• Olivia Earth

The Dynamics of South Africa’s National Interests and Allies

Contemporary foreign policy in South Africa is usefully contextualised by taking into account its post-apartheid history and democratisation. With this in mind, one can start to deconstruct the political transition and make sense of the prominent actors and the influence they exerted on the construction of current foreign policies (Habib, 2008). In the transition from apartheid South Africa to post-apartheid South Africa it is apparent how a county’s interests and allies can change, the latter more quickly than the former. However, since South Africa’s democratisation, the interests have been seemingly steadfast and its allies have been relatively dynamic. Lord Palmerston is correct to a certain extent in saying that nations do not have permanent allies however, a county’s interests can change and evolve slightly. It is a nations values that remain firmly in place.

Foreign policy, according to Alden & Aran (2017:1), is “an ever-changing story of how states, institutions and peoples engage with one another within a dynamic international system”. There are many diverse actors (individuals, organisations, companies, government and transnational corporations, etc.) which have powerful influences in the field of foreign policy therefore, they are able to have an effect at a global level. Moreover, foreign policy analysis is the “study of the conduct and practice of relations between different actors, primarily states, in the international system” (Alden & Aran, 2017:3). This definition extends to include elements of diplomatic exchanges, security intelligence and trade negotiations. In practice, foreign policy is exerted through both the use of soft and hard power. Soft power refers to a nation’s “ability to affect others through the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuading, and eliciting positive attraction in order to obtain preferred outcomes” (Trunkos, 2013).  For example, South Africa used the 2010 FIFA world cup as an opportunity to increase its soft power in an international setting. Military presence and economic coercion are equated with hard power – a forceful way in which to get a nation to change its position (Trunkos, 2013).


A man walks past an election poster of Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC) party in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, South Africa, on Friday, May 9, 2014. (AP/Ben Curtis)


Before unpacking the method to understanding the ideology and philosophy behind South Africa’s post-apartheid foreign policy, it is necessary to comprehend in which way these principles have advanced (Landers, 2015). South Africa has a really interesting foreign policy history. During the 1980’s apartheid was seen as a bulwark against communism. However, South Arica’s relevance greatly diminished in the international setting as a barricade to communism due to the fall of the Berlin Wall as the Soviet Union supported the ANC. Moreover, the “activist foreign policy agenda” since the start of democratisation “has been premised on a belief in the compatibility of human rights, democracy, solidarity politics and its own development needs” (Le Pere, 2014: 33).

South Africa is geopolitically important as it has always been encompassed in the greater ‘Southern African’ region with regards to foreign policy. The region’s reputation in a post-apartheid setting is to some extent explained in terms of “the strong ‘African’ focus introduced into government by the ruling ANC when it came into power in 1994” (Lalbahadur, 2015). In 1993 Mandela echoed this theme in his article, ‘South Africa’s future foreign policy’, in which he stated that South Africa shared a joint ‘destiny’ with the rest of the continent. In time this resounding idea was so popular that it now echoes in an articulate foreign policy priority, summarised in the catchphrase ‘the African Agenda’ (Lalbahadur, 2015).

During the 2013 state of the nation address President Jacob Zuma summarised a few of the “essential leitmotifs” that have been instrumental in creating the country’s post-apartheid foreign policy which showed many similarities between Zuma and his president predecessors, Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela. These leitmotifs included “contributing to a stronger African Union (AU), supporting efforts to build a more stable and peaceful continent, building the pillars of South—South cooperation through BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and strengthening North-South relations particularly with the United States (US), Europe, and Japan” (Le Pere, 2014:32). These themes seen throughout all post-apartheid’s president’s time in office shows that the core values of the country have remained the same. However, the means to uphold the values has wavered. In the words of Le Pere (2014:34) the foundations of South African foreign policy is in essence “held together by the mortar of its moral capital, normative agency, and political stature”.

Unfortunately, due to some foreign policy errors, there are many genuine apprehensions about the above mentioned capital, agency and stature which are seemingly quickly disintegrating. These so-called errors include continuing fiascoes with the Dalai Lama being denied a South African visa (which occurred three times in five years as China’s influence in South Africa is strong – South Africa’s ally) and the Gupta family disaster when Zuma “allegedly had sanctioned circumventing official [security] protocol” (le Pere, 2014:32). The issue becomes obfuscated when politicians’ personal agendas diverge from the nation’s interests. In these cases, although the nation’s interest seem to change, core values did not change but rather the interests of high ranking officials disregarded normative agency.


Foreign policy is a means for promoting and protecting a nation’s interests. In a South African context, the members of the “Jacob Zuma foreign policy executive” declared that for the period of their term the foreign policy of the country “would be based on the doctrine of advancing ‘the national interest’, conceptualised simply as the ‘most vital needs’ of the country” (Landsberg, 2010:273). This may seem simple on the surface but there is a serious lack in conception and implementation. The government, even after two years in power (2012), had not described in any detail what would constitute South Africa’s national interests or in what way the interests would be followed up.

Defining the concept of ‘national interest’ will always be a topic of controversy. It is closely related to the realist concept of power politics which is focused on the accumulation of power. Landsberg (2010:275) explains the concept as constituting “the most vital needs of a state’ and ‘the fundamental objectives that guide the decision-makers of a state in conducting foreign policy”. This definition can be used as an investigative tool for recognising “the goals pursued by states” and also, “as an all-encompassing imperative to justify the policy preferences and actions of governments”. Landsberg’s (2010:275) clinching thoughts on the national interests state that in essence it is South Africa’s foreign policy “elites” who ascertain what the national interest will be. The concern with not having neatly defined national interests is that the country my regress back into a “narrow-minded isolation and parochial nationalism” (Landsberg, 2010:276).

Additionally, Lord Palmerston, whose quote this essay is a response to, referred to national interests as “eternal and perpetual” and that it is all citizens duty to uphold them (Raab, 2011). It is not within the scope of this paper to examine this further but it may be an interesting area for future research.

South Africa’s national interests are characterised in a statement by the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alfred Nzo. Nzo said that the “basic tenants” of the country’s foreign is “the protection of the sovereignty of our state’, a fairly standard and classic example of a national interest (Landsberg, 2010:275). The Mandela government focused on ‘the promotion of human rights, democracy and good governance’ whereas the Zuma government has prioritised ‘closing the gap between domestic and foreign affairs’ as well as helping to ‘put all on notice that government would pursue non-hegemonic international relations’ (Landsberg, 2010:276). Although, it is also important to note that under Zuma’s leadership Africa has remained the unrelenting first pillar “on which the national interest rests”, this implies that there is an absolute impact on domestic interests attributable to the relationship of what the government does outside its borders (Landsberg, 2010:275). National interest is generally static but with each new politician comes a different political agenda. Therefore it can be said that national interests are relatively stable however, the political elites can manipulate the national interests to serve their own agenda. In this way, states, to a large extent, have set national interests but they can be manipulated by powerful politicians.

Notshulwana (2012:1) states that “foreign policy is made not by the nation as a whole but by its government”. Therefore it is the “ease” of what governments ‘can get away with’ that indicates what the” central decision-makers” and elites are prioritising. In this view, foreign policy is no longer the foundation on which the national interest is hypothesised but instead develops into one of the subsections of the total national interest. Furthermore, if a country’s national interest is decided upon by the government it can be changed by the government. However, a change in national interest seems unlikely due to national interests being based off the fundamentals of the constitution. In this way, a country’s allies may come and go depending on how they suit its national interest. An ally is a means to an end. For example, China has played a dynamic role in South Africa. Until now, China has relied on South Africa for raw materials and minerals but as Africa’s infrastructure has developed there is less need to export raw materials when they can be turned into finished products and then exported (Alden, 2005:153). In this way South Africa is looking at new markets to export to, including India. China is moving away from manufacturing towards a more service-drive market. This change in China’s output means that they may begin to compete with South Africa, for example call-centre services, and stop buying our steel.  China’s economic focus affects us and mean that South Africa may need to reassess the ties that keep China one of its key allies.

When discussing whether the interests of a country can change, it is important to take note of the difference between values and interests. All nations values are innate to a nation’s identity and create the space that interests manifest in. It is also important to note how values and interests can be applied in the context of a country. During the post-apartheid era South Africa’s values of freedom and equality have remained committed however the manner in which these values are uphold has been diverse and dynamic. In 2010, When South Africa joined BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) a spotlight was shone on the nature of the county’s national interests. The county’s role in this “increasing engagement” will allow for mass job creation and economic growth (Notshulwana, 2012:1).

South Africa moved from an “isolated, politically belligerent, regionally militaristic, globally defensive agenda to one that is supportive of multilateralism and involves political partnerships, regional leadership, and global engagement” (Habib, 2008). During this process South Africa not only radically changed its values to those of freedom and equality but its allies changed as well. However, this account is idealistic and hides the naivety that came with President Mandela’s impressive public persona. The South African human rights “crusade” was inspiring but one must not forget that under Mandela’s leadership the country “failed in its attempt to isolate Nigeria for the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his compatriots” (Habib, 2008). Without the credibility of Mandela’s household name, Thabo Mbeki, who came into power after Mandela, developed his own unique presidential personality by carefully shaping South Africa’s foreign policy and “evolving its strategic thrusts into its present form” (Habib, 2008). When the African National Congress (ANC) came into power in 1994 (SAHO, 2017) it prioritised African relations due to its “nationalistic impulse” (Habib, 2008).

The ‘transition’ from authoritarian rule to democracy describes how, under Mandela’s rule, South Africa’s foreign policy “steeped in normative values… as morphing into one with a greater pan-African focus”. Whereas when Mbeki was in power he changed its focus to a pan-African ideal with “greater global multilateral engagement” (Lalbahadur, 2015) which President Jacob Zuma has continued to bolster. It is in this unstructured space that leaders of the country have looked at establishing an increase in “pacific relationships” in South Africa’s external activities, including Southern Africa (Lalbahadur, 2015).


South Africa is respected in terms of its “domestic political rhetoric on human rights and democracy” however, its activities in the diplomatic area have become “less and less consistent with the core values that underwrite its foreign policy and constitution” (Hengari, 2014). Therefore, one of the many ways in which South Africa can advance its national interests is by ensuring that its neighbouring countries are prosperous and stable. South African has positioned troops through peace missions in many African countries. The majority of these missions have been rewarded with positive results (Habib, 2008). In another examples, Notshulwana (2012:1) points out that Botswana’s interests are equally fundamental to South Africa’s foreign policy. They both uphold democracy, promote its success, focus on “sovereignty and territorial integrity…self-determination and independence of peoples, its non-racialism, its non-alignment” and most noteworthy Botswana boasts peace by not using its land as a means for violence and war against its neighbouring countries. If one can accept the paramountcy of its own interests then it is clear why there are no friends or allies.


Mandela’s biggest challenge (or interest) during his presidency was to quickly reposition South Africa in the international setting. Encapsulated in this ideal Mandela wanted the country to achieve “full representation and membership in international and regional organisations, establishing a global diplomatic presence, and transforming its instruments of foreign policy and the vocabulary of its diplomacy” (Le Pere, 2014:34). However, there were several dilemmas for Mandela and his “new” South Africa including, “in the view of the critics of the time”, a lack of “conceptual and ethical coherence between these poles [national budget and human rights] and an underlying strategic framework [which] caused the Mandela foreign policy to ‘lean all over the place’” (Le Pere, 2014:34).

President Mbeki made significant contributions to South Africa’s foreign policy in terms of bolstering a sense of purpose and vision including “giving further substance to closer engagement with multilateral partners in Africa as well as with developing and developed countries” (Le Pere, 2014:34) Mbeki gave the country’s foreign policy a spring clean and focused on increasing “value-driven continental and global agenda[s]” (Le Pere, 2014:34). Mbeki’s dream of an ‘African Renaissance’ indicates how under his rule the interests of the South African nation turned to “globalisation and the agents of the liberal world order” as well as fostering “development opportunities” for both South Africa and other developing countries (Le Pere, 2014:35). Mbeki’s time in power also placed its interests in joining forces with other developing countries but specifically the emerging powers of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries. South Africa joined BRICS in 2010 and consequently has helped it develop better clearly defined national interests and allies of convenience. Allies are not committed based on loyalty but rather due to how other countries can serve their own national interests.

The “Zuma era” has displayed an “adaptive” and “continuous” process with regards to the normative (trying to do what is ethically correct) charters of Mandela and Mbeki. Zuma’s time in power can therefore be seen as a “product of intense intra-party politics” but which in the long run is seeking to put a reinvigorated stress on the well-being of the ANC’s “broader constituencies, particularly in addressing the legacies of poverty, inequality and unemployment” (Le Pere, 2014:33). In summary, South Africa’s account of foreign policy has been moulded by “a complex mix of normative, substantive, circumstantial, and managerial imperatives” (Le Pere, 2014:33). In the words of Le Pere (2014:33), these events have “inspired a fecund cottage industry of creative theorisation, analytical deconstruction, critical exegesis, and even polemical contestation”.


South Africa’s post-apartheid era has undergone many progressive changes with regards to foreign policy. From Mandela to Zuma, each president has been characterised by their decisions and priorities. The national interest in essence has been firmly in place since 1994 and not materially changed but the means to uphold and achieve them has varied greatly. However, South Africa’s allies have changed more rapidly when one considers the relationship with China as a global power and Botswana as a regional power. The author has argued that the nation’s values are less likely to change than its interests and allies. Notwithstanding the personal interests of politicians which occasionally appear to cloud foreign policy.


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IMAGE: A man walks past an election poster of Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC) party in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, South Africa, on Friday, May 9, 2014. (AP/Ben Curtis) – http://bit.ly/2wn9E9a

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