13 South African soldiers in the CAR has bluntly revealed another weak flank of South Africa’s foreign and security policy, the lack of public support. In the case of the CAR, the broader public was not sufficiently explained why troops have been deployed to a faraway place in a risky environment. Thus the foreign policy goals of the state were in dissonance with public expectations which exerted significant pressure on the government to get out of the CAR. A predicamesnt which is very likely to repeat itself.

Fourth, South African engagement in peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions is not fully altruistic. South African companies are invested heavily on the continent. It cannot be denied that South Africa’s military support for Kabila in the DRC and Bozize in the CAR also has economic implications. Close business ties between leaders surely have a facilitating effect on questions of troop deployment. This, however, has significant implications on the perception of “political neutrality”. The risk of becoming a “warfaring party” instead of an honest peace broker can turn out to be a significant burden.

South Africa was invited by China to join the four-member BRIC grouping of fast-growing emerging markets in December 2010 [Getty Images]

South Africa was invited by China to join the four-member BRIC grouping of fast-growing emerging markets in December 2010 [Getty Images]

Fifth, moral leadership. The influence of South Africa on the continent but also beyond is not only constituted in its economic position and military capabilities but since the end of Apartheid rested chiefly also on its moral leadership which was of course associated with Nelson Mandela and his legacy as a freedom fighter and peaceful reconciliation. His recent death once more powerfully demonstrated the influence moral leadership can have. If the loss of the icon will, in any way, chip away at South Africa’s international standing remains to be seen. Undoubtedly, this requisite “moral authority” will certainly remain linked with domestic achievements in economic and social progress which many South Africans are aspiring for.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.