Africa’s Lost Leader: South Africa’s Continental Role Since Apartheid is a new Adelphi book written by James Hamill, which challenges South Africa’s perceived status as the dominant power in Africa. His timely study explores the country’s complex and difficult relationship with the rest of the continent in the post-apartheid era, and traces the evolution and trajectory of South African policy in Africa.

When Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president on 10 May 1994, South Africa enjoyed an unprecedented global standing. Much of the international community, particularly Western states, saw the new South Africa as well equipped to play a dynamic and dominant role on the continent; promoting conflict resolution, economic development, and acting as a standard-bearer for democracy and human rights.

Yet, throughout the presidencies of Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, South Africa has failed to deliver on this early promise. Its continental primacy has been circumscribed by its own reluctance to lead, combined with widespread African hostility to its economic expansion, antipathy towards its democratic ideals and scepticism about its suitability as Africa’s global representative. With an onerous domestic agenda, as it continues to tackle the profound socio-economic legacies of apartheid, and with its military power also on the wane, South Africa must now adapt to an emerging multipolarity on the continent. This transition – which may produce a new concert of African powers working in constructive collaboration or lead to fragmentation, discord and gridlock – is likely to determine Africa’s prospects for decades to come.

This Adelphi book squarely challenges the received wisdom that South Africa is a dominant power in Africa. It explores the country’s complex and difficult relationship with the rest of the continent in the post-apartheid era and examines the ways in which the country has struggled to translate its economic, military and diplomatic weight into tangible foreign policy successes and enduring influence on the ground. The conclusions of this book will be valuable to academics, policymakers, journalists, and business leaders seeking to understand the evolution and trajectory of South African policy in Africa.

‘James Hamill’s penetrating study is a welcome, indeed highly original analysis of South Africa’s foreign policy. It is very well researched, closely argued and written with verve and clarity. The tone throughout is detached yet always relevant. This timely account adds significantly to our understanding of an important topic in international studies and will be of considerable intellectual benefit to both scholars and practitioners.’
J. E. Spence, OBE, FKC, King’s College London

‘The ANC government’s domestic policies have been characterised as ‘muddling through’. This well researched and accessibly written book by James Hamill shows the government’s foreign policies have been similarly ‘muddled through’ with disastrous consequences on South Africa’s influence, and prestige, in Africa. This book is a must read especially for South African business people whose companies are invested in other African countries.’
Moeletsi Mbeki, Deputy Chairperson, South African Institute of International Affairs

‘Hamill’s paper provides a succinct, balanced and well-informed analysis of post-apartheid South Africa’s foreign policy.’
Merle Lipton, King’s College London

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  • Introduction: South Africa as a hegemonic power

    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...
  • Chapter One: Tentative hegemony from Mandela to Zuma

    For the South African government, the construction of a coherent, effective Africa policy has been a priority, and one of the most demanding challenges, in the democratic era. Due to the myriad complexities of this process, the government’s performance has been chequered. South Africa’s official position – as expressed by each new administration since 1994, and articulated in successive defence reviews and government statements – is that the country’s national...
  • Chapter Two: South Africa’s image problem in Africa

    South Africa remains the leading state actor in Africa, but there is considerable dispute about what type of actor it is and should be. The country views itself as a responsible member of the international community, committed to working through African multilateral mechanisms and selflessly championing Africa’s security and development interests in global forums.1 This is achieved, so Pretoria believes, through the country’s regional diplomacy; peace operations; high profile in...
  • Chapter Three: The African Renaissance versus the South African Renaissance?

    ‘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...
  • Chapter Four: The plight of the South African National Defence Force

    In 1994 the national interest and moral imperatives appeared to have neatly converged to place the promotion of peace and stability in Africa at the centre of South African foreign policy. Due to its economic, military and diplomatic weight relative to other states on the continent, South Africa was widely expected to play a leading role across the entire spectrum of African conflict management. In its first three years, the...
  • Conclusion: South Africa in Africa: The challenges of the new multipolarity

    South Africa’s capability, both material and ideational, to assume the role of a hegemonic power in Africa in the democratic era was deficient during the presidencies of Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. In the Mandela era (1994–99) South Africa adopted a diffident, generally low-key role in terms of force projection in the region and sub-region (the atypical 1998 Lesotho intervention notwithstanding), perhaps unsurprisingly in the aftermath of an...

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

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