Multilateralism and Middlepowership in South Africa’s foreign policy

How does a multilateralist foreign policy agenda (in theory) help South Africa meet its international objectives?

South Africa since 1994 been a very active and eager player in international relations. This eagerness has at times been misinterpreted or perceived as being in fact an expansionist and aggressive policy now focusing not in the security but in the economic profit. There has been a good degree of continuity in the central pillars and principles of South African foreign policy cutting across Mandela’s and Mbeki’s presidencies (Cornelissen 2006:29).

Multilateralism at the regional and global level can serve to incrementally “gain the support of developing countries” (Cornelissen 2006:33) and advance an alternative agenda for combating poverty and fostering development. In theory, multilateralism can be able to “multiply influence and leverage while minimising exposure and risk on sensitive issues” (Black 2001:77). For example, stabilizing and improving security in African countries by means of a multilateral approach (underpinned by the AU, UN, regional bodies or other partnerships) can increase the legitimacy of the action whilst spreading the degree of responsibility in the eventuality of a breakdown. This provides a safety net but can bring about the dilemma of incentives for committing resources and energy in consensus building.

The adoption of multilateralism is also essential in the emerging strength of “south-south cooperation” whereby developing nations seek to find among themselves less North-dependent solutions to their problems (Melville & Owen 2005).

Since 1999, wealth creation and security have jumped to the top of the agenda in South Africa’s foreign policy (in detriment of human rights and democracy) (Black 2001:84). These two objectives benefit from multilateral solutions as has been argued by Alden when he calls for a Pretoria-Abuja axis to lead the continent into peace (Alden 2005). In addition, there is the obvious dependence of South Africa in positive economic performances of its peers in Southern Africa that can benefit from multilateral initiatives.

Provide examples of key multilateral or middle power initiatives undertaken by South Africa since 1994. What do these suggest to us of the use of the future direction of South African foreign policy

The Ottawa and Kimberly processes are generally regarded as the pinnacles of South Africa’s multilateral policy. They were of a genuinely global nature but were also of particular significance for South Africa and the African continent as it has been the continent most ravaged by the horrors of mines, small arms and light weapons and by the deals surrounding blood diamonds. In addition, in the case of the Kimberly process, South Africa also has a lot to benefit from a “healthy” diamond industry and the certification programme being as it is a major producer.

In 2001, the NEPAD initiative that South Africa embraced from the start represents so far one of the success stories of African multilateralism and puts South Africa as a major participant in devising a more sustained and coordinated policies when it comes to tackling the interlinked issues of conflict, bad governance and underdevelopment. The organization seeks to go beyond looking at development on a region-by-region basis and devise a vision that attaches the success of the foreign policy of its members, namely South Africa, to its ability to reach out to policies that benefit the continent as a whole. The policy is not however without controversy as NEPAD is also very intimate to western-led efforts of development in Africa and, through budget and political pressure, can sometimes come in the way of South Africa in its more encompassing efforts of transforming the structural relations of power at the international level (Nathan 2005: 372).

In terms of major challenges, South African foreign policy has sometimes been caught adrift between Middlepowership multilateralism, its commitment to democracy and its over-personalization of foreign policy (Nathan 2005: 372). The juggling between these styles of foreign policy has been successful in some cases as in Libyan and East Timorese mediation affairs and not so successful in other cases such as in South Africa’s “silent diplomacy” towards Zimbabwe, in the DRC’s peace negotiations and in the Nigerian debacle. The latter made South Africa thoroughly rethink its way of doing foreign policy becoming less prone to heroic unilateralism and investing more on preparation, consultation and canvassing for its causes.

Multilateralist polices have been guided by a strong will of South Africa to achieve greater leverage at the international stage as a viable, effective and leading deal-broker and agenda-setting power.

The current middle power initiatives tell us that South Africa’s self-identification as a Middle power also helps in defining nature of its role-playing in the international stage and the direction of its policies. For the country to consolidate and further its status it will need however to improve in the quality of its bureaucracy, expertise and human resources comprising the ranks of its foreign office. It probably will do so and it seems that more and more economic and security practical imperatives will also take precedence to what are sometimes the broad and impractical pushes towards advancing human rights and democratization.

What insights can we gain from South Africa’s post-apartheid foreign policy behaviour to analyse and evaluate other developing countries’ foreign policy? Explain your answer.

Looking at South Africa’s foreign policy with the objective of drawing elations about the foreign policy of other developing countries can be problematic if one considers the particularity of the South African political and economic structures that setting it apart from most other countries in the continent.

The story of South African foreign policy in the 1990s reminds us of the importance of a shared memory and tradition of bargaining and negotiation in the international stage. The lack of this shared socialized memory of negotiation within the setting of international institutions was one of the reasons for some friction with the rest of the developing world (Cornelissen 2006:34).

South Africa’s presses towards debt-forgiveness is better understood not just as another “good Middle-power” multilateral initiative but one that has an underlying South African interest in the regional market whose vitality is essential for South African exports. Understandably, neighbouring developing countries have been reactive to South African Foreign Policy as the major regional player and an essential section of their foreign policy concerns the regional agenda of SADC.

The South African experience shows how multilateralism can be put to use in order to try and achieve “broad foreign policy goals” (Nel et al 2001:5). Developing states can take the South African example in its dynamics, and particularly its learning curve and sets of continuing dilemmas (multilateralism vs. democracy building; rebel vs. reformist) and draw lessons in how to practice foreign policy that simultaneously fosters development at home and calls for structural change in global order. In this sense these lessons can actually be more valuable for other emerging middle powers such as Brazil and India in that some of the dilemmas in the foreign policy interaction between these actors and the West are similar (Melville & Owen 2005).

In sum, understanding South Africa’s foreign policy can help us understand other emerging middle powers foreign policy, the foreign policy of those countries that cooperate and bandwagon with South Africa in its causes as well as the antagonism in the foreign policy of some developing countries towards what they sometimes consider a “state in Africa but not of Africa” (Hamil& Lee 2001: 50)


Alden, C. & M. Soko, 2005. ‘South Africa's economic relations with Africa: Hegemony and its discontents’, Journal of Modern African Studies. Vol. 42, No. 3
Black, D. 2001 “Lever or Cover? South Africa, Multilateral Institutions and the Promotion of Human Rights” in Nel, P., Taylor, I., and Van der Westhuizen, J. South Africa’s Multilateral Diplomacy and Global Change: The limits of reformism. Aldershot: Ashgate
Cornelissen, S., 2006. ‘Displaced multilateralism?’ South Africa’s participation at the United Nations: disjunctures, continuities and contrasts’ in D. Lee and P. Williams (Eds). The new Multilateralism in Post-Apartheid South African Diplomacy. New York: palgrave
Hamill, J. and Lee, D., 2001. A Middle Power Paradox? South African diplomacy in the Post-Apartheid era’. International Relations, Vol. 15, No. 4
Melville, C. & Owen, O. 2005 China and Africa: a new era of “south-south cooperation” Open Democracy www.opendemocracy.org [11May 2007]
Nathan, L., 2005. ‘Consistency and inconsistency in South African foreign policy’. International affairs, Vol. 81, No. 2
Nel, P., Taylor, I and Van der Westhuizen, J., 2001. ‘South Africa multilateral diplomacy and global change: The limits of Reformism. Aldershot: Ashgate

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