South Africa: Is Zuma's Foreign Policy A Change of Style or Substance?

29 December 2009
guest column

Since the inauguration of President Jacob Zuma's Cabinet in May 2009, have there been discernible changes in South Africa's foreign policy?

President Thabo Mbeki loomed large on the international stage, with grand plans to reform the African continent and the global system beyond. When he was replaced, with domestic issues being prioritised and strong voices condemning Zuma as unfit to lead, many wondered how the new president and his foreign policy team would perform.

Several foreign affairs experts were asked to spot significant shifts in substance, or in style, in the state's international interactions.

Interviewees all correctly stressed that it is too early to tell definitively, pointing to considerable continuity between the Mbeki and Zuma administrations in strategic priorities: Africa, multilateral cooperation and seeking global governance reform. South Africa may have had three presidents in under a year, but all were from the African National Congress (ANC).

Professor Adam Habib, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Johannesburg described the party's leaders as "members of the second generation of African nationalist elites," sharing strategic orientations and objectives. Dr. Siphamandla Zondi, Africa programme director at the Institute for Global Dialogue, made a similar point: "Don't expect a 'Zuma Doctrine'. He follows the consensual leadership tradition of the ANC."

But Zuma also seems more likely than Mbeki to let his ministers make policy.

Dr. Nomfundo Ngwenya, head of the South African Foreign Policy and African Drivers Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said: "It's not yet clear if we'll shift from the 'Mbeki doctrine', founded on an African Renaissance and building African consensus to challenge the West, particularly through the African Union. Questions remain: Where is our national interest? Will we see closer relations with near neighbours, and less grandstanding at the African Union?"

South Africa does seem to have learned some lessons from its public relations disasters on Myanmar/Burma and the Dalai Lama.

Deputy Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim re-emphasised that human rights are important, and summoned the Myanmar ambassador for a dressing-down following the house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Although South Africa supported the consensus African position in Libya in July on seeking deferral of an international arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Pretoria also made it clear that it would meet its obligations under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – if Bashir set foot in the country, he would face arrest. "We're developing more nuance," noted Habib, "and we seem a bit smarter tactically."

Zuma's first state visit to Angola in August was significant. He sought to patch up damaged relations with Luanda, to show appreciation for Angolan support for South Africa's liberation struggle by visiting martyrs' graves, and he explored business opportunities.

It may also have been to show gratitude for support that Zuma reportedly received from the Angolans in his internal South Africa battles, both within the ANC and in the 2009 national elections.

However, Zondi saw the Angolan visit as a way to influence a potentially strong ally for recalcitrant Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabwe remains South Africa's most immediate foreign policy challenge. Zuma's more cordial relations with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, his tougher stance at the November 2009 Maputo Southern African Development Community summit and his replacement of Mbeki as mediator by his own appointees heralds, for some, a definite break with the past, although it is early days.

One expert, however, sees Zuma's new relatively inexperienced three-person mediation team as a delectable three-course meal for Mugabe.

But there is a noticeable shift in style. Zuma's affable, easy-going nature has served him well on the global stage thus far. While not being the master of the sound bite (nor was Mbeki), he's appeared at ease and has not committed any major faux pas. And South Africa seems a little more humble abroad.

The new Foreign Minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, initially embarked on a charm offensive with Pretoria's diplomatic corps, has been more welcoming of civil society views and is considered generally more approachable and available than her predecessor (although observers note that Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma kicked off her tenure in a similar way). Zondi called this openness "a massive change … the minister is willing to listen, at least for now."

Time will tell how long the door remains open to other actors, and whether the shifts continue to be subtle rather than stark, and stylistic rather than substantive.

Steven Gruzd is the head of the Governance and African Peer Review Mechanism Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

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