Since 1994, South Africa has struggled to translate its military prowess, economic weight and reserves of soft power into tangible or enduring influence on the ground in Africa. This book explores these difficulties and argues that Pretoria’s lack of strategic vision has gradually eroded its leadership position, which will likely give rise to a new environment in which South Africa is no longer the pre-eminent power on the continent.

Despite the turbulence of its domestic politics throughout the presidency of Jacob Zuma, South Africa is still widely perceived as Africa’s natural leader, principal conflict manager and chief international interlocutor on security and economic development. Yet there is reason to doubt the country’s capacity to provide effective leadership in these areas. Although the intellectual case for South African regional leadership is compelling, aspirations towards this role are not necessarily well received domestically or on the wider continent. In the complex policymaking environment created by this resistance, the South African government’s lack of strategic vision for a regional role has led it to engage in dangerous improvisation and ad hoc decision-making.

This Adelphi book draws on a rich post-1994 foreign-policy literature to explore the difficulties that South Africa has faced in translating its military prowess, economic weight and reserves of soft power – the familiar trappings of hegemonic power – into tangible gains and enduring influence on the ground in Africa. The book argues that Pretoria’s leadership position in Africa is being gradually eroded by a range of forces, likely giving rise to a new environment in which South Africa is not the pre-eminent power but one of several African states seeking to regulate continental affairs. It is unclear if this multipolarity will facilitate the development of partnerships and a stable consensus for the advancement of the African agenda or else produce discord, fragmentation and gridlock. Regardless of whether it results in a concert of powers or a kind of non-polarity, this process is likely to determine Africa’s prospects for decades to come.

James Hamill is a Lecturer in the School of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester, UK.

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