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date: 22 June 2021

South African Foreign Policyfree

South African Foreign Policyfree

  • Fritz NganjeFritz NganjeDepartment of Politics and International Relations, University of Johannesburg
  •  and Odilile AyodeleOdilile AyodeleAfrican Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, University of Johannesburg


In its foreign policy posture and ambitions, post-apartheid South Africa is like no other country on the continent, having earned the reputation of punching above its weight. Upon rejoining the international community in the mid-1990s based on a new democratic and African identity, it laid out and invested considerable material and intellectual resources in pursuing a vision of the world that was consistent with the ideals and aspirations of the indigenous anti-apartheid movement. This translated into a commitment to foreground the ideals of human rights, democratic governance, and socioeconomic justice in its foreign relations, which had been reoriented away from their Western focus during the apartheid period, to give expression to post-apartheid South Africa’s new role conception as a champion of the marginalized interests for Africa and rest of the Global South. Since the start of the 21st century, this new foreign policy orientation and its underlying principles have passed through various gradations, reflecting not only the personal idiosyncrasies of successive presidents but also changes in the domestic environment as well as lessons learned by the new crop of leaders in Pretoria, as they sought to navigate a complex and fluid continental and global environment. From a rather naive attempt to domesticate international politics by projecting its constitutional values onto the world stage during the presidency of Nelson Mandela, South Africa would be socialized into, and embrace gradually, the logic of realpolitik, even as it continued to espouse an ethical foreign policy, much to the chagrin of the detractors of the government of the African National Congress within and outside the country. With the fading away of the global liberal democratic consensus into which post-apartheid South Africa was born, coupled with a crumbling of the material and moral base that had at some point inspired a sense of South African exceptionalism, Pretoria’s irreversible march into an unashamedly pragmatic and interest-driven foreign policy posture is near complete.


  • Foreign Policy

Guiding Principles and General Orientation of Post-Apartheid South Africa’s Foreign Policy

South Africa’s post-apartheid foreign policy, like its domestic policy and politics, has been defined to a significant extent by the challenge to reconcile the contradictions inherent in the dual identity and value system inherited from the colonial–apartheid dispensation. Once considered a Western outpost in Africa (see Sidiropoulos, 2008), the contemporary South African society is one in which two overarching cultural worldviews vie for dominance. On the one hand, there is a liberal-oriented identity inherited from the country’s European past and which continues to inspire an accommodative attitude towards the global order in the 21st century. On the other hand, there is an indigenous African identity that is woven into and inspired by the struggles and aspirations of South Africa’s majority Black African population for socioeconomic and cultural redress.

In the foreign policy sphere, this identity often finds expression in a critical attitude towards global processes and institutions that are seen to reproduce domestic exploitation and inequality. The intermittent episodes of activism in South Africa’s foreign policy posture in the post-apartheid dispensation also owes largely to this dimension of its national identity. In the context of a bifurcated value system and national identity, underpinned by corresponding socioeconomic inequalities manifesting largely along racial lines, it was inevitable that democratic South Africa’s foreign policy and international relations would be animated by tensions and contradictions and would experience ebbs and flows in terms of living up to its declared objectives and principles.

South Africa’s contemporary foreign policy is often characterized as being made up of three concentric circles that guide its orientation: regional, continental, and global (Alden & Schoeman, 2015; Barber, 1973; Landsberg, 2005, 2014). Regional relates to its immediate neighborhood in which, understandably, economics as well as peace and security are the primary concerns. The continental level is focused on peace and security, and strengthening as well as developing African institutions. At this level, we see South Africa putting itself forward as a facilitator of conflict resolution. The global level of South Africa’s foreign policy highlights the importance South Africa places on multilateralism, as reflected in the engagements that it has chosen to pursue.

Foreign Policy in the Lead-Up to 1994

Pre-1994, South Africa’s relationship with the rest of the African continent, beyond Southern Africa, was restricted (Muller, 1996, p. 126). This is not to say that the relationship was non-existent, but rather it was limited, and the African continent was not the priority of the South African government. In the dying days of the apartheid regime, South Africa ushered in a so-called “New Diplomacy” in 1989 which was aimed at cementing South Africa’s economic dominance in southern Africa (Evans, 1996). The central propositions were that:


South Africa is part of Africa;


African problems must be solved by Africans;


southern African states are interdependent and their Security is indivisible;


regional issues should be approached in a spirit of cooperation and good neighbourliness; and


a regional conference should be convened to promote joint interests and a realistic development plan. (Evans, 1996, pp. 255–256)

But as Evans explained, the change was not substantive. It was meant “to tie the hands of any future ANC [African National Congress]-led government with respect to South Africa’s geopolitical position as regional hegemon” (Evans, 1996, p. 255). Olivier and Geldenhuys (1997) argued that South Africa’s foreign policy orientation, nevertheless, shifted with the ascent of the transitional government in 1994. What this meant by implication is that not only did the overall drivers of South Africa’s policy change, but the institutional culture and philosophy also changed.

Inside the “Black Box”: Bureaucratic Arrangements and Political Influence

Unpacking the “black box” of South Africa’s foreign policymaking in the post-apartheid era (Masters, 2017) requires an understanding of the emerging subparallel threads of continuity and change. The former is more subtle in comparison to the profound transformation that underscores future developments.

The most profound shifts in South Africa’s foreign policy, as Muller (1996) and van Wyk (2019) put it, are consequences of “transition and adaptation” caused by internal and external tectonic shifts. The latter included the collapse of the Soviet Union, a top ANC supporter, and the end of the Cold War. Internally, within the region, both Angola and Namibia had achieved independence, and the apartheid government had unbanned the ANC, leading ultimately to the country’s democratic transition. All these shifts had affected the country’s foreign service and influenced its future posture. However, as much as there have been changes with regard to the substance of South Africa’s foreign service, the significance of the president and the foreign affairs ministry has remained the same.

Bureaucratic Arrangements

Foreign Affairs in South Africa has always been disproportionately bureaucratic as a function of its two-pronged ideological inheritance, as well as by design.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996) makes it clear that the president is the custodian of South Africa’s foreign policy while it mandates the Minister of Foreign Affairs, with the formulation and execution of South Africa’s foreign policy. On the surface, the Constitution also makes it clear that the two primary arms of South Africa’s foreign policy apparatus are the president and the minister. However, the influence of the ANC, as well as various stakeholders, ensure that foreign policymaking remains a dynamic exercise. Additional stakeholders such as parliament, civil society, other arms of government, and the business community mean that the interests shaping its foreign relations keep shifting.

The engine room of South Africa’s international relations has always been its foreign services ministry. From the early 1990s, there has been an apparent tug of war for control between the presidency and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). The earliest indications of the existing tensions were during the post-apartheid transition period; it was the DFA that pushed to ensure South Africa’s foreign policy alignment towards neoliberalism and Western powers (Graham, 2015, p. 108; Schraeder, 2001, p. 233).

Engagement in South Africa’s international relations is not the sole preserve of foreign ministry. Government departments such as the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Department of Defence (DoD), the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS), and the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) play a role. The DEA, for instance, leads South Africa’s engagement on climate change at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (Rennkamp & Marquard, 2017). The DTI has also been successful in managing South Africa’s science diplomacy, which can be seen in the successful launch of the Karoo Satellite project (Brandt, 2018; Walker et al., 2019).

The DoD and the DTI, however, have often come under the spotlight because of their more visible roles. The DTI is the key actor in supporting South Africa’s economic diplomacy while the DOD has been central to the country’s peace diplomacy. The DOD has engaged in several peacekeeping operations, including the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), the United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), and the United Nations Mission in Somalia (UNMISS). The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on International Relations and Cooperation are mandated with the oversight and accountability of South Africa’s foreign policy. This was not the case during apartheid. It is also responsible for, among other things, the ratification of treaties and ensuring DIRCO has the appropriate budget allocated for their task.

The Values Versus Interests Debate in South Africa’s Foreign Policy

Another major theme in the discourse of post-apartheid South Africa’s foreign policy relates to an enduring debate on the nature of the relationship between the moral principles Pretoria has committed itself to uphold and the pursuit of the country’s national interest. This has been a classic case of damned if you do, and damned if you don’t, reflecting not only the socioeconomic and ideological fault lines in South African society, but also the multiple and sometimes contrasting expectations placed on South Africa by some external actors. Mandela’s declaration in 1993 that “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign policy” (Mandela, 1993, p. 88) created the illusion of an ethical foreign policy orientation within and outside South Africa, on the basis of which many would attempt to judge future foreign policy choices.

This myth of a values-oriented foreign policy found resonance with a South African self-perception of exceptionalism, which swelled in the immediate post-apartheid period and came with a corresponding responsibility to enlighten the rest of the continent and moralize international politics. It is therefore not surprising that a significant proportion of commentary on South Africa’s foreign policy has over the years been dedicated to analyzing and, in some instances, bemoaning how Pretoria has strayed from Mandela’s noble foreign policy ideals (see, for example, Mills & James, 2016; Titus, 2009). This is the case, even though there is little precedence in international politics of states conducting their foreign policies on the basis of ethical principles (Lipton, 2009).

To understand the role of academic scholarship and the media in perpetuating the myth of a South African foreign policy driven by ethical concerns, one should look no further than the ideological dominance of the global liberal political and economic project, which is given concrete form in South Africa through the discourses and preferences of a small group of business and civil society elite. As Aubrey Matshiqi (2012) has argued, this globally oriented and liberal-minded elite may be in the numerical minority, but culturally it dominates and sets the agenda on important national debates, including in the area of foreign policy. It is in this context that discourses that seek to elevate human rights and other ethical principles above all other foreign policy considerations often gloss over the widening wealth gap and social exclusion in the South African society, which would ordinarily inspire a more nuanced attitude towards debates of this nature. What is more, such accounts have also attracted accusations that they hold South Africa to a standard that is not applied to the foreign policy conduct of other states (read Western powers), thereby playing into the double standards of the liberal international order (Zondi, 2010). These allegations are not without substance, considering that states like the United States and the United Kingdom that often join in, and sponsor, the condemnation of South Africa’s foreign policy choices can hardly lay claim to the moral high ground in international affairs.

As early as 1997, the ANC had realized the difficulties inherent in pursuing a values-based foreign policy in a world of realpolitik (ANC, 1997). Arguably, the key awakening moment for South Africa was the diplomatic isolation it suffered on the continent, in the wake of its failed attempt to rally international sanctions against the late Nigerian military head of state, Sani Abacha, after the execution of the environmental and human rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, in November 1995. Saro-Wiwa was a fierce critic of the Abacha regime for being complicit in the environmental damage to the land of the Ogoni people by oil company Shell. Angered and embarrassed by Abacha’s reneging on a commitment to halt the execution of Saro-Wiwa, Mandela campaigned for the international community to impose sanctions on the military regime in Nigeria, only to discover that not even self-styled champions of human rights such as the United Kingdom are willing to sacrifice their economic interests on the altar of human rights (Mbeki, 2016). These and other experiences would inspire a more pragmatic approach to engaging with issues of human rights, underpinned by at least three key considerations. First, while still committed to a core set of values and principles in its engagement with the rest of the world, South Africa would remain vigilant against, and resist, the tendency on the part of Western powers to politicize the global human rights agenda. Second, instead of treating human rights as the overriding consideration in South Africa’s foreign policy, they would henceforth be promoted as one of many equally important foreign policy objectives. Third, South Africa was not going to champion a narrow liberal human rights agenda. Rather its commitment to human rights was to be linked to broader questions of global socioeconomic, political, and racial justice (ANC, 1997; Zondi, 2010).

This recalibration of the moral thrust in Pretoria’s foreign policy inevitably set it on a collision course with Western states and their civil society allies in the country. This was evident on human rights questions such as those in Myanmar and Zimbabwe, where South Africa had voted against a US-led resolution in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) proposing sanctions against both countries for human rights violations. At the time, Thabo Mbeki’s government argued that the situation in Myanmar and Zimbabwe did not pose a threat to international peace and security to warrant action from the UNSC. Concerned that the Security Council was being used by the West to promote a regime change agenda cloaked in a human rights discourse, South Africa made a case for allegations of human rights abuses in Myanmar and Zimbabwe to be handled through the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the good offices of the United Nations (UN) Secretary General, and the efforts of regional organizations, such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as required by international law (Mbeki, 2016).

The second strand of the “values versus interests” debate in South Africa’s foreign policy is largely an offshoot of Pretoria’s commitment to the regeneration of the African continent, pursued under the banner of an Africa Agenda. The dominant view, particularly during the Mbeki administration, was that South Africa had a moral responsibility to lead the socioeconomic and political renewal of Africa, captured in the concept of an African Renaissance. This meant investing its human and material resources to promote democratic governance, engage in conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction efforts, as well as champion the creation of common institutions and norms on the continent. For Pan-Africanists such as Mbeki, these are necessary sacrifices that South Africa has to make as a leader on the continent without expectations of immediate material benefits. What is more, proponents of this view have often advocated an ethical expansion of South African corporate interests into the continent. This position has largely been at odds with the views of large segments of the business community and ruling alliance made of the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP), and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which see South Africa’s diplomatic engagement in Africa as an investment that must be leveraged for economic benefits. This latter camp has often decried what it considers to be a lack of synergy between South Africa’s peace and commercial diplomacies on the continent, which has resulted in other countries benefiting from the economic returns of Pretoria’s peacebuilding efforts in countries such as Burundi and South Sudan (see Kagwanja, 2009; Marthoz, 2012).

Against the backdrop of worsening domestic socioeconomic conditions and growing competition in Africa from other emerging economies, the pendulum has shifted considerably in the direction of a more interest-based approach to engaging on the continent. The enduring challenge is how to focus foreign policy and diplomacy on the shared interests of the broader South African public rather than those of a few elites.

The Influence of the ANC on South Africa’s Foreign Policy

Arguably, the ANC’s worldview is the single most important domestic source of post-apartheid South Africa’s foreign policy. As early as 1994, drawing on the experience of its extensive internationalism during the struggle against apartheid, the liberation movement turned ruling party laid out the fundamental principles and values upon which a democratic South Africa would conduct its foreign policy. Over the years, the dictates of democratic multipartyism and constitutionalism have brought diverse perspectives to South Africa’s foreign policy, and the presidency has emerged as the central locus of foreign policymaking. Even so, the ruling party’s shadow continues to loom large over the country’s foreign policy and diplomacy.

In examining the ANC’s influence on South Africa’s foreign policy, three main themes stand out. The first theme relates to the party’s role in shaping the initial contours of a post-apartheid South African foreign policy. The ethical and progressive leaning of South Africa’s foreign policy could be interpreted as a carryover from the ANC’s anti-colonial and anti-apartheid activism. Notable in this regard are the commitment to advancing the cause of human rights and social justice, as well as the prioritization of Africa in South Africa’s foreign policy. These reflected the former liberation movement’s understanding of its own struggle as a microcosm of a global and continental fight against an array of injustices, which did not end with the dismantling of formal apartheid (Nganje, 2012).

Second, the ANC has been accused of failing to appreciate changing global dynamics, resulting in an ideologically rigid international outlook that has sometimes contributed to locking South Africa’s foreign policy and diplomacy in a Manichean, Cold War mentality. For example, critics have pointed out that South Africa’s uncritical pandering to China and Russia while often adopting a hostile attitude towards Western powers like the United States and France is out of touch with the realities of contemporary world politics and instead reflects enduring anti-imperialist sentiments within the ANC. A similar argument has been made in relation to what is perceived to be a lack of pragmatism in the way Pretoria has handled such foreign policy issues as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. It is argued that the ANC’s desire to continue to express solidarity with its former liberation allies has undermined South Africa’s ability to assume a balanced and meaningful role in the resolution of this conflict (see Landsberg et al., 2017). For example, in its 2017 national elective conference, the ANC resolved to direct the government to downgrade South Africa’s embassy in Israel. The South African government started acting on this resolution in 2019 when it indicated its intention to downgrade its embassy in Tel Aviv to a liaison office (Maqhina, 2019). A year earlier, Pretoria had recalled its ambassador to Israel in protest against the killing of Palestinian demonstrators by Israeli soldiers. The South African government has since indicated that it had no intention to reinstate the ambassador presumably because it planned to implement the ANC’s resolution. However, as of March 2021, no clear position appears to have been adopted on whether or how the ANC’s decision will be implemented. The new South African minister of international relations and cooperation, Naledi Pandor, suggested at a parliamentary briefing in July 2020 that the government was still considering the implications of the different options available to give effect to the ruling party’s resolution (Feinberg, 2020). As Peter Fabricius (2019) noted, the delay in downgrading the embassy speaks to the challenges that ANC foreign policy decisions have had to contend with as a result of both internal party dissent as well as the realities of domestic politics and international diplomacy.

The ANC’s directive appears to have come up against not just the intricacies of inter-state diplomatic relations but also the strong lobbying of South Africa’s Jewish Board of Deputies, which is believed to have the ear of President Ramaphosa by virtue of its economic muscle. Other foreign policy resolutions adopted by the ruling party have suffered a similar fate, suggesting that the ANC may be in power, but its ability to shape South Africa’s foreign policy is not always guaranteed. The party’s attempt to position itself as the prime source of South Africa’s foreign policy has at times only contributed to making this policy ambiguous and confusing. The implementation of previous party resolutions directing the government to severe ties with the International Criminal Court (ICC) or establish a development partnership agency remain in limbo. In the case of the former, President Jacob Zuma initiated the process of withdrawing South Africa from the Rome Statute as directed by the ANC on the eve of his departure from office. The incoming Ramaphosa administration appears to have taken advantage of a legal challenge mounted by civil society organizations against the withdrawal process to distance itself from the ANC’s resolution on the ICC.

Third, it is important to consider also how internal politics and transformations within the ANC over the past decades have affected South Africa’s foreign policy. Since the mid-2000s, the ruling party has been rocked by internal political divisions, which, coupled with high levels of patronage and corruption among its officials deployed in government, have reduced the once lauded liberation movement to a laughingstock in South African society. These internal party dynamics have not been without effect on the country’s foreign policy, in the same way that they have affected the domestic policy environment. For instance, the struggle for influence between various ANC factions at any given time has sometimes spilled into the realm of foreign policy decision making. This was apparent particularly during the transition from Thabo Mbeki to the Jacob Zuma presidency, which featured a period characterized by two centers of power, one in the party and the other in government. During this time, there was an attempt by Luthuli House, the ANC’s headquarters in Johannesburg, to reassert itself in shaping the country’s foreign policy through its international relations sub-committee and a newly established international relations rapid response task team (Landsberg et al., 2017).

Therefore, the course of South African foreign policy in the late 20th and early 21st century was built not only on its landmark Constitution, existing and future outlook, but also on dual history. To that end, South Africa’s perspective on peace diplomacy on the continent is different from other regional powers. South Africa has been forced to shake off its pariah image while advancing its vision for the continent. The White Paper on peace missions makes clear that its approach to peace on the continent is guided by its internal history of successful conflict resolution (DFA, 1999, p. 19).

Principles and Foreign Policy Thrust

It is worth noting that, in declaring the promotion of human rights a central tenet in South Africa’s foreign policy, the ANC government embraced an understanding of the concept that was broader than its narrow liberal sense focus. Human rights in this context included not only political rights, but also economic, social, and environmental rights (ANC, 1997). This interpretation of human rights meant that South Africa has not always been a willing ally of the West when it came to matters of human rights and democracy promotion. Together with domestic socioeconomic constraints and the complexities of its African neighborhood, which became the primary target of its human rights and democracy campaign, framing its international human rights role as part of the Global South’s struggle for socioeconomic justice would raise questions about the commitment of successive South African administrations to a principled and ethical foreign policy.

Other principles that were to guide post-apartheid South Africa’s foreign policy included a strong belief in international law, justice and cooperation, as well as the peaceful resolution of conflicts. In pursuit of these and other principles, South Africa was to adopt a new international personality and foreign policy orientation; one that would break away from the pariah status it had been condemned to under apartheid. This new foreign policy orientation had three key interlocking dimensions. First, South Africa committed to standing in solidarity with its African neighbors and investing in the regeneration of the continent, arguing that its destiny as an African country was intertwined with that of the rest of the continent. In other words, in centering Africa in its foreign policy, the South Africa government was not only denouncing the colonial–apartheid conception of the country as a Western outpost on the continent, but also reaffirming its African identity. Perhaps more importantly, it was acting on the recognition that the country’s own stability and prosperity was not guaranteed in the context of an unstable and impoverished continent (see Mandela, 1993). This observation proved to be prescient in the decades following the end of apartheid, as political instability and socioeconomic mismanagement in countries like Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) would unleash a wave of unsustainable migration to South Africa in search of asylum and a better livelihood.

Second, while it maintained its traditional ties with Western countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, Pretoria opted to throw in its diplomatic lot with the Global South collective, mindful of the enduring inequalities in the international political economy. This commitment to championing South–South solidarity and cooperation, not only as a counterweight to the continued dominance of the West in international affairs, but also as an alternative pathway to socioeconomic development, would introduce further complications to Pretoria’s foreign policy. Although South Africa has also attempted to position itself as a bridge builder between developed and developing countries, identifying with the South has often translated into strained relations with its partners in the North, as well as perceptions of inconsistencies in its foreign policy.

A third, and equally controversial thrust, of post-apartheid South Africa’s foreign policy is its declared commitment to the principle of multilateralism, both as an ideal and as a means to realize other foreign policy objectives. As a regional power, South Africa recognized early on that it could not play any significant international role and achieve its foreign policy objectives outside a rules-based multilateral setup that would serve as a check on the dictates of power politics, especially given limitations to its own material capabilities. It is in this context that Pretoria would adopt an activist posture in multilateral forums and assume the role of a norm entrepreneur both globally and regionally, with the goal of reforming and strengthening institutions of multilateral governance (Geldenhuys, 2010). South Africa’s preference for multilateral diplomacy has not been without its critics. On the one hand, there are those who believe South Africa’s reformist posture in multilateral institutions is misplaced in a world of realpolitik and against the backdrop of pressing domestic socioeconomic needs (Qobo & Dube, 2015). On the other hand, some observers have argued that a dogged preference for multilateralism, particularly at the regional level, only serves to hamstring Pretoria’s diplomatic initiatives (Khadiagala & Nganje, 2016, p. 1577).

Mandela’s Liberal Idealism: Foreign Policy in Transition, 1994–1999

The leader of the ANC, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, was the first democratic president of South Africa between 1994 and 1999. When the new ANC government came to power in 1994, the declaration of human rights and democracy as cardinal pillars of South Africa’s foreign policy and international relations (ANC, 1994; Mandela, 1993) was hardly surprising given that the ANC had framed its political struggle against apartheid as a campaign against the suppression of human rights. Moreover, the emphasis on human rights and democratic values was consistent with the role that the new majority government sought to play as a responsible international citizen that would champion the global cause against tyranny, discrimination, intolerance, and social injustice. At a more pragmatic level, democracy promotion, particularly in its African backyard, was seen to be central to the realization of an equally important goal of the new South Africa’s foreign policy; that of stabilizing and leading the regeneration of the African continent (DIRCO, 2011, p. 10).

Maloka (2019) pointed out that, by the time Mandela’s tenure ended, “a more elaborate Africa policy was in the making, based on Mbeki’s vision of an African Renaissance following his famous I Am an African speech to the South African parliament in May 1996” (loc 1079).

Reforming the Department of Foreign Affairs

The focus of Mandela’s administration was on reforming South Africa’s foreign affairs department, while also forging a new global identity and foreign policy posture. One of the criticisms of Mandela’s level of engagement was that it was ad hoc. There are several reasons for this, including the mammoth task in transforming the DFA and not having extensive exposure to international affairs. The latter was due to his internment on Robben Island; however, he did engage with various African leaders, in his role as commander in chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in the 1960s (Masters, 2017, p. 3). As detailed by Masters (2012), the new DFA had to amalgamate six different entities with various levels of training and ideologies. These include “the existing department, the ANC, the former Bantustans or the TVBC (Transkei, Venda, Bophuthatswana and Ciskei) states” (p. 27).

Peace Diplomacy

Under Mandela, South Africa’s post-apartheid conception of peace diplomacy was introduced. The South African position has always been that good governance, development, and peace are concurrent objectives. Multilateral peace missions have been an essential party of South Africa’s foreign policy as early as the intervention in Lesotho in 1998 (Mandrup, 2019, p. 1). However, there have been rumor that its intervention was less altruistic but instead was related to securing access to the Highlands Water Project, which supplies water to Gauteng—South Africa’s economic boiler room (Adebajo, 2017, p. 8).

Fashioning itself as mediator and peacekeeper, rather than “policeman,” South Africa has been at the forefront of peace making on the continent. South Africa’s approach to peace and security has always been controversial, with some arguing that its attempt to replicate its miraculous transition to democracy in other conflict zones has not been the most appropriate approach. Beresford (2015) noted that although it may seem incompatible with its stated norms and values, South Africa’s approach to peacebuilding is rooted in three unchanging components: quiet diplomacy, transitional power sharing, and transitional justice. And although the results have been mixed, as Beresford pointed out, there have been positive developments in many conflicts on the African continent and beyond. Northern Ireland and Israel–Palestine are put forward as examples of success. Also, Kenya, Sudan, Angola, and the DRC, as result of South African intervention, have adopted the South African power-sharing model. Scholars such as Hendricks (2015) asserted that the emphasis of South Africa’s peacemaking efforts on state actors and other elites leaves room for future sources of conflict. Similarly, Marthoz (2012) lamented that South Africa’s approach to peace diplomacy has been to replicate the model of its democratic transition without similar successes.

Mbeki’s Pragmatic Multilateralism, 1999–2008

By the time that Mandela handed the baton to Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki, South Africa had begun to shift away from the idealism that had characterized South Africa’s foreign policy at the dawn of a fully inclusive democracy. It was no longer entrenched in the trappings of its miracle transition (Sidiropoulos, 2008, p. 108) but now had to develop an identity for itself that matured beyond the symbolism of 1994.

Mbeki’s foreign policy, particularly over the course of his first presidential term, was underscored by his continued drive to reposition South Africa in the global system while maintaining a more Africanist foreign policy outlook.

Touted very much as “foreign policy president” (Landsberg, 2000), Mbeki restructured and repositioned South Africa’s foreign policy architecture over the course of his two terms, putting himself in control of South Africa’s foreign policy apparatus.

Mbeki’s African Agenda

It is under Mbeki that the first real attempts at the articulation of an “African Agenda” were seen. The agenda focuses on building institutions and improving representation on global governance platforms. Mbeki was responsible for driving the creation of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), a “homegrown” development plan, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), the transformation of the South African Development Coordination conference (SADCC) into the Southern African Development Community (SADC), as well as the transformation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) through the African Union Constitutive Act. He is also credited as one of the principal advocates of an “African Renaissance” in the postcolonial era, overseeing the establishment of the Pan-African Parliament, and the promulgation of the African Renaissance Cooperation Fund (ARF). The ARF, in particular, was an interesting development because it saw South Africa entering the development cooperation arena.

By the time, Mbeki entered his second term, South Africa had shifted away from the bridge-building role between the North and South, that it had occupied. It focused on fostering closer relations with the Global South. Sidiropoulus (2008) attributed these shifts to three major developments: the U.S. increased “unilateralist approach” post 9-11; the Global South trying to claim a more assertive role in global affairs; and South Africa coming to terms with its identity as an African state (p. 110). In the later part of Mbeki’s second term, he strengthened his relationships with Russia and China, hosting Vladimir Putin on a state visit in 2006. Mbeki also attended the first Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit in November 2006. In 2007, South Africa was involved in the Heiligendamm Process in 2007 which, as Moore (2014) argued, established South Africa’s position as a key emerging partner in global governance. The initiative saw the G8 engage with five emerging economies (Brazil, India, Mexico, China, and South Africa). Mbeki played an important in the formation of the IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) Dialogue Forum, the platform allowing these emerging powers to work together closer on issues such as agriculture and trade.

Although Mbeki was instrumental in the country’s foreign apparatus and foreign policymaking, civil society has taken on a more active role in engaging government: this is evidenced by successful programs such as the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) which was geared at combating the global trade in conflict diamonds (Visser, 2005; Wright, 2012). The business sector has also worked towards engagement with the state and influencing foreign policy. There have been several mechanisms that the State has used to engage the private sector with varying levels of success. Under Mbeki, the Big Business Working Group (BBWG) was given a platform to engage with the state.

Peace and Security

South Africa’s remained committed to the principal of multilateralism, the main vehicle being the United Nations. It is this stance that saw Mbeki rejecting French intervention in Côte D’Ivoire and refusing the imposition of a non-fly zone over Libya. Moreover, under Mbeki’s administration, the cornerstone for Africa’s own peace and security infrastructure was set up in the form of the instruments within SADC and the African Union (AU); Organ on Politics, Defence & Security Cooperation (the Organ) and the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), respectively. Yet it is within these multilateral platforms that South Africa’s approach to foreign policy is, at times, contradictory.

Under Mbeki, there was a fundamental disconnect between what the country wanted to do, its capacity, and the capability of its DoD. Siko (2012) explained that although the Defence Force is one of the key implementers of South Africa’s foreign policy goals, it has not been given a role in “shaping” the country’s foreign policy. By 2006, there were over 3,000 troops deployed to peace missions in the DRC, Burundi, and Sudan (Siko, 2012, p. 83).

Since South Africa was readmitted to the UN in 1994, it worked to establish itself both as an active member and as an activist member within the body. Nowhere is this as evident as the UNSC. South Africa’s stated commitment to peace and security dovetails with its desire to have a foothold in global governance institutions. Graham (2016, pp. 229–230, 235–258) detailed the long road South Africa has tread supporting the reform of the UN, including the UNSC. Notably, despite years of anticipation, the nature of the reform was mild, although ultimately it allowed for enlargement of the body and the reform of its working methods. What is clear is that the permanent five members are not interested in relinquishing their veto power.

“Quiet” Diplomacy and its Discontents

The albatross of South Africa’s multilateralism has been the unsuccessful attempts at quiet diplomacy in Zimbabwe. Although it has been popularly ascribed to Mbeki, the policy was first pursued by Mandela (Landsberg, 2016, p. 128). The inability to resolve the crisis in its own neighborhood boded poorly for Mbeki’s standing, as well as the perception of the refrain of African solutions to African problems. Pretoria often leans towards using kids gloves when dealing with peace and security issues in the Global South, for several reasons, rightly or wrongly, including ideology and the overall concern about the way the more influential countries interject themselves in the politics of weaker nations.

Mbeki did manage to broker an ineffective power-sharing agreement between Zimbabwe’s African National Union–Patriotic Front (Zanu–PF), the two derivatives of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). But, as Sidiropolous (2008) pointed out, Mbeki was thwarted by President Mugabe’s ability to influence the factors underlying the crisis: “land, race and colonial legacy”(p. 111). Moreover, South Africa was afraid of being perceived as being the aggressor in the region (Sidiropolous, 2008, p. 111). Landsberg (2016) further explained that quiet diplomacy was a “trade-off strategy” (p. 130). South Africa was to help revitalize the Zimbabwean economy, address the land issue, and negotiate a role for Mugabe upon his exit. In return, Zimbabwe was meant to commit to negotiations with the MDC, hold free and fair elections, and enter a politically negotiated transition process. Mbeki would not have wanted to anger Mugabe as he was a key partner in solving the conflict in the DRC, and the Great Lakes region broadly. Mugabe was an ally of Laurent Kabila (Dashwood, 2001; Rotberg, 2000) while Rwanda, another strategic partner of South Africa, backed anti-Kabila rebels (see Kisangani, 2003). In order to stabilize the volatile Great Lakes region, South Africa needed both Mugabe and Paul Kagame (Landsberg, 2002, 2016), even though it meant shying away from public criticism.

The result of Mbeki’s and South Africa’s unsuccessful quiet diplomacy strategy is the weakening of its position with regard to solving other conflicts across the region.

The “Lame Duck” Period

At the ANC national elective conference in December 2007, Mbeki lost his bid for a third term as president of the ANC. As a result, he ultimately lost the support of the ANC, with the national executive of the party resolving to recall him from the presidency on September 20, 2008. The next day he resigned from the post, a mere nine months before his term officially ended. Booysen (2011, p. 404) explained that Mbeki’s downfall has illustrated that no South African president can hold power if they are not in good standing with the party. In the wake of his ousting, Mbeki continued to engage in some diplomatic activities but made no major policy decisions.

South Africa’s third democratic president was Kgalema Petrus Motlanthe (2008–2009), who succeeded president Mbeki after his resignation. There were no major policy departures during his tenure.

Zuma’s Strategic Multilateralism, 2009–2017

South Africa’s turn to a predominantly interest-based foreign policy was most evident during the presidency of Jacob Zuma, where official rhetoric of promoting human rights and consolidating the African agenda, wrapped in discourse of Ubuntu diplomacy, stood in sharp contrast with an international engagement that prioritized strategic partnerships and economic returns. Sidiropoulos (2014) characterized Zuma’s foreign policy style as one with a strong focus on economic imperatives, reduced interest in peacebuilding and a somewhat assertive position on African issues. This foreign policy shift was consistent with a general mood in the country about aligning South Africa’s international relations with the national socioeconomic development imperative (see Landsberg, 2010). This “South Africa first” tone was clearly captured in the National Development Plan (NDP) that was adopted in November 2011. The NDP (2011) argued that “government’s global and regional policy-making stance should be South Africa-centric,” further admonishing that “to achieve maximum benefits for the people of South Africa, government needs to remain cognisant of the differences between political ambitions, notions of solidarity and domestic realities” (pp. 216–217). Thus, although the architects of the NDP would want to see South Africa continue to play an active role in shaping global policy discourses, such a role must take second fiddle to promoting the country’s socioeconomic interests.

It is in this context that the Zuma administration would prioritise and doggedly pursue partnerships with the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries, most notably China, attracted by the prospects of economic and other strategic benefits that would flow from aligning South Africa with the interests of these emerging global powerhouses. During Zuma’s two terms in office, China became South Africa’s largest trading partner, with relations between both countries upgraded to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2010 (Mpungose, 2018).

Reflecting the dominant belief that foreign policy should first and foremost serve domestic needs, there was renewed focus on the concept and practice of economic diplomacy during the period coinciding with Jacob Zuma’s presidency. A White Paper drafted by DIRCO (2011) underscored the growing centrality of economic diplomacy in South Africa’s foreign policy by arguing that “the success of its economic diplomacy will determine the extent to which South Africa can achieve its domestic priorities” (pp. 26–27). This position will subsequently be echoed by the NDP in its assertion that there should be positive correlation between South Africa’s investment in foreign missions and tangible economic and commercial returns for the country. In a 2014 speech, Zuma’s foreign minister disclosed the extent to which her department had internalized this new foreign policy direction by arguing that:

The assessment of the costs and benefits of maintaining or expanding South Africa’s 126 Missions, must be raised in the context of how each of these missions contributes to the achievement of our key domestic priorities. Our Missions and structured bilateral engagements are oriented towards seeking opportunities for sustainable job creation, responsible trade and investment, partnerships for health, education, crime prevention and rural development.

(DIRCO, n.d., n.p.)

Thus, for over a decade, a broad consensus has emerged on centering economic diplomacy in South Africa’s foreign policy, with much of the debate lingering on the policy and diplomatic measures that are required for effective economic diplomacy (see Makokera, 2015).

It is perhaps in its engagement in Africa that South Africa’s transition from a value-based foreign policy to one that is largely focused on the country’s domestic priorities has become more apparent. The end of Thabo Mbeki’s presidency was accompanied by a gradual decline in South Africa’s role as a democracy promoter and peacebuilder on the continent as the country sought to realign its foreign policy with its domestic priorities. For example, although South Africa’s peacebuilding role was critical in the birth of the new state of South Sudan in 2011, the South African government practically disengaged from the east African country during Zuma’s presidency (Nganje, 2017). The case of the DRC is even more revealing of the shift towards an interest-based foreign policy. As Khadiagala and Nganje (2016) argued, in the post-Mbeki era, “South Africa’s support for the faltering democratization process in the DRC has been glaringly reduced to securing a stable environment and a friendly government in Kinshasa, arguably to advance its economic and other strategic interests” (p. 1574). South Africa has since emerged as the biggest supplier of foreign goods and services to the DRC, providing over 30% of the country’s total imports. It also boasts major investment projects in the central African country (Besharati & Rawhani, 2016).

The enduring challenge is how to focus foreign policy and diplomacy on the shared interests of the broader South African public rather than those of a few elite. The example of the DRC, as well as that of the Central African Republic (CAR), where 13 South African soldiers were killed in March 2013 while on a controversial deployment, have raised concerns that what is being fronted as national interest in this new foreign policy orientation is little more than the economic interests of a few members of the ruling party and their associates.

The “Zumafication” of the African Agenda

Under the Zuma administration, the African Agenda shifted towards an alternate vision of the global world order. The rubric of the African Agenda under Mbeki was his articulation of an African Renaissance, whereas under Zuma the focus appears to be geared towards developing what Qobo (2018) described as an imitation of cold war rivalries. Qobo lamented the inadequacies of foreign policy during the Zuma tenure. He laid the blame for the failures at both Zuma and his foreign affairs minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. He put forward the argument that during that tenure “foreign policy was less about the substance of ideas and more about a flurry of international activities that yielded few benefits for the country” (Qobo, 2018, n.p.). One of the examples that he referred to is South Africa’s entry into the BRICS, which he argued was more of an opportunity for Zuma to strengthen his relationship with Russia (Qobo, 2018).

South Africa’s domestic politics and lack of foresight has sometimes hampered its relations with the rest of the continent. The debacle surrounding the appointment of Dlamini-Zuma as chairperson of the African Union Commission was one the most explicit examples. As Allison (2017) expounded, her efficiency and suitability for the post was not the primary issue, but rather her close relationship with then-President Zuma and South Africa’s decision to ignore an unwritten rule on reserving that post for smaller powers. Even though her tenure was controversial, and negatively affected relations, she did manage to launch the Africa Union’s first long-term program, Agenda 2063.

Peace and Security

A win for South Africa, and Africa, was the unanimous adoption of UNSC Resolution 1809 which called for the establishment of an AU–UN panel of distinguished persons to consider how to support AU peace operations (Alden, 2015, p. 3). Its outcomes, tabled in 2009, laid the groundwork for the gains of its second term. The second tenure (2011–2012) allowed South Africa to consolidate the gains from its first tenure and was part of a more comprehensive UNSC reform initiative. Alden (2015) explained that:

the South African delegation used this opportunity to advance the previous initiative on UN–AU cooperation by formalising and expanding its ambit. The passage of UNSC Resolution 2033, which built upon its predecessor UNSC Resolution 1809, reiterated the need for a ‘predictable, sustainable and flexible’ source of financial and logistical support and endorsed closer cooperation between the UN and the AU to improve its cooperation with the AU Commission. (p. 4)

The formalized cooperation between the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) and the UNSC has had positive consequences for Africa’s peace and security (Alden, 2015, p. 5).

The most controversial debacle, which indicates a disconnect between official policy and information on the ground was South Africa’s yes vote for UNSC Resolution 1973. The resolution authorized the NATO-led intervention in Libya and was in direct contradiction with the political solution mapped out by the AU (DeWaal, 2012; Fabricius, 2015). DIRCO spokesperson Clayson Monyela (2011) explained that South Africa voted for the resolution to remove a no-fly zone to decrease civilian casualties. The official explanation did not seem to acknowledge that such a vote was tantamount to approving regime change, which was what occurred. Moreover, a short while later, President Zuma appeared to backtrack on his position (Campbell, 2015). Maloka (2019) bemoaned the internal challenges that affected South Africa’s tenure on the UNSC. One of these challenges are limitations in its “decision-making architecture” and the inefficient dynamic between the mission team, the minister and the president:

there have been instances where instruction on which way South Africa should vote was given to the mission as the ambassador was about to walk into the UNSC chambers. At times, South Africa was caught napping and unprepared in global forums because of these capacity weaknesses. Sometimes the minister is poorly advised and the President not properly briefed. The result? South Africa finds itself with egg on its face.

(Maloka, 2019, loc. 4596–4597)

Dembinksi (2017), conversely, contended that the inherent tension between their steadfastness on the respect for state sovereignty and human rights norms continue to be a sticking point for African leaders and Western countries. Studying different attitudes to procedural justice, Dembinksi considered the different reactions to regime change in Libya and Côte D’Ivoire. Drawing on this study, South Africa’s contradictory UNSC actions become comprehensible although not necessarily correct. In the Ivorian case, the removal of Laurent Ggagbo could have been considered suitable because of the established African norm to depose the loser of an election (Abatan & Spies, 2016; Bekoe, 2017 Dembinski, 2017, p. 826). According to Dembinski (2017), the rule was:

conceived as a regional rule-set for regime protection against coups d’états, African states have also developed rules against ignoring the outcomes of democratic elections. However, established procedures for regional reactions to such unconstitutional behavior by no means envisage forced regime change (p. 826).

The Libyan case, in contrast, saw former President Thabo Mbeki slate the NATO coalition for its “lack of respect for international law but particularly the violation of the African right to self-determination.” In his view, arbitrary and unfair treatment was so pronounced in the case of Libya that he claimed it set a “very dangerous precedent,” rhetorically asking “which African country will be next?” (Mbeki, 2011, quoted in Dembinski, 2017, p. 821). Ultimately, it was a matter of procedure and not a matter of substance. Both Gaddafi and Gbagbo had an abhorrent reputation with regard to respect of human rights, and both were deposed in 2011.

Dembinski (2017) summed it up best:

During the Libyan crisis, the AU’s demand for voice was denied. Thereafter, the AU criticised the implementation of UN Resolution 1973 as an act of neo-colonialism, acted stubbornly, and began to question established rules of application, though not necessarily the norm itself. In the Ivorian case, the AU was fully involved. Although the outcome deviated from the AU’s preference, the organisation and its leading states accepted the ouster of Gbagbo, conduced to post-crisis reconstruction, and continued to support the POC [protection of civilians] norm. (p. 826)

A challenge remains for African countries, particularly South Africa as a regional leader, with regard to elections being a prerequisite for the ruse of stability. In many cases, elections that take place on the continent cannot be objectively considered free and fair (Adejumbi, 2000; Bekoe, 2017). The conditions for free elections are barely present, but African leaders often do not address this head on. Ultimately, this leads to future conflicts as can be seen in Mali, CAR, Uganda, and elsewhere (Haque, 2020; Kaka, 2016; Pangburn, 2020). Also, the winning of elections appears to give carte blanche to leaders to commit human rights atrocities without risking sanction, or abandonment, by fellow African leaders or the AU.

Ramaphosa’s Foreign Policy Consolidation, 2018–2020

Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa became president of the republic after a contentious leadership race. His background is dissimilar to the previous leaders as his experience is both as a trade unionist and later on a corporate giant; he helped establish the National Union of Mineworkers in 1982 (SAHO, n.d.). He was Secretary-General of the ANC in 1991. During that period of transition, he was one of the principal architects of South Africa’s Constitution.

He cut his teeth at international affairs from the perspective of a corporate titan rather than that of a statesman. It is no wonder, during his presidency, there has been an intensified shift towards economic diplomacy. In the same vein as his predecessors, and in line with ANC policy, he has kept Africa at the ideological center of his foreign policy.

Emerging Issues in South Africa’s Foreign Policy

Ramaphosa’s presidency coincides with a time of major socioeconomic turbulence in South Africa, a situation that has been made worse by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. This has left his administration with little space to maneuver in terms of setting its foreign policy priorities. The South African economy has been contracting for some time now, and the country has been downgraded to junk status by the major credit rating agencies. Unemployment, particularly among the youth is at an all-time high, while the debt to the gross domestic product ratio stands at 82.8% (IMF, 2020). In this context, economic diplomacy, even if still poorly defined and coordinated, has remained the main thrust of South Africa’s foreign policy, much like during the Zuma presidency. This has come at the expense of ambitious foreign policy initiatives such as the plan to establish a development partnership agency, which hardly features in official foreign policy. The prevailing domestic and global circumstances are also likely to elevate the issue of regional and continental economic integration in Pretoria’s foreign policy agenda. South Africa hinges much of its economic prosperity on its ability to access opportunities for trade and investment in its African neighborhood. Initiatives such as the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) and the plans to establish a tripartite free trade area encompassing the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the East African Community (EAC), and SADC align with Pretoria’s economic-focused foreign policy, and are thus likely to receive priority. In prioritizing economic integration as part of its economic diplomacy strategy, Pretoria will also inevitably be required to assume a more proactive role in resolving conflicts and bringing peace to both old and new hotspots. The Islamist insurgency in Cabo Delgado, northern Mozambique, is significant in this regard.

Further afield, the end of the Trump presidency in the United States and the possible thaw in United States–China relations opens up new space for South Africa to prioritize and play a leading role in reconstructing the institutions of global governance and the multilateral international order, which have been central to its post-apartheid international strategy. This will prove to be a challenging balancing act for President Ramaphosa’s administration given the many geopolitical fault lines that define the world today and South Africa’s multiple identities and loyalties in its foreign relations. Pretoria’s renewed multilateral activism will also have to contend with the challenge of limited resources for diplomatic engagement as well as possible competition from other regional heavyweights on the continent such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Egypt, unless a conscious effort is made to form strategic partnerships with these actors as part of its continental and global diplomacy.

In 2020, South Africa assumed the chair of AU and avowed that the actualization of the African Decade of Action will be the mainspring of its term (AU, 2020). Emphasis has been placed on bolstering the Regional Economic Communities, the Pan-African Parliament, NEPAD, and the APRM (AU, 2020; Hunter, 2020). However, his failure to speak on the crisis in Zimbabwe, as well as in the DRC, among others, gives the impression that Ramaphosa is unwilling to break from the South African tradition of quiet diplomacy (Bergman, 2020; Fabricius, 2020; Louw-Vaudran, 2018).

Peace and Security

Africa often dominates the agenda of the UNSC but, as noted by de Carvalho and Forti (2020), even though “in 2018, over 50% of security council meetings, 60% of its outcome documents, and 70% of its resolutions with Chapter VII mandates concerned African peace and security issues” (n.p.). There is a growing desire for nations in the Global South, particularly Africa, to have more representation in such bodies, because most of the decisions within the UNSC relate to actions on the African continent. South Africa has been at the forefront of these calls. Yet its performance at the UNSC has been met with a lot of criticism.

Its third tenure (2019–2020) is focused on consolidating and cementing the relationship gains and focusing on actualizing the AU’s goal of silencing the guns.

Its tenure takes place against other commitments, including holding the AU chair for 2020 and a global pandemic. South Africa asserted that the African Renaissance would drive its term in office. Nevertheless, the tensions between its stated values and its apparent approach to voting on the UNSC still exist. A stark example of this took place early in its third term in the aftermath of the election controversy in the 2018 elections in the DRC. In its first statement to the UNSC in January 2019, South Africa described the elections as being “the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history” (South African Government, 2019). Instead of condemning the elections like the United States and France, South Africa commended the progress the country had made. Moreover, South Africa did not support a UNSC press statement that criticized the DRC government’s actions in the run up to the elections (Hamill, 2019).


South Africa’s position in the contemporary international order is predicated on its identity as an activist for the Global South and its relatively peaceful transition to non-racial democracy. South Africa’s isolation, transformation, and ultimately, attempts at championing the movement of South–South solidarity under the umbrella of “Ubuntu” has made understanding the overall aims and principles of South Africa’s post-apartheid policy difficult.

During the apartheid era, South Africa’s foreign policy, within the African continent and on the broader international stage, was guided by principles of containment and security. The state wanted to ensure the continued security of its White population and contain the threat posed by Black liberation movements such as the ANC. The apartheid state was able to garner some support because its battles to continue the entrenchment of its policy of apartheid often intersected with the Western countries’ fights against communism. However, the continued tacit and implicit support for the White minority government became impractical. By the early 1990s, the period of transformation and reintegration, the ANC had fully entrenched itself as a shadow government. The foreign policy approach of the ANC had as much salience as the South African government of the day. To the extent that it was able to lobby for continued sanctions against the South African government, and sustained isolation from the broader international stage remained until the first democratic elections took place.

In the aftermath of the elections and transition period, the articulated lodestar of the newly elected ANC-led government was respect for human rights and the sovereignty of states. Unfortunately, these ideals, though noble, were inherently contradictory. The first sense of the contradiction was evident when Mandela chose to visit Indonesia, a country with a questionable human rights record at the time (Staff Reporter, 1995). Its contradictory responses to accusations of human rights abuses (Van Aardt, 1996) in the Global South made it clear that South Africa’s foreign policy in the future would be guided more by its worldview than its commitment to ideals such as human rights.

The challenges of the 21st century mean that South Africa will have to make critical decisions not only concerning its priorities but also with regard to how it would like to position itself in the international order. The ANC’s evolution from its roots as a liberation movement to a governing party is not yet complete. Moreover, internal contestations within the party bring its long-term sustainability into question. This fluid domestic political environment and its governance ramifications will continue to forestall dreams of a foreign policy reset that accompanied the euphoria of a Ramaphosa presidency. In any case, South Africa’s foreign policy conduct in the 21st century cannot escape the influence of a confluence of domestic, regional, and global forces. These include domestic pressure generated by mounting socioeconomic challenges compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, the withering away of the political influence of the ANC, and the re-emergence of realpolitik in both continental and global politics. This can only further swing the foreign policy pendulum towards greater pragmatism, as the country is forced to decisively ground its international relations in the realities of its domestic, regional, and global environments.

Further Reading

  • Alden, C. (2019). South Africa’s post-apartheid foreign policy: From reconciliation to revival? Routledge.
  • Barber, J. (2005). The new South Africa’s foreign policy: Principles and practice. International Affairs, 81(5), 1079–1096.
  • Landsberg, C. (2010). The diplomacy of transformation: South African foreign policy and statecraft. Macmillan.
  • Nolutshungu, S. C. (1975). South Africa in Africa: A study in ideology and foreign policy. Manchester University Press.
  • Vickers, B. (2002). Pulpit morality or penny-pinching diplomacy? The discursive debate on Mandela’s foreign policy. Politeia, 21(2), 80–100.