South African President Jacob Zuma and President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan at the AU Summit, June 2015 © Wikimedia Commons

African leaders are increasingly sceptical about South Africa’s commitment to its Africa First policy

South Africa’s recent announcement that it is to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) appears to conform to its Africa First agenda.

South Africa had been under pressure from African governments and the African Union (AU) after Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir’s visit to the country in June 2015 went badly wrong. The nation was obliged to arrest anyone sought by the ICC tribunal under the Rome Statute, to which it was a signatory. A court ordered Bashir to remain in the country pending his arrest for war crimes and human rights violations. But he fled, and South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal later said the government had displayed “disgraceful conduct” by allowing him to leave. The latest decision to leave the ICC has been a long time coming, as several African governments have criticised the organisation as being anti-African.

In South Africa, this has its roots in former president Thabo Mbeki’s major diplomatic shift towards the continent. The previous National Party government had been Europe-centric. Now South Africa launched its Africa First policy, and initially the adjustment was hardly difficult. Frontline states in Africa had supported the ANC through its intense conflict with the white-minority government for 20 years, so the new South African government’s shift from a partly Western to a fully African policy made sense.

In 2003, in line with this policy, Mbeki and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo launched the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) which was supposed to provide the AU with a way to monitor the continent’s leaders’ performance amid much discussion concerning Africa’s move towards democracy. South Africa also took a prominent position in the Southern African Development Community and offered troops for peacekeeping missions. It was putting its money where its philosophical mouth was.

But how African was this policy really? In fact, die-hard Africanists saw it as a mere nod to indigenous philosophy, with the real focus on China and Russia. The nationalists wanted to see South Africa take a neo-colonial approach to its Africa policies. South Africa has insisted that its strategy involves partnerships at two levels an internal African one, and an external one focusing on Beijing and Moscow. The BRICS bank is part of that narrative, with South Africa paying the first tranche of R2 billion (US$ 138 502 260) towards the bank in December 2015.

Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, chief executive at the South African Institute of International Affairs, says Jacob Zuma’s administration has altered the Africa First policy. “In effect this has seen a diminution in the focus on Africa, although part of the narrative is about the role that BRICS can play in Africa’s development. Of course, the BRICS is about something more redefining the global geopolitical landscape and providing a nascent alternative pole to that of the West. But much of South Africa’s energy since 2010 has gone to the BRICS, something which has not gone unnoticed in Africa.”

Part of the African development narrative was also fulfilled by the AU promoting Agenda 2063, which envisions a united continent, with world-class infrastructure, beneficial links to the diaspora, and fluid borders facilitating trade and the flow of people by 2063. Yet the AU is facing its own headwinds globally. For one thing, the European Union’s (EU) regional integration experiment appears to be under stress, and partially unravelling. “Brexit”, Britain’s impending exit from the EU, has compounded the damage. These factors have shaken the resolve of other regional blocs globally.

The South African government’s stated tactic is to support regional integration and what’s known as the “One Africa” approach: that integration will be a catalyst for cooperation across Africa. The continent would be a visa- free state where there are no refugees, illegal immigrants or internally displaced people. However, South Africa’s agenda is not clear on a number of points.

Diplomats also say that South Africa has kept its cards close to its chest with regard to its interests, particularly when dealing with the sub-Saharan power shortage. The region’s leaders are focusing on green and sustainable energy and, in particular, powering the sub-Saharan region using electricity generated by the powerful Congo River. Yet instead of supporting these moves, South Africa wants to build nuclear power stations using Russian, Chinese, American or French suppliers. Other nations in Southern Africa regard this as the nation’s attempt to retain its strategic power in the region at their expense.

Moreover, some of South Africa’s citizens are at odds with the ruling party’s official Pan-Africanism. Repeated xenophobic violence targeting foreign nationals is one sign that some South Africans are not sold on African integration, nor convinced of its relevance to the poorest workers. Most immigrants are seen as lower-paid competitors to South Africa’s working class or those who are excluded from the formal economy.

South Africa’s attempts at diplomacy have also been patchy. Take its decision that elections in 2010 in Côte d’Ivoire were free and fair, when West African nations had ruled the election as unfree and unfair. South Africa’s unilateralism angered the Economic Community of West African States’ leaders and continues to plague the country’s diplomats as they seek to promote the country’s view of Africa. South Africa, as a member of the BRICS grouping, has thrown in its lot with Beijing and Moscow. In 2014 Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s international affairs minister, was quoted as saying that “a better life for South Africans is intertwined with the country’s pursuit of a better Africa in a better world”. But Sidiropoulos says Pretoria’s attempts at pursuing its own agenda have cost it support in Africa.

“More recently South Africa has been less effective in building cross-regional coalitions to advance its particular interests or objectives. For example, while mobilising the Southern African region to support Madame Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy for the AU Commission chair, South Africa faced a bruising battle [with other regions] to get its candidate elected to that position with Nigeria notably opposed.”

The other major weakness in this approach is South Africa’s poor growth, high unemployment rate, weak economy and acceleration of debt. Some of its African partners have seen their GDP growth spurred into the 4-6% range, while South Africa’s languishes at less than 0,8%. The International Monetary Fund believes its growth in 2016 may taper off further. Yet the government continues to affirm its commitment to implementing the AU’s Agenda 2063 and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, as well as its own National Development Plan, all of which involve considerable costs.

The country’s increasingly poor ranking in the world corruption index is also confounding the idealists. South Africa’s diplomatic agenda is driven by its president: he appoints heads of mission, welcomes foreign ambassadors, conducts state-to-state relations and signs international treaties. Parliament is responsible for approving these agreements.

But President Jacob Zuma has failed to stabilise the South African democracy. Notably, his bungled attempt in December 2015 to appoint Des van Rooyen, a friend and former small town mayor, as finance minister in place of the highly respected finance expert Nhlanhla Nene, backfired. The move caused the country’s currency to lose almost a third of its value and shook the bond market. That decision was rescinded within four days, but Zuma is now regarded with suspicion in his own country, and even within his own political party.

So one of the main problems facing the department of international relations and cooperation at the end of 2016 was a crisis of confidence created by the president. Zuma’s power is under threat and his policies face reappraisal from within. Moreover, Zuma’s run-in with the country’s anti-graft ombud Thuli Madonsela, the then Public Protector over a multimillion rand upgrade of his personal residence, has created doubts that he represents clean government.

South Africa’s Africa First agenda includes a clear description of the importance of good governance. That’s a hard sell when the person claiming to be a strong exponent of clean democracy is in conflict with his own professed ethic. South Africa’s stated policy for the next five years is, inter alia, to strengthen bilateral relations with African countries and intensify its support of the AU, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the Pan-African Parliament, and the APRM. Each of these represents a major challenge and various stress tests must be passed. South Africa’s claimed commitment to these projects requires a large dose of AU good faith, which is now being called into question.

At the August 2016 Pan-African Parliament for example, African delegates were fuming over a lack of equipment after suppliers complained they had not been paid. Security services were removed, which led to some delegates complaining that the South African government was paying lip service to its Africa First policy. Translators also refused to work after they told the media they had not been paid overtime.

While these matters could be written off as small logistical mishaps, the bigger picture is hardly more satisfactory. South Africa is perceived to have failed in its core mission: to develop its own people and then duplicate this success through the AU. While South Africa discusses protocol and strategy externally, at home, university students protest against the government; labour movements, traditionally ruling party allies, are riven by internal machinations; and the party is feuding internally over the president’s many scandals.

South Africa’s Africa Agenda is increasingly fraught at a time when foreign direct investment in the continent has dipped following a period of sustained interest from governments and corporates. Ernst & Young reports foreign direct capital investment (FDI) in the continent surging to $128 billion in 2014 a five-year high. The number of jobs created from FDI jumped 68% and resulted in 188 400 new positions across Africa. However, this has proved unsustainable. The commodity boom has petered out and China’s growth which had driven demand for commodities has slumped.

South Africa is a very different country from the one that inspired the idea of an African Renaissance. While the ANC government spends much of its energy fighting internal divisions, its political nous has declined and its significance within the AU has diminished. Moreover, the August 2016 local elections revealed that it had lost Africa’s most powerful economic regions, including the capital, Pretoria, and the industrial heartland of Johannesburg, to the opposition Democratic Alliance.

Continentally, Zuma is now regarded as toothless. Members of his own party regard him as a possible liability. Yet his government’s decision to withdraw from the ICC may still win it some admiration from the AU’s despots.

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