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IRIN Special Report on the regional implications of South Africa’s general election

South Africa’s second democratic election on Wednesday, 2 June is widely expected to return the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to power in a post-Mandela era that promises to herald what has been called an African Renaissance.

Latest opinion polls have forecast a strong victory for the ANC under Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela’s successor, who is expected to be sworn in as president on 16 June.

With a new cabinet to be appointed by that date, diplomats and foreign policy experts told IRIN this week that important foreign policy changes, especially in the country’s relationship with its neighbours in Southern Africa, can be expected. Mandela’s foreign minister, the ANC veteran, Alfred Nzo, is expected to retire and be replaced in the new cabinet.

Key foreign policy issues

The key foreign policy issues the experts highlighted are the ongoing conflicts in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and how South Africa will balance a delicate trade relationship with her neighbours and major partners in the European Union (EU).

In a recent speech, Jackie Selebi, Director General of the Department of Foreign Affairs, said that among the fundamentals of any future foreign policy would be for South Africa to “support the needs and aspirations of the African continent and the promotion of the economic wellbeing of the people of the Southern African region.”

Deputy President Mbeki, himself went on the record as saying: “South Africa’s primary foreign policy ambition is to secure the conditions necessary for an African Renaissance through the establishment of genuine and stable democracies in Africa, from which systems of governance will flourish.”

But this could prove to be a difficult task as the country’s forays into the continent and the region have not always been met with open arms.

South Africa, the dominant regional power

“Given its dominant economic, political and military positions, South Africa has often been expected to take a regional policy lead in Southern Africa, but in turn has been singled out for criticism over its perceived hegemony,” said Greg Mills, National Director of the South African Institute of International Affairs. “A case of damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.”

Upon taking office in April 1994, President Nelson Mandela announced to the world that “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs.” However, South Africa had not pursued this principle “religiously”, and its foreign policy had been a source of “controversy and confusion”, Mills said.

Any new foreign policy had to be more focused and planned. “The idea is, as Selebi has put it, to make South Africa’s foreign policy predictable and not one that suggests we collide with events,” Mills said.

Angola policy

Diplomatic sources also told IRIN that there were those who felt that South Africa had not spent enough “political energy” on trying to end the war in Angola. “Compare this to the political effort spent on breaking the impasse around the Libyan Lockerbie suspects and you see what is meant,” said one diplomatic source.
Another expert argued that in future South Africa would have to take a more realistic standpoint on Angola because isolating the UNITA rebel Jonas Savimbi, “does not work”. “We have to become involved in conflict resolution and containment on both sides of the conflict, we are dealing with bad and bad,” the expert said.

DRC, a “lose-lose” situation

On the DRC, the experts were agreed that South Africa had stood its ground by opting for a mediated solution and resisting pressure to become drawn into the crisis militarily. This was in sharp contrast they said to its neighbours in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, which had sent intervention forces.

South Africa, a diplomat told IRIN, was in a “lose-lose situation”. He added: “Had we become involved militarily we would have been criticised, and by choosing the other option we have been lambasted for not doing enough.”

Mills said that although Pretoria had attempted to play an impartial, diplomatic role in solving the Congo’s troubles, this had to a degree been undermined by the sale of weapons to Zimbabwe, Namibia and Rwanda fighting on opposite sides of the current conflict. Zimbabwe and Namibia have intervened on the behalf of the DRC government, with Rwanda supporting the rebels.

SA’s trade relationships

Foreign policy experts said South Africa would also have to pay closer attention to the “delicate balance” between its trade relationships with its neighbours and the EU.

They cited two important foreign affairs issues which would have to be concluded as soon as possible. The first is for the new government to iron out the finer details of the Free Trade and Development Agreement (FTDA) with the EU and the second is the conclusion of the terms and processes leading towards the establishment of the SADC free trade zone by 2004.

Currently South Africa’s economic output is four times larger than all 13 of its SADC partners combined, and just recently Namibia and Zimbabwe, two SADC members criticised South Africa for unfair trade practices.

Combining foreign and trade policy

A regional trade specialist said there had to be a closer working relationship between the department of foreign affairs and Department of trade and industry (DTI).

“Given the centrality of the commercial issues to international diplomacy and the growing linkage between foreign and domestic policies, an amalgamation of the diplomatic arms of the South Africa department of foreign affairs and the DTI is seen to be long overdue,” he said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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