South Africa at the Polls: A Rising Power Cools Down


On May 8, South Africans will be heading to the polls for the sixth time in the country’s post-apartheid history. As in the previous elections, the ruling African National Congress is certain to win, and nearly all pollsters suggest that the party will win a handsome majority. The pre-election debate is dominated by domestic issues (as in almost all countries in the world), but South Africa is an important international actor. Historically, South Africa’s foreign policy has reflected the views and priorities of the African National Congress. Ahead of the elections, what can we say about the future direction of South Africa’s foreign policy? If party manifestos are any guidance, we might say South Africa is getting ready for a time-out from the global politics.

South Africa’s foreign policy is important for Africa but also for the world. Not only it is a political leader of the African continent, it also holds a rotating seat in the UN Security Council for the third time in history in 2019–2020, and it is a member of the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Over time, BRICS came to play an important role in South African foreign policy — the 2014 South African White Paper on Foreign Policy (document similar to National Security Strategy in the United States) talks about BRICS in the loftiest ways: “South Africa will actively participate in the BRICS, whose members are reshaping the global economic and political order.”

In the not so distant past, the African National Congress went back to its roots as a revolutionary movement. The official discussion document, supporting the deliberations at the party’s 2015 general council, quoted Lenin’s theory of revolutionary struggle as a source of guidance, and spoke about the end of the Cold War in terms of the victory of imperialism over socialism. A similar document from 2017 continued on the anti-imperialist note (though without quoting Lenin) and underlined the need to fight against the Western domination (while lambasting “right-wing narrow nationalist movements, for example as expressed in the form of the Trump’s America first doctrine“). While ideologically such statements were out of step with the arguments made even in fellow BRICS countries, they were used to support arguments against the US hegemony, something that BRICS countries generally shared. Importantly, they also showed that the African National Congress cared about foreign policy, and thought systematically about it.

Fast forward to 2019, and the electoral manifesto of the African National Congress squeezed foreign affairs to ten bullet points offering mainly mild mainstream goals, which seemed as if cut out from a manifesto of a European centrist party: Boosting regional trade, supporting development, building infrastructure, supporting peace in the region, increasing presence at the United Nations, using the seat at the UN Security Council to promote peace and security, supporting climate change. None of these goals have the ideological firepower of the yesteryear, but more importantly, they show that foreign policy has declined in importance for the country’s ruling party. Even the ambition to reform the UN Security Council, present in the 2014 manifesto and a long-standing staple of the African National Congress-led South African foreign policy, is gone. Tellingly, there is no reference to BRICS. The manifesto’s foreign policy section offers no out-of-the-box thinking, and the goals are mild. The difference is immense: the African National Congress has historically seen its role as a part of the revolutionary movement, but now someone has poured buckets upon buckets of ice water on the revolutionary spark. That someone is most likely Cyril Ramaphosa — a former labour union leader turned negotiator with the apartheid regime turned a business tycoon — who became the new leader of the African National Congress in 2017, and a few months later, the country’s president. He is seen as someone interested primarily in domestic policy, and not in rocking the boat abroad. The manifesto reflects those views.



The main opposition party does not fare much differently. The main challenger, the Democratic Alliance, has managed to sandwich foreign affairs on a single page in their manifesto. The ideas in this manifesto revive Nelson Mandela’s old article in Foreign Affairs, in which he wrote that “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs.” The Democratic Alliance admits that future foreign policy will have to balance interests and ideals, something that South African scholars agreed has been a challenge for the country in the post-apartheid era, but how it will do so is unclear. The manifesto reads a bit like the early post-apartheid documents of the African National Congress, with the emphasis on regional trade, conflict prevention, and support for the International Criminal Court thrown in. The last of these is not a small thing — South Africa threatened to walk out of the court, then reversed its position, and now remains in a political limbo.

The party that consistently polls third is the Economic Freedom Fighters, an opposition party started by Julius Malema the former leader of the African National Congress Youth League. The signature policy proposal of the Economic Freedom Fighters — expropriation of land without compensation —foreshadows the party’s radical platform. Its foreign policy proposal is, however, most detailed. It is a firecracker of a proposal: its strong anti-imperialism is obviously thanks to the promotion of policies such as “isolation” of Botswana for hosting a U.S. military base; calling for International Criminal Court prosecutions of “warlords such as Tony Blair and George Bush;” and supporting boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. It hopes to find inspiration in the Chinese development model and rejects the neoliberal economy. In this sense, the proposal looks like a copy-cat of the African National Congress of a few years ago. Naturally, there are inconsistencies and double standards: why single out Botswana when the United States has bases in a number of other African countries? Why isolate Israel, but not even mention Morocco by name, when supporting the anti-colonial struggle of the Western Saharan people? It is, however, also novel in a number of new pan-African ideas (which might be incredibly difficult to put in place if the party ever won the elections). Such ideas include the support for regional institutionalization, promotion of an African court, “a borderless Africa,” a continent-wide single currency, “fight [against] African leaders who want to stay in power forever,” support for African Union’s interventions in African countries, and promotion of a single pan-African language (Kiswahili). In other words, the anti-imperialism of the Economic Freedom Fighters has driven a pan-African agenda like the African National Congress never had. In a way, it resembles some supporters of the European integration, who supported it to counterbalance the United States.

When South African voters go to the polls in May, they will not probably care too much about their preferred party’s foreign policy. But the paucity of foreign policy views promoted by the two leading parties are a sign for the future — a wannabe rising power, who once wanted to upend the international system, is taking a cool-down period.



Michal Onderco is a CISAC Junior Faculty Fellow at Stanford and Assistant Professor of International Relations at Erasmus University Rotterdam. He wrote on South Africa’s policy towards Iran’s nuclear program, and recently published a paper on the origins of South Africa’s non-proliferation policy.


Image: Government of South Africa