News | Economic / Social Policy - Globalization - Southern Africa South Africa’s Balancing Act

Between the East-West policy calculus, national interests, moral principles, non-alignment, and BRICS



Siviwe Rikhotso,

South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor poses for a photo with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS Ministerial in Cape town, South Africa, in June 2023. Photo: IMAGO / SNA

The current global political landscape is marked by polarization, escalating geopolitical tensions, and rivalries among dominant forces. As a result, emerging powers find themselves compelled to choose sides, inadvertently becoming entangled in the conflicts between competing dominant powers. Pretoria appears to have become the latest frontier for this struggle for dominance, considering the multiple diplomatic visits involving Western and Eastern allies that have taken place in the administrative capital over the past three years. All of these visits share the common goal of strengthening relations with South Africa, and eventually becoming its main strategic partner. While this might suggest that the West (comprising the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union) and the East (comprising China, India, Russia, and to a certain extent Turkey) are vying for South Africa’s friendship, the reality implies otherwise.

Siviwe Rikhotso is a Programme Manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Southern Africa Regional Office.

South Africa’s geopolitical significance in emerging power dynamics, along with its highly contested status as a regional hegemon and key economic hub in Africa, means that considerable pressure is placed on the country to align with one political side or the other. This is especially true during periods of escalating intergovernmental tensions.

The competition among major powers and their focus on South Africa, coupled with the increased attention (particularly from the Global North) on the continent as a trade partner, has sparked concerns of a “new scramble for Africa”. That being said, this concept is somewhat questionable (considering that former colonial powers have never fully relinquished interest in the continent; rather, their involvement has simply waned over time), and a more nuanced perspective is necessary.

Especially within the context of competing global interests, the election of Donald Trump ushered in a period of US retreat from multilateralism. Meanwhile, China emerged, overtaking the US, the UK, and the EU as a trade partner and aid donor to Africa. The subsequent election of Joe Biden as president saw a revitalized focus on the continent, accompanied by efforts to strengthen US ties with strategic African partners. Washington appears to be interested in rekindling relations with Pretoria, with multiple visits between the two nations having been made.

This is happening against the backdrop of COVID-19, which brought economic, trade, political, and diplomatic activities to a halt globally. What is more, the Russia-Ukraine war has led to the isolation of Russia on the global stage, further intensified by economic sanctions imposed by the Western allies. These events, which have ultimately polarized the international community, coincide with increasing discussions about the potential expansion of the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) bloc. Pretoria has consequently responded by adopting a balanced approach.

South Africa’s foreign policy has seen notable shifts in terms of primary partnerships over time. It shifted from aligning with the West during the Mbeki era to embracing the East under Zuma. Now, under Ramaphosa, there is an apparent attempt to strike a balance with both the East and the West.

History of Pretoria’s Foreign Policy Calculus

Following the transition to democracy, South Africa rose to international prominence as a model global citizen and an advocate for the protection of human rights. Driven by a desire to match its newfound influence, the country’s foreign policy focused on asserting its authority and leadership both regionally and continentally. At the same time, it served as a voice for the Global South, effectively wielding soft power in multilateral contexts.

Thus, the quest to emerge as an international protagonist as well as to play a pivotal role in the African continent was a primary objective for South Africa (and this remains true today). During this time, South Africa, much like the rest of the world, operated within a Western-centric framework in a unipolar international order. Under the Mbeki administration, Pretoria’s foreign policy was characterized by intellectual effort and refinement. This was primarily linked with the movement of the African Renaissance, which viewed South Africa as a potential intermediary between the North and the South.

South Africa made a concerted effort to transition from being a bridge-builder between the Global North and the Global South, to becoming a rising African nation that focused on ‘eliminating global apartheid’.

Foreign policy strategies under Mandela and Mbeki could be characterized as embracing a more expansive approach akin to the concept of “manifest destiny”. These strategies were directed towards asserting Pretoria’s leadership at the regional, continental, and global level. This was evidenced by the nation’s reintegration into the international arena and its integral role in forming programmes, unions, and entities such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the African Union (AU), the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM).

As Sidiropoulos eloquently explained:

Under President Mbeki, South Africa established itself as an important interlocutor for Africa in global fora, a strong advocate of South-South solidarity and reform of the outdated global governance architecture, and a leader in the reconstruction of Africa’s institutional architecture.

This is true at least during most of Mbeki’s first term and part of his second.

During this period, South Africa was heavily involved in the Global South project to curtail dominant Western influence on the global economy through the promotion of “southernization” and “pluralization” (illustrated, for example, by the country’s role in establishing the IBSA Dialogue Forum, a tripartite grouping involving India, Brazil, and South Africa). This meant collaborating with emerging powers on issues like debt relief, reform of international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and global free trade. Moreover, the project aimed to establish alternative sources of international financing, investment, and trade, emphasizing the conviction that the future of global finance and trade lay more in the East than the West. South Africa made a concerted effort to transition from being a bridge-builder between the Global North and the Global South, to becoming a rising African nation that focused on “eliminating global apartheid”.

Mbeki’s presidency, and to a certain extent his foreign policy, marked by intellectual refinement, was clouded by his unceremonious exit in 2007. The African National Congress (ANC) recalled him just eight months before he was to end his second term. It is important to note that South Africa’s legitimacy and status as a principled international player, an advocate for emerging economies and South-South cooperation, a champion for human rights domestically and globally, and one of the most vocal and ambitious rising powers in multilateral fora, began to diminish during Mbeki’s last term.

When Jacob Zuma succeeded Mbeki in 2009, there was much speculation about the direction Pretoria’s foreign policy would take under his leadership. The question lingered about whether Zuma would steer a course of continuity or usher in change. One major shift was the increasingly lacklustre courting of the G7 nations, possibly influenced by Russia’s expulsion from the G8 grouping in 2014. Another contributing factor might have been the ANC’s distrust of the US government, given the latter’s historical support for the apartheid regime. South Africa’s foreign policy thus began to focus on fostering ties with the BRIC countries and continuing to broadly prioritize Africa.

More than anything, the pivot towards the East was propelled by the evolving international landscape, which was slowly transitioning from an ailing American unipolar-led order to an increasingly multipolar global order defined by the rise of new powers. Pretoria thus had to adopt a foreign policy strategy for the first time, balancing old hegemonic powers and emerging ones (although this aspect of the policy was not particularly prominent at that moment).

Despite losing the label of a nation with strong moral values, both the Mbeki and Zuma administrations achieved a degree of international success. Embracing a universal foreign policy approach, they fortified bonds with emerging powers, thus gaining increased global prominence. In many respects, continuity, rather than change, defined South Africa’s strategy for international engagement and the protection of national interests during the two presidencies.Under the Ramaphosa administration, South Africa’s foreign policy continues to promote universality and multilateralism, emphasizing expanded economic diplomacy, and a sense of “progressive internationalism” involving institutional reform at the multilateral level and engagement reform at the bilateral level. These principles also extend into the political-diplomatic sphere. However, unlike the Mbeki and Zuma governments, the Ramaphosa administration appears to be driven by the ambition to restore the nation’s strong moral dimension, reminiscent of the policies adopted by the Mandela’s government.

South Africa’s foreign policy choices appear to lack clarity and rationale.

It seems clear that an East-West foreign policy calculus was not necessary for the first two presidencies, given that much of the world leaned toward the West, with the US as the sole hegemon. South Africa’s third democratic administration marked the need for such foreign policy restructuring, even if not in a prominent manner.

South Africa’s Compromised Moral Principles and Unclear Foreign Policy Interests

Recently, South Africa’s foreign policy faced scrutiny when it refrained from aligning with any position on the Russia-Ukraine war, citing friendship with both nations, respect for territorial sovereignty, and a commitment to peaceful resolution. Criticisms arose due to the country’s global image as a champion of human rights and the rule of law.

The decision not to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems to stand in stark contrast to national interests. Curiously, Russia is not a significant trade partner for South Africa and it lacks substantial international influence. Recent developments, such as doubts about Putin’s grip on power (raised by Western observers), also weaken the foundation of this seemingly pro-Russia stance. Historical friendships between the governing party and the Russian government cannot fully explain the economic and diplomatic repercussions of such a decision.

South Africa’s foreign policy choices appear to lack clarity and rationale. For instance, hosting joint military drills with Russia and China on the eve of the anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine war contradicted the nation’s non-aligned image. Complicating matters, earlier this year the US ambassador alleged that South Africa had illegally shipped weapons to Russia, insinuating that the country aligned with Moscow in the conflict. This could potentially jeopardize bilateral trade agreements between Pretoria and the West, notably the soon-to-expire African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) agreement. In this context, Pretoria’s recent efforts to salvage the AGOA agreement by sending a delegation to the US underscores its acknowledgment of the importance of US trade, regardless of its broader international stance.

Pretoria may have put itself in the very situation it had been trying to avoid – caught between opposing dominant powers and taking unwise decisions that are harmful to the brand it is trying to revive.

Need for an East-West Foreign Policy Calculus?

South Africa faces an urgent need for an East-West foreign policy calculus, now more than ever. This arises amidst growing East-West geopolitical tensions and the ascendency of emerging power players like BRICS. Establishing a clear foreign policy is crucial for asserting global influence. However, navigating international pressures without damaging existing relations on both sides of the international political spectrum is challenging.

Given the controversy surrounding South Africa’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war and the stakes involved, Pretoria’s foreign policy calculus should exhibit greater adaptability to shifting international dynamics, at bilateral and multilateral levels. It should also remain receptive to scenarios where either Eastern or Western powers relinquish global hegemony to the other, while adhering to its long-held stance of non-alignment. Fortifying its commitment to human rights and the rule of law is crucial for clarity in positions. The current balancing act exposes a crisis of undefined foreign policy interests and compromised international principles that South Africa had previously championed.

BRICS: South Africa’s Role and the Challenges Faced by the Bloc in Creating a New Global Order

South Africa’s BRICS membership stands as a prominent foreign policy accomplishment, reflecting its commitment to a multipolar world order with equal opportunities for all. Inclusion in the bloc and alignment with its agenda challenge the US worldview and global mission. With its membership, South Africa aims to advance the African agenda and foster South-South cooperation — although questions arise as to how the country’s current influence within the bloc will translate into convincing positions.

At this year’s BRICS summit, which will be hosted by South Africa, discussions will revolve around trade and investment facilitation, sustainable development, innovation, and global governance reform. A very significant topic is the proposal of a new gold-backed BRICS currency. However, the creation of such a currency necessitates extensive negotiations and the establishment of mechanisms for exchange rates, payment systems, and financial market regulations. The group’s initial focus may lie in developing an integrated cross-border payment system before introducing a new currency. Anticipated discussions also include the potential expansion of BRICS membership, with more than a dozen nations having expressed interest.

Pretoria has a vital opportunity to demonstrate leadership both in the continent and on the international stage, given its unique standing as a nation with a relatively strong democracy and partnerships on either side of the East-West geopolitical divide.

Looking beyond the upcoming summit, one of the main objectives of the BRICS bloc is to reshape the global order to its benefit. Achieving this goal necessitates a substantial coordination of resources and an alignment of worldviews and interests. The challenge emerges from political and economic instabilities within member states, polarized views on significant issues such as reform of the UN Security Council, and territorial disputes between India and China.

Moreover, member states remain divided over the expansion proposal. While China and Russia are eager for the bloc to expand, Brazil and India have expressed reservations. Prospective additions like Saudi Arabia and Iran introduce concerns over power imbalances, with Brazil arguing that the inclusion of the two countries could favour China and potentially Russia. India has suggested introducing admission guidelines for future entries.

Another concern revolves around potential new BRICS bloc members lacking democratic credentials. Admissions of such members could portray the bloc as a gathering of strongmen, eroding its current legitimacy. This would, by extension, tarnish South Africa’s image. Nonetheless, there is hope that as BRICS garners influence, Pretoria will not merely bandwagon on the bloc’s successes as a passive member, but become an active participant in its endeavours and uphold its commitment to a just multipolar order.

An Emerging Power?

South Africa’s response to mounting geopolitical tensions requires a revised approach so that the country can establish itself as an emerging power, with both soft and hard influence on individual and multilateral fronts. Similarly, the new and largely underdeveloped East-West foreign policy strategy must guide this delicate balancing act, securing positive outcomes now and in the future.

To prevent unmet expectations, Pretoria’s foreign policy must align with national interests and uphold constitutional values, favouring behavioural consistency over mere roles and relationships. Additionally, flexibility is essential in navigating changing world orders and pursuing positive-sum gains on bilateral and multilateral levels. This demands a firm commitment to human rights and a rules-based international system, as well as a rejection of double standards from dominant powers. Pretoria can do this by leveraging its role as the 2023 BRICS chair and its position within international forums like the G20.

Pretoria has a vital opportunity to demonstrate leadership both in the continent and on the international stage, given its unique standing as a nation with a relatively strong democracy and partnerships on either side of the East-West geopolitical divide. Thus, it carries the implicit responsibility of managing major power competition and fostering responsible conduct among these regional hegemons.