By 2013, building on former South African president Thabo Mbeki’s decade long legacy of foreign policy activism, South Africa had achieved an unprecedented measure of international recognition as the premier regional leader of the continent. Its diplomacy was deemed crucial to peace and security missions in Africa, and it held top positions in the African Union Commission (AUC). Under Nelson Mandela, South Africa acquired a reputation as a proponent of human rights, despite being tarnished over issues like its support for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Four years later, however, South Africa is at risk of squandering that status. From Pretoria’s abandonment of crisis management in Burundi in 2015, to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's abrupt departure as chair of the AUC in 2017, there has been a marked a decline in South Africa’s international engagement on African issues. South Africa’s moral standing has been badly damaged by its sheltering Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for genocide and war crimes, and its threatening to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2016. While it remains the only African member of both the G20 and the association of the five leading emerging national economies – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – known as BRICS, South African diplomats performed lethargically at the annual meetings of those organisations.
Underlying these developments are South African President Jacob Zuma’s debilitating two terms as president, during which he has neglected domestic development and international affairs, and used his office to enrich his family and African National Congress (ANC) associates. Divisions among the ANC elite – between, on the one hand, revolutionary stalwarts appalled by the president’s nepotism and favouritism, and on the other, self-serving Zuma acolytes – have fuelled several efforts to unseat the president through the use of party structures. Opposition parties led by the Democratic Alliance (DA) scored a string of electoral successes in three major metropolitan regions in August 2016, and along with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), forced the governing party to wade through eight embarrassing no-confidence votes in parliament. Former ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema, forced out of the party due to his persistent dissent from its policies, has continued to articulate a radical agenda through the EFF based on land redistribution and racial posturing that threatens to sway and galvanise the ANC’s popular base. His strident reformist activism, along with the ANC’s gross corruption and mismanagement in the delivery of basic services at national and local levels, is eroding the government’s capacity to engage effectively in foreign policy.