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Re-engaging Africa should be a foreign policy priority for Cyril Ramaphosa

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Re-engaging Africa should be a foreign policy priority for Cyril Ramaphosa

Joseph Ishaku

Chukwuka Onyekwena

14 Mar 2018

4min min read
  • International relations

henever there is a change in leadership, especially at a presidential level, speculation, hope, and uncertainty about the policy directions that the new leadership will take are common. Since Cyril Ramaphosa's appointment as the new president of South Africa, media coverage and public commentary have focused on domestic concerns –  the constitution of his Cabinet, putting an end to state capture and internal politics within the ruling African National Congress. There have been some musings about the direction foreign relations will take in the Ramaphosa administration. However, there has been no measured attempt to discuss continental relations under its new leader. This article considers economic development priorities in Africa and the channels through which Ramaphosa can champion pragmatic regional co-operation.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, successive South African presidents have had unique approaches to African relations. Nelson Mandela embodied South Africa’s foreign policy during his presidency and approached relations with other African countries on the basis of independence and coherence, always conscious of democratic ideals like human rights and the rule of law. Thabo Mbeki’s foreign policy largely featured Africa relations. Mbeki aimed to reverse the skepticism about Africa’s ability to develop without the aid or interference of the West. During this period, South Africa was crucial in setting up the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), transforming a dreary Organisation for African Unity (OAU), and calling for a continent-wide reorientation under Mbeki’s African Renaissance philosophy.

Former president Jacob Zuma’s Africa policy did not have a clear direction, and deficiencies under his administration discouraged integration with other African countries. For instance, South Africa acted differently towards Libya and Sudan in diplomatically controversial situations. In one instance, South Africa supported the military invasion of Libya to oust former prime minister Muammar Gaddafi, while in another it shielded Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir from the International Criminal Court (ICC). Zuma failed to position South Africa to play a leadership role on the continent, either in driving continental agendas or in credibly representing Africa and her position in global circles, such as the G20. 

Specifically, South Africa faced criticism over its position in the Libyan revolution and also in its subsequent application to withdraw from the Rome Statute following the Omar al-Bashir saga. Moreover, Zuma failed to rally support for a mass exodus of African countries from the ICC, also a dent on South Africa’s reputation. These actions signaled a departure from previous foreign policy stance and a decline from the moral high ground South Africa occupied under the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies.

"Ramaphosa's Africa strategy should give priority to Agenda 2063 and push for its implementation by other countries in the region."

South Africa has suffered a blow to its reputation and soft power in recent years, but now Ramaphosa has an opportunity to change that by reshaping the country's foreign policy. There is considerable scope for the new administration to carve a principal role in various continental affairs, particularly  by giving more priority to continental development efforts, pursuing peace and economic stability across the region and enhancing South Africa’s soft power.

African countries have struggled to record meaningful cooperation to enhance collective economic growth and development. The African Union's Agenda 2063, agreed upon when Africa celebrated 50 years of unity in 2013, signaled a monumental effort towards a participatory and people-driven plan for the socioeconomic transformation of the continent. However, not much success has been recorded almost halfway through the initial 10-year action plan. Similarly, there has been no monitoring and evaluation of the plan, as little has been done by way of implementation. African leaders at their annual AU gathering give verbal commitments to continental efforts like the Agenda 2063 but then disregard them on their return home. Ramaphosa's Africa strategy should give priority to Agenda 2063 and push for its implementation by other countries in the region.

The business of African development needs continent-wide cooperation and has to be taken seriously by all stakeholders. Currently, national sovereignty thrives and domestic imperatives seem to overwhelm leadership across the continent and limit their attention to regional agendas. Although the idea of Pan-African integration seems idealistic, more pragmatic approaches to cooperation need to be embraced. Specifically, coordinated development planning and implementation is critical in areas where countries across the continent face similar current and potential risks to their socioeconomic transformation. Africa as a collective needs thoughtful planning to address challenges relating to peace and security, population growth, food security, infrastructure development and environmental change and management. These are potential themes around which Ramaphosa can base his call for integration in Africa.

He can champion a reorientation within the African Union and across the continent through buy-in from his counterparts. This requires bringing to the collective consciousness of Africans and their leaders the urgency for collective action where it can be most effective, without necessarily compromising national sovereignty. Contentious issues of regional integration such as free trade and common markets can give way to more pragmatic and economically rational developmental coordination for the common good of Africa. In addition, there needs to be a deliberate effort by Ramaphosa to adjust South Africa’s mode of engagement in global circles like the G20 to be more conscious and representative of its peers on the continent.

Furthermore, South Africa needs to play an active role in promoting peace and stability in Africa. Violence still plagues the continent, with turbulent waves of terrorism and insurgency and threats of civil war. Some of the fundamental causes of violent conflict such as political, economic, and social inequalities exist throughout Africa. Moreover, there is a tendency for violent conflict to cross borders and, more commonly, cause forced migration. It remains in the interest of all African countries to desire peaceful coexistence and equitable economic and political opportunities in order to limit the threat and consequences of violent conflict. 

Ramaphosa can build on his personal legacy during the anti-apartheid struggle, his role in the ANC and the goodwill South Africa nurtured under Mandela and Mbeki to return the country to its former status as a nation of universal liberal ideals such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law. This will also lend legitimacy to South Africa’s voice in mediating peace across Africa as well as in championing continental agendas.

New leadership provides an opportunity to pursue novel policies and project a fresh image. This is a unique opportunity that lies before Ramaphosa. However, he has a short window to make an impression and influence perceptions across the continent. Additionally, there needs to be a solid foundation of domestic performance in order for foreign policy to get the required attention and be effective. On this note, Ramaphosa seems to be striking the right chords. His first state of the nation address and Cabinet reshuffle received positive reviews, and the rally from the markets is a signal of approval of his efforts to put his house in order. These are early days, but there is strong potential for improved governance and leadership in South Africa. The challenge for Ramaphosa is to extend this to a continental level.

(Main image:  Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images) 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.