• Olivia Earth

South Africa’s International Relations: A Proposal

South Africa has seen many important and powerful shifts since the end of Apartheid in 1994. These shifts have been created through its now liberal constitution. Another very important shift includes the adaptation of the South African foreign policy. A foreign policy is a country’s strategy in dealing with foreign matters or its “reaction to…the external environment” (Neethling, 2014: 276). In the following paragraphs, it will be discussed, given the nature of the fast-paced developments of the world, whether South Africa should prioritise its relations for strengthening its foreign affairs with China, the West or with the rest of the African continent.


Jacob Zuma and the Minister of International Relations and Co-operations, Maite Nkoana Mashabane

Foreign Policy in South Africa and its Main Players

There are many essential governmental departments in the country but none have more influence over planning for the future than the National Planning Commission of South Africa. The commission releases the country’s development plans which have in recent years focused their attention on the country becoming more “South African centric” (Neethling, 2014: 275). It stated in 2011 that the nation should primarily pursue improving the country’s position and “functional integration” regionally and then only branch out to improve relations with the entire continent. It concluded by stating that developing countries are also a significant factor to focus on (Neethling, 2014: 275).

Similarly, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) has developed a strategic plan for 2012-2017 which emphasises that Africa is at the centre of South Africa’s foreign policy because of its committed support to crisis resolution, increase of “inter-African trade and championing sustainable development and related opportunities on the continent” (Neethling, 2014: 276). However, Neethling (2014: 276) suggests that above all, the political cohesion amongst the South African Development Community (SADC) members needs strengthening to encourage the most efficient regional peace, regional commonality and economic viability.

However, South Africa is a major persona in the global south especially because of its membership with BRICS and the United Nations (UN) creating an ideal position in the world for influence at both a regional and at an international level (Neethling, 2014: 275). Perhaps more exploration into the importance of inter-continent relations needs to be exercised.

The Rise and the Fall of the West

When South Africa re-entered the showground of international politics after 1994 it had to deal with the global dynamics of a United States dominated world order. Other new key economic players were Japan and the European Union (EU).  However the West’s rise to power did not sneak up on South Africa during the late 1900’s, its historic rise began in the 1750’s (Neethling, 2014: 289).

Neethling (2014: 289) states that the West “broadly” supports the foreign policy of South Africa as a “willing and predictable partner” in the country’s pursuit of economic diplomacy however, so does Russia, China and India. The relationship between which has been described as “reciprocat[ing] a close special relationship”. In this way, South Africa should recognise that a global “tectonic shift”(Neethling, 2014: 289) is in play where the diffusion of global state powers means that working on international relations with organisations may be more beneficial than with individual states themselves. For example the UN is viewed as the “pre-eminent institution vehicle to advance the global development agenda” and to address “underdevelopment and the eradication of poverty” (Neethling, 2014: 289).

On the other hand the West does not have the same financial muscle power as it used to, especially opposed to China. To illustrate this lets compare the United States of America’s trade deficit and China’s trade surplus. The US’s trade deficit “surged to $51.4 billion in March [2015], up sharply from $35.9 billion in February [2015]” (Matthews, 2015). To make matters more interesting the large majority of the debt is owed to China itself. To be precise the amount owed is $37.8 billion, or 74% of the total country’s trade deficit which is the “highest ever monthly deficit with that country on record” (Matthews, 2015). This concerning economic position is not very favourable for South Africa to prioritise.

Although, the West – from a democratic point of view for South Africa – may be more appealing to improve relations with. The West appears to have a better recent track record with human rights and environmental policies than China. Therefore it may benefit South Africa to be aligned with a more open and democratic international partner. However this will be discussed in more detail later.

Chinese Relations

Neethling (2014: 2090) looks closely at frequent predictions by scholars that in future developments Asia will exceed Europe and North America in terms of global power (“GDP, population size, military spending and technological advancement” all by 2013, or even sooner”). Neethling (2014: 290) continues to emphasise that China alone will have the largest economy in the world before 2030. Further examples of recent Chinese power shifts highlight the overtaking of US sales in personal computers in 2012 and the commitment of $75 billion in aid between 2000 and 2011. This is almost the same amount as the US ($90 billion). This looks like a more convincing arrangement than the one of the West however, there are several shortfalls.

China is a resource hungry country meaning that it imports majority of the raw materials which it uses during the manufacturing process. But China seems to have the best of both worlds as its manufacturing is so efficient countries, including South Africa, spend copious amounts of money buying back their raw materials in the form of finished products – exporting raw materials to China and importing the final products has, in previous years, set Chinese-South African relations in good esteem with a natural inclination for business.

On the contrary, China isn’t growing as fast as it has previously, therefore it does not need as many resources as it has required in the past. This may be cause for South Africa to take a different stance in improving its relations with China. China also exports finished goods to the rest of the world market but so too the world market has slowed down which means China provides less value on a global scale. Therefore because China’s internal consumption has reduced and its exports are slowing it seems to be shifting its attention to the service industry i.e. mass call centres, banking services and consulting. Thus, China may be important for mid-term relations with South Africa however, trends are pointing to a less important long term value.

One last point about Chinese influence in South Africa and on a continental scale is the controversy of colonization. China is arguably in the process of recolonising Africa. Dr Jane Goodall, an animal rights activist and passionate conservationist is “not impressed” with the $100 billion China has spent in Africa over the past decade (Caulderwood, 2014). Dr Goodall has compared Britain’s colonial history in Africa with Chinese investments, “In Africa, China is merely doing what the colonialists did. They want raw materials for their economic growth, just as the colonialists were going into Africa and taking the natural resources, leaving people poorer” (Caulderwood, 2014).

However for countries like Zimbabwe, the Chinese influence has been welcomed. This is because of its “convenient alternative for African leaders spurned by the West for their human rights abuses” (Blair, 2007). President Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship in Zimbabwe might not be entirely isolated and “devoid of aid in foreign investment” because of China’s assistance. Beijing has supplied President Mugabe with both military and civilian aircraft, as well as designing Mugabe’s personal abode which has been created in the style of a traditional Chinese pagoda (Blair, 2007). Despite Mugabe benefitting from this, it is evident that the people of Zimbabwe are suffering and South Africa cannot gain from fuelling this fire. South Africa should focus its attention and priorities elsewhere.

Africa and all of its Beautiful Complexities

Anton Rupert gravely stated that “if your neighbour does not eat, you will not sleep” in response to talks about the inter-regional relations of South Africa (Meldrum, 2006).  This idea about keeping the focus local is mirrored by the 1994 ANC-government’s foreign policy, “…South Africa is part of the African continent, and its economic development is linked to what happens on the continent as a whole…South Africa has an important role to play in the economic and political revival of the continent (Neethling, 2014: 283).  Both of these views talk of duty but what are the benefits for South Africa to make the African continent its primary focus?

Firstly, there is a lot of criticism that South Africa should rather be less involved in the rest of the continent and instead lead by example in economic and political developments as it is one of the most influential countries in Africa. Criticisms include the fact that the regional trade benefits are skewed and uneven to the advantage of South Africa (Neethling, 2014: 288). South Africa has also been labelled a “selfish hegemon intending to pursue its national interests at the cost of the weak and under-resourced African states” as well as having a “mercantilist (capitalist) approach” to regional relations (Neethling, 2014: 288). But again it needs to be mentioned that South Africa is the most significant role-player on the African continent which is a precursor to accusation. Despite the criticism, South Africa’s foreign policy stipulates that it aims “to achieve a better life for all” (Neethling, 2014: 289).

For South Africa, whose fourth biggest export market is Africa (Neeting, 2014: 287), focussing on African relations is beneficial because of Africa’s growing population and bulging consumer base which is becoming increasingly attractive to both international and regional companies (Neethling, 2014: 282). This will allow many states in Africa to transform their very own raw materials into the essential infrastructure and development needed for overcoming distinctly African problems i.e. poverty and financial inter-dependence on China.

Another benefit of concentrating on African relations, and being the super-power country of Africa, means that there is an incredible potential to be the leaders of a continent with 1.1 billion people. Therefore South Africa’s opinion will internationally be much louder in communicating ideas and problems creating a much higher impact for eradicating specifically African issues.

However with the emergence of new global political powers but a decrease in state hegemony, South Africa may be better off evolving its international relations with developing countries but not limited to the African continent i.e. BRICS. “The health of the global economy will depend increasingly on the performance of the developing world” (Neethling, 2014: 290).


After weighing up the pros and cons of who South Africa should prioritise its relations with, it is clear that China and the West are not ideal and that instead South Africa should turn its attention to its neighbouring countries, continent and other developing countries. In this way South Africa sets itself up for success and prosperity in the future as well as helping to improve the entirety of the African continent. Nkosi sikelel’ iafrika.


Blair, D. 2007. Why China is trying to colonise Africa [Online]. Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3642345/Why-China-is-trying-to-colonise-Africa.html. Accessed: 27 August 2016

Caulderwood, K. 2014. China Is Africa’s New Colonial Overlord, Says Famed Primate Researcher Jane Goodall [Online]. Available: http://www.ibtimes.com/china-africas-new-colonial-overlord-says-famed-primate-researcher-jane-goodall-1556312. Accessed: 27 August 2016

Matthews, C. 2015. U.S. trade deficit with China reaches all-time high [Online]. Available: http://fortune.com/2015/05/05/trade-deficit-china/. Accessed: 27 August 2016

Meldrum, A. 2006. Anton Rupert [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2006/jan/23/guardianobituaries.smoking. Accessed: 27 August 2016

Neethling, T. 2014. South African Politics, An Introduction. Cape Town: Oxford University Press South Africa (Pty) Limited

Cover photo: http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2016-10-27-op-ed-by-withdrawing-from-the-icc-south-africa-loses-much-more-than-just-the-argument/

1 view0 comments

Recent Posts

See All