Jacob Zuma

South Africa's waning soft power: A Nigerian perspective

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South Africa's waning soft power: A Nigerian perspective

Chukwuka Onyekwena

Joseph Ishaku

29 Nov 2017

7min min read
  • Economic development--Social aspects

South Africa’s potential to lead Africa and advance its agenda on the global stage is threatened by recent concerns over its declining soft power, write Chuka Onyekwena and Joseph Ishaku.

As many African countries gained independence in the second half of the 20th century, the aspiration for more co-operation among African states needed a consistent hegemon to influence buy-in and set the agenda. Egypt, backed by a rich history of civilisation and trade, Nigeria by a large and boisterous population, and South Africa by a large and diversified economy, had the potential to advance such aspirations. Nonetheless, national agendas prevailed over cooperation on the continent. Specifically, the pursuit of development outcomes at national levels has been the focus of African governments and international development partners.

The turn of the millennium further projected South Africa’s ability to lead Africa locally and represent her interests globally. This was a period when South Africa held significant amounts of hard and soft power. It exhibited military prowess in peace missions on the continent and enjoyed a run of economic prosperity that cemented its place as the largest and most complex economy on the continent. These hard power capabilities were complimented with acquired elements of soft power, which included its post-apartheid political ideals of democracy that honoured constitutionally enshrined values of rule of law; diplomatic influence in Africa through the African Union (AU), New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and in the world via the G20 and BRICS; economic influence as a result of multinationals’ penetration around Africa, such as DSTV, MTN and retail chains; a vast array of iconic personalities and consequent goodwill acquired; cultural and media exports; highly ranked universities leading various fields of research; tourism, hospitality and the ability to successfully host mega-sports events. 

In recent times however, South Africa’s soft power seems to be waning. This can be attributed to a host of factors including setbacks in elements of its economic and political hard power, its intention to leave the International Criminal Court (ICC), xenophobic violence and other domestic troubles.

Economic upheaval 

The past two years have been tough for many countries as the collapse of commodity prices, slowdown in global economic activities and lack of fiscal responsibility took its toll on economies around the world, including Nigeria and South Africa. 

Both countries experienced economic recession during this period, only recently posting positive growth and exiting recession in the second quarter of 2017. Nigeria’s economic contraction lasted for five consecutive quarters, while South Africa’s growth rate moved into and out of negative territory in the same period. The persistence of Nigeria’s recession over South Africa’s experience under similar global conditions and with both experiencing their fair share of domestic troubles is possibly as a result of structural differences. The complexity of the South African economy with accompanying superior infrastructure allowed it to exhibit more resilience to the challenges than Nigeria’s economy, which has remained largely oil-based and held further back by lack of infrastructure. 

Nonetheless, South Africa’s economic decline coupled with more regional competition from other emerging powers, particularly Nigeria and Egypt, constitute a threat to its soft power, given that its economic prowess provides the leverage for its inclusion in clubs like in the G20 and BRICS. The weak economic performance recorded since 2016 and policy responses that followed brought about more concerns for both South Africa and Nigeria. Particularly, JP Morgan and Barclays removed Nigeria's sovereign debt from their indexes due to liquidity shortages and restrictions in the forex market in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Similarly, Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch all downgraded South Africa’s sovereign debt status this year, citing political concerns in addition to the economy’s under-performance and moderate outlook as reasons for the downgrade. 

This implies that both countries will have limited access to investment from foreign capital markets and face higher borrowing costs.


On the governance scene, political actions of President Jacob Zuma's administration and adjoining corruption allegations have significantly affected South Africa’s global reputation. Frequent cabinet reshuffles, especially with respect to economic management, the preference of political considerations over economic imperatives, the intention to leave the ICC, and failure to properly manage domestic troubles have weakened South Africa’s soft power. 

Although Zuma has a right to shuffle his cabinet, the manner in which it was done and the underlying motivation for it has bred speculation that continues to be harmful to the economy and credibility of the administration. The sacking of former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, who is perceived as an anti-corruption and fiscal responsibility advocate, represented the fourth change in the position of finance minister in the last 18 months. This led to an immediate 5 percent depreciation of the rand to the dollar, the downgrading of the country’s credit to junk by rating agencies, loss of confidence by both domestic and foreign investors and a general public fear that the treasury will be looted. 

Nigeria’s experience points to the fact that a regional hegemon can lose credibility and recognition despite its hard power qualities. A combination of weak institutions, issues of corruption and impunity and a poor human rights record projected a blow to Nigeria’s international image despite a lengthy run of oil-backed growth and regionally attested military strength. 

Particularly, Nigeria has been unable to translate its resource wealth to meaningful economic development and the economy remains undiversified. Also, the use of force and abuse of human rights by the Nigerian government in response to domestic agitations and insurgency has won it a bad international reputation. Furthermore, the lengthy absence of President Buhari due to ill health left a gap in crucial leadership, especially in the face of economic and political difficulties, including the Biafra agitation.


In October 2016, in the wake of the saga surrounding South Africa's failure to arrest Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir when he was in the country in 2015, it announced its decision to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. 

In February 2017, after a high court ruled that South Africa's notification to withdraw from the ICC was "unconstitutional and invalid", the country retracted its withdrawal notification. However, the ruling party has maintained that withdrawal is still part of its plans.

The intention of the Zuma administration to lead South Africa out of the ICC is widely considered to be a serious setback to its influence and perception globally. South Africa and other African countries were among the first to ratify the Rome Statute, moved by the atrocities of the 1990s, particularly the Rwandan genocide, that brought about the creation of the ICC. This decision has far-reaching political ramifications for South Africa as it will shift how the country is perceived and received as an international actor. Some view this as another indicator of South Africa’s regression from the moral high ground it occupied after 1994. 

It is worth noting that although other African countries may follow Burundi and South Africa in declaring their intention to leave the ICC, South Africa has not be able to influence and lead them in doing so. Further, at the AU Summit in July 2016, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Tunisia opposed calls for a mass withdrawal from the ICC, demonstrating greater continental influence on the occasion at the expense of South Africa. The country is now considered an “outlier”, along with Burundi, when it comes to an ICC exit. 


Incidences of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, especially in recent times, have undermined its ability to contain such occurrences and defend fundamental human rights embodied in Articles 5 and 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2008, xenophobic attacks in South Africa left an estimated 62 people dead, 670 injured, and displaced another 30 000, most of whom were foreign nationals. 

Recurring xenophobic incidents since then, and South Africa’s apparent inability to contain them, cast serious doubts about the country's ability to uphold its constitutionally enshrined values of rule of law and its capacity to defend international conventions. This limits its ability to command international respect and portray itself as an international norm defender in the comity of nations. 

Furthermore, xenophobic intolerance is a major obstacle to regional integration, and regional partners hurt from social and economic losses occasioned by xenophobic attacks are left with a negative perception of South Africa. The promise to partake in a more advanced economy under a liberalised labour arrangement is dampened by the reality of living in a setting that is oppressive and intolerant towards non-locals. In response to the attacks against Nigerians in South Africa and diplomatic efforts to address the issue, a 'hate crime unit' was set up to curb xenophobic attacks.   

Regional commitments

South Africa finds itself in a dilemma of trying to balance its domestic, regional, continental and global interests. The SADC and the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) have been the vehicles for promoting its interests in Southern Africa; the African Union Commission and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) for continental interests; and supranational institutions and clubs such as the UN and G20 for pursuing its global interests. 

South Africa’s commitment to regional integration within southern Africa has waned over the years. Domestic interests have been prioritised at the expense of SADC and SACU interests. For instance, in its ambition to integrate its economy with the world, South Africa signed the EU-SA Trade, Development and Co-operation Agreement (TDCA) which undermines its regional partners in both SADC and SACU. South Africa also disregarded the SACU Treaty that stipulates that such agreements must be approved by all SACU members. 

With this agreement, the fear of EU goods flooding the regional market via South Africa is realised, undermining SADC countries’ agricultural and industrial sectors as well as revenues, since they will not be able to levy duties on EU products. South Africa, in acting independently for its benefit at the expense of regional partners and with disregard to established statutes, diminishes its influence and leadership role in the region. 

South Africa needs to strike the delicate balance between its interests and that of SADC in order to promote domestic developmental efforts, as well as reassure its regional partners of its commitment to integration that brings mutual benefits. Furthermore, since it is able to draw interest from competitive trade partners like the EU, the United States and other first world economies, South Africa can leverage its position to promote deals that are more regional than national. 

The problems of sub-regional integration in Africa are not unique to Southern Africa. The experience in Western Africa is similar. Wide disparity in productive capacity, non-aligned interests, and language barrier have slowed down integration ambitions. Particularly, language stands out as the primary distinction among the 15 member states. However, experiences of Anglophone and Francophone West African countries have shaped their values, cultures, politics and development aspirations that are beyond language.

Furthermore, socioeconomic difficulties and domestic conflicts in Nigeria pose similar threats to regional integration within Western Africa like with South Africa. Particularly, the Boko Haram insurgency, Niger Delta militancy and Fulani herdsmen attacks limit Nigeria’s peacekeeping leadership ability within the region, given its substantial internal commitment. Also, the lingering effects of the recent economic recession, high rate of unemployment, and widening inequality constitute a handful for the Nigerian government, and is likely to shift its focus towards achieving greater national prosperity rather than towards reaching regional aspirations.

South Africa remains a dominant voice in Africa, capable of providing credible representation at the global level. However, it needs to reclaim the goodwill it enjoyed throughout the world after the end of apartheid and return of democracy. A political renaissance that is able to shift priorities towards the economic imperative of inclusive growth as well as calm the polity can help the country achieve this.  

(Main image: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg/ 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.