UP EXPERT OPINION: SA at 30 years: home and abroad

Posted on May 20, 2024

SA recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of its first democratic election, which brought “founding father” and Nobel peace laureate Nelson Mandela to power.

The high priest of reconciliation is often accused today of having granted the wealthy white minority forgiveness for 350 years of colonial and apartheid crimes without proper penance for its overwhelming black victims.

There has been some impressive socioeconomic transformation over the past 30 years: 3.4-million houses have been built; 90% of households are electrified; 82% of homes now have piped water; and 18.8-million South Africans receive social grants. However, unemployment remains stubbornly high at 32%, while 18.2-million people still live in extreme poverty.  

SA recently charged Israel with genocide crimes at the International Court of Justice, a bold action consistent with the governing ANC’s history of promoting self-determination. During three stints on the UN Security Council in 2007/08, 2011/12 and 2019/20, Pretoria consistently championed self-determination for the people of Palestine and Western Sahara.

Until 2024, SA was the only African country in the Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA (Brics) grouping; it remains the only continental country in the Group of 20 (G20) major economies; and is the only African global strategic partner of the EU.

After 1994 Mandela sought to promote human rights and democracy. His aspirations did not survive the first contact with reality. When Nigerian military dictator Gen Sani Abacha hanged environmental campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow activists in 1995, Madiba’s call for sanctions resulted in SA being portrayed across the continent as a Western Trojan horse.

Mandela’s deputy, Thabo Mbeki — the real power behind the throne — reversed course, ensuring that SA returned to the African fold. On assuming power in 1999 Mbeki acted as a philosopher-king, championing an “African renaissance” and promoting social transformation at home while building the key institutions of the AU with Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo.

He also sent peacekeepers to Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi and mediated Zimbabwe’s crisis. Mbeki failed to convince the G8 rich countries to annul Africa’s external debt and fund its socioeconomic transformation. He pushed to democratise the UN, the World Bank, and the IMF, and helped create the India, Brazil, SA (IBSA) Dialogue Forum in 2003.  

Building on IBSA, Mbeki’s successor, Jacob Zuma, successfully joined the existing Bric bloc in 2010. Zuma pursued a more openly mercantilist trade policy to position SA as the “gateway to Africa”, even as its white-dominated corporate giants continued to fan out across the continent. However, his administration was accused of widespread graft.

Under Cyril Ramaphosa after 2018, SA has continued to court foreign investors. However, he has been embroiled in protracted intraparty squabbles, and accused of a halfhearted approach to tackling corruption. He has struggled to rehabilitate lobotomised state institutions such as Eskom.

Abroad, Ramaphosa chaired the AU in 2020, strongly championing equal access to Covid-19 vaccines, while continuing to contribute to peacekeeping in DRC and Mozambique. As Brics chair in 2023, he oversaw the expansion of the grouping, bringing in Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates.

Pretoria has sometimes been clumsy in pursuing its foreign policy, appearing to be too close to Beijing and Moscow on Ukraine. But while Mandela’s heirs have not always played a difficult hand with tact, the country is justified in maintaining good ties with Brics allies China and Russia, as well as with its Global South partners, alongside promoting sound relations with traditional Western partners.

SA must continue to pursue a nonaligned stance that seeks to benefit from ties with both East and West to lift as many of its 62-million people out of poverty as possible, while playing a leadership role across Africa and the Global South.

Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

This article first appeared in Business Day on 13 May 2024.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Pretoria.

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