Chapter Three: The African Renaissance versus the South African Renaissance?

The greatest threats to South Africa's long-term interests and leadership aspirations on the continent are the structural weaknesses of its economy, widespread poverty in the country and other crippling socio-economic problems that have continued to blight the post-apartheid era. This chapter discusses South Africa's need to focus on domestic socio-economic change, at the expense of a deep, sustained engagement with other African states.

‘The basic truth in politics is that foreign policy begins at home.’ – Gerrit Olivier1

The inauguration of the Mandela government in 1994 greatly improved South Africa’s relationships with other African states, creating numerous opportunities for them to collaborate with one another. The country’s new leaders acknowledged both its role in destabilising southern Africa during the apartheid era and the debt of gratitude it owed to neighbouring states, which had helped sustain its liberation struggle. Pretoria also recognised that South Africa’s interests were best served by economic development and democratisation in African states, accepting that it had an obligation to act as one of the principal architects of African security and development. Observers always expected that these sentiments would be factored into the South African policymaking process at some level. But it was difficult to quantify how they should be balanced against other priorities, and what this would mean for Pretoria’s relationships with African countries outside the Southern African Development Community (SADC) zone, which were less focused on issues such as destabilisation and the need for South African reciprocity. In addition to the various image problems undermining

South Africa’s regional diplomatic efforts (see Chapter Two), domestic challenges are likely to overshadow the country’s commitments to the continent, further weakening its leadership position.
Two decades into the democratic era, the failure to deliver fundamental socio-economic change is finally beginning to impose serious political costs on the ruling African National Congress (ANC). The sharp fall in support for the party in the August 2016 municipal elections2 appeared to serve as a warning of things to come. As the pressure of domestic responsibilities rises,3 South Africa will be forced to scale down its activism elsewhere in Africa, particularly its developmental role.

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

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