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South Africa’s peace diplomacy and symbiosis with the rest of the continent
September 23, 2013, 8:27 am

A key driver of South Africa’s post-apartheid foreign and defence policies is the desire to contribute to Africa’s stabilisation and recovery, and in the process gain access to trade and business opportunities.

This would demonstrate to its citizens the value of engaging with the rest of Africa.

This role is not unique to this country – governments with ambitious foreign policy agendas tend to exercise power and influence abroad in order to gain domestically.

This is as true for Western nations as it is for the BRICS alliance. It is also true that the return on the investment is often less than satisfactory – as the blowback to US engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrates.

To what extent is South Africa contributing to Africa’s stabilisation and recovery efforts and how is it constrained in exercising this role?[i]

Peace diplomacy

We view the South African government’s approach to Africa essentially as the exercise of peace diplomacy, defined as its involvement in continental peace-making (diplomatic interventions in the form of mediation or negotiation processes), United Nations mandated peacekeeping operations, and peace building (in line with the African Union’s framework for post-conflict reconstruction and development).

Peace diplomacy can also be equated to the exercise of soft power. Such an approach is by definition driven by multi-actor coalitions of decision-makers and implementers in government and state structures.

As expected in the wake of its transitional experiences, the post-apartheid South African government incorporated several ‘best practices’ in its foreign policy posture – peace diplomacy – and soon developed a reputation as an able conflict mediator, particularly in Africa, but also elsewhere, such as with the Lockerbie case, Northern Ireland, and Timor Leste.

We can best describe this behaviour as that of an emerging middle power. Indeed, for most of the post-apartheid years, South Africa followed a pragmatic, reformist foreign policy agenda.

This was not always the case.

South Africa’s relationship with the rest of the continent evolved over time. This is because material conditions change, as do decision-makers (Presidents Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma illustrate that personalities do matter).

Furthermore, where interests of domestic actors (government, political formations, business, civil society) overlap, it produces a convergence of views (the ‘national interest’) but cannot be assumed to be static; it dynamically changes over time.

In the area of peacemaking and the promotion of governance and post-conflict reconstruction, South Africa undoubtedly made an impact. Indeed, for African politicians and rebel leaders eager to cut deals, Pretoria became the interlocutor – and destination – of choice.

These efforts included bilateral and multilateral South African involvement in peacemaking, governance and post-conflict reconstruction processes in Burundi, the Central African Republic, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia/Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Mali, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Impact of peace interventions

But not all the conflict resolution interventions by the South African government can be regarded as successful.

In what Kenyan academic Peter Kagwanja called South Africa’s ‘age of unilateralism’, Pretoria managed to get its nose bloodied on a number of occasions.[ii]

South Africa’s mid-1990s foreign policy goals of contributing to stability and a return to democracy in Nigeria initially produced negligible results.

Other factors contributed to a breakthrough in the crisis, including President Sani Abacha’s (and Chief Moshood Abiola’s) unexpected deaths in 1998 – events that opened the door for a reconfiguration of political relations and processes of bargaining and negotiation.

Elsewhere, South Africa failed in its attempts to persuade the Angolan, Mozambican and Congolese governments to shift their approaches away from military confrontation with rebel movements to negotiating settlements and establishing governments of national unity.

It also failed to prevent its fellow colleagues in the Southern African Development Council (SADC) from engaging militarily in the war in the Congo. And attempts to quietly influence the key players in Zimbabwe to accept a power-sharing arrangement initially showed no signs of success.

The violent 2008 elections in Zimbabwe produced a stalemate, which opened the door to a negotiated power-sharing agreement and a halt to economic disintegration.

The so-called Inclusive Government was never a popular arrangement and over time became less credible. This – and SADC mediation – came to an end after President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF claimed victory over the opposition in the 2013 national elections.

This brings us to Libya. Many have expressed disappointment at the South African vote in favour of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, the now controversial decision on March 17, 2011 to take all necessary measures to protect civilians ‘under threat of attack’.

The resolution also expressly excluded ‘a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory’. South Africa voted in favour, as did the US, France and the UK.

UNSC Resolution 1973 was adopted after it became clear that Libya’s leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi was ignoring the requirements of Resolution 1970 (February 26, 2011), which demanded an end to human rights violations in the country.

The problem with the implementation of these two resolutions is how to determine the extent to which the civilian population was to be protected. Was the bombing of Qaddafi’s military hardware enough, or was the mandate to be extended to the man himself, including active support for the rebel forces in the East?

It seems the members of the global South on the Security Council preferred the resolution to mandate action to protect civilians under threat of violence, not to remove the Qaddafi regime or sponsor the creation of an armed political opposition.

[Getty Images]

“The South African vote in favour of Resolution 1973 appears in hindsight to have been an error in judgment” [Getty Images]

However, the power politics of the Council overrode such considerations.

Subsequent events demonstrated that a regime change agenda, as articulated by the Americans, French and British, and implemented by NATO, was driving international intervention.

More disturbingly, the African Union’s intervention, suggested by the Ad Hoc High Level panel led by President Jacob Zuma, made little impact on the ground.

The South African vote in favour of Resolution 1973 appears in hindsight to have been an error in judgment.

NATO’s increasingly brutal bombing campaign, defiant rebel-supporting activities and Qaddafi’s targeted killing were seemingly not anticipated.

An analysis of the South African adjudication process reveals weak decision-making by its foreign and security policy mandarins.[iii]

Success in the DRC, but elsewhere…

Learning from this fiasco, we suggest the Security Council’s heavy-hitters representing the interests of the global South – China, Brazil, India, Nigeria and South Africa, working with Russia – must act together to counter future regime-change manoeuvres in the guise of humanitarian assistance or protection of civilians.

This apparent bleak record must be seen in the context of successful interventions elsewhere.

The joint Botswana/South Africa military intervention – seemingly under the auspices of the SADC – in Lesotho in 1998 is criticised by many as a failure.

Despite its shortcomings, Operation Boleas succeeded in stabilising the situation in order for a process of political negotiations on a new constitution and voting system to take off.

In the case of the DRC, the South African government’s persistence in playing the role of peacemaker also paid off. Despite ongoing violence in the East of the DRC, the ‘Sun City’ talks in 2002 and the subsequent Pretoria Agreements of 2002–03 laid the foundations for a credible peace process and opened the door to post-war reconstruction of Congolese society.

South African personnel continue to make up a large contingent of UN peace support and enforcement operations in the DRC. If anything, South Africa now plays a key role as interlocutor between the Southern and Eastern African sub-regions.[iv]

An assessment of South African mediation and participation in peace processes elsewhere in Africa yields mixed results, however.

The record includes the Comoros (where an AU driven military intervention replaced South African mediation and brought an unstable peace), the Ivory Coast (where former President Mbeki’s role as mediator became controversial and was unceremoniously ended), and the more recent debacle in the Central African Republic, where 14 South African National Defence Force members lost their lives in a battle with rebel forces.

Arguably, this intervention became controversial for the same reasons we believe South Africa mismanaged the Libya crisis.

What about Darfur and South Sudan? Regarding the latter, it is well known that the South African government spent an enormous amount of time and resources in support of the creation of this new state.

Surely, this is an example of South African peace diplomacy at its best. The assessment of this mission’s success depends on how one understands the motives of the South African government.

A cynical yet perceptive analyst recently argued that South Africa’s approach to the Sudan crisis “reflects many of the core economic, political and ideological elements of South Africa’s foreign policy: growing commercial interests on the continent; a strategic need for oil; a desire to contribute to peace and stability in Africa, and an anti-imperialist paradigm, which leads to solidarity with regimes that are under Western pressure, regardless of their human rights performance”.[v]

Current and future prospects

The South African government’s view of the country’s continental role, initially infused with notions of human rights activism, has been tempered by the realities of the African condition.

This ‘reality check’ hardly made the ANC leadership reactionary or its foreign policy schizophrenic, as some suggest.[vi]

Policymaking adjustments under the Mbeki administration allowed peace-making, peacekeeping, and post-conflict reconstruction to be implemented with modest yet growing success.

Under the Zuma administration, these strategic objectives remain key – although a new cast of characters usually brings new nuances to established approaches, and as we have seen, a less coherent decision-making style relating to crisis management.

There are additional constraints. The South African government remains hampered by a relatively weak domestic base.

Even though South Africa’s economy is much bigger than the combined economies of the Southern African region, resources are constrained by factors such as poverty and unemployment, the HIV and Aids pandemic, a fragile racial reconciliation, and the impact of the global financial crisis.

In addition, South Africa’s ‘emerging middle power’ role is exercised with close involvement of external powers.

Whether this always happens to South Africa’s or the continent’s benefit is hard to determine. Self-interest drives the presence of external powers on the continent, and cooperation via so-called ‘trilateral cooperation’ has the potential to contribute to stabilisation, or even development.


“The South African government’s view of the country’s continental role, initially infused with notions of human rights activism, has been tempered by the realities of the African condition” [GCIS]

However, the South African government’s close association with Western powers in pursuing peace and security agendas has drawn criticism from many quarters.

Perhaps a good example of this dilemma is the recent joint exercise between South African and American military forces ostensibly in preparation for humanitarian interventions – but as we noted above in the case of Libya, such approaches are seen as a slippery slide into regime change.

Is South Africa’s emerging middle power role on the continent and in the global South sustainable?

Its power and influence depends on a number of factors. Given its position in the global political-economic hierarchy, South Africa is in need of markets and credibility.

The EU was South Africa’s biggest trading partner (by all accounts now overtaken by China) but Africa is its biggest export market. This is a key motivating factor for seeking to stabilise the continent.

The continent in return benefits from South Africa as supplier of goods and services.  As authors John Daniel and Nompumelelo Bhengu noted in A New Scramble for Africa? Imperialism, Investment and Development (2009), “…the South African footprint in the African marketplace today remains considerable and grows each year.”[vii] 

South Africa’s corporate ambitions in Africa seems to be one of the key motivating factors explaining its forays into African peace-making.

Others talk of a policy ‘contradiction’ whereby involvement in peace-making and peacekeeping is motivated by a humanistic impulse in the ruling party and government (to alleviate suffering on the continent) as well as expectations of economic payback (whereby investment in peace processes is expected to reap benefits).

Our interaction with officials and others involved in South Africa’s peace diplomacy leads us to conclude that these disparate impulses all mark the South African government’s decision-making processes and that choices are not easily constructed.

It is critical for South Africa’s foreign, security and economic objectives to be formulated and implemented holistically in the long-term pursuit of African peace and development – the keystone of its ambitious international relations posture.

This requires a harmonised foreign and security policy framework that is complementary to the government’s emerging trade and economic policy paradigms.


[i] A detailed version of this essay appears under Van Nieuwkerk, A (2012) ‘A review of South Africa’s peace diplomacy since 1994’ in Landsberg, C et al (eds) South African Foreign Policy Review: Volume One. Pretoria: AISA and IGD.

[ii] Kagwanja, P. 2006. Power and peace: South Africa and the refurbishing of Africa’s multilateral capacity for peacemaking. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 24 (2): 164.

[iii] Landsberg, C. and C. Moore. 2012. South Africa’s Libya vote: how is foreign policy decided? New Agenda, Fourth Quarter, pages 72-76.

[iv] Khadiagala, G. 2009. South Africa’s role in conflict resolution in the DRC.  In Shillinger, K. 2009. Africa’s Peacemaker? Lessons from South African Conflict Mediation. Johannesburg: Fanele, 78.

[v] Nathan, L (2008) Anti-imperialism trumps human rights: South Africa’s approach to the Darfur conflict.  Working Paper 31, Crisis States Working Papers Series No. 2. London: Crisis States Research Centre, Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics.

[vi] Habib, A. and N. Selinyane. 2004. South Africa’s foreign policy and a realistic vision of an African century. In Apartheid past, Renaissance future: South Africa’s foreign policy, 1994-2004, ed. E. Sidoropoulos, 49-60. Johannesburg: South African Institute of International Affairs.

[vii] Daniel, J. and N. Bhengu. 2009. South Africa in Africa: Still a Formidable Player. In A New Scramble for Africa? Imperialism, Investment and Development, eds. Southall, R. and H. Melber. Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

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