As South Africa's ability to fulfil its complex and often conflicting roles diminishes, it must develop a more strategic and realistic approach to a changing continent.
The 'maximalist' approach that has driven South Africa's external engagements since 1994 - as Africa's champion and 'one among many'; as simultaneously development partner, moral leader and industrial investor across sub-Saharan Africa; and as friend and ally to developing countries, to traditional donors and more recently to its BRICS partners - is under increasing strain. As South Africa's ability to fulfil these complex and often conflicting roles diminishes, it must develop a more strategic and realistic approach to a changing continent.
The African National Congress (ANC) government has sought to leverage South Africa's economic weight to bolster the country's political influence on the continent. Commercial enterprise has been the primary driver of South Africa's engagement in Africa, but the strained relationship between the objectives of business and government in South Africa is often reflected in the country's regional engagements.
South Africa's long-standing economic dominance has in part reflected the relative weakness of other African economies. But governments elsewhere on the continent have gradually sought to modernize their economies and encourage investment not just in extractives but also into services and manufacturing. A critical shift came as a rebasing of Nigeria's economy in 2014 showed that it far outranked South Africa as the continent's largest in terms of overall gross domestic product (GDP), although South Africa has a significantly higher level of average GDP per head and its economy is more diversified.
With a series of end-of-decade elections due in Southern Africa - including in South Africa in 2019 - many of the 'old guard' of national liberation movements will come under the scrutiny of voters who have high expectations of delivery, and for whom the mantra of liberation may be insufficient as a guarantor of loyalty in the current context. And although members of the old guard in South Africa may not be at imminent threat of electoral defeat, their political attention is already more inward-looking as the polls approach.
While South Africa's external political engagement on the continent may be stalling, commercial expansion continues, and the changing picture at home, regionally and more widely across Africa creates opportunities as well as challenges for South Africa's next generation of leaders.
A new approach to engagement in Africa does not need to be at the expense of the values that have driven policy since the end of apartheid. South Africa can use its relative economic heft to play a stronger developmental role in Africa by leveraging the strengths of its business sector and its financial agencies. But it must also play a stronger and more cooperative role politically by cultivating relationships with pivotal states such as Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Angola.
Shaping policies that are simultaneously able to deliver benefits to South Africa, adapt to a rapidly changing global environment, and build robust bilateral relations across the continent will demand strategic vision and delicate diplomacy by South Africa's government and its international representatives. At a time of increasing domestic political disunity, it is unlikely that such clarity of purpose will be achieved soon.