The Argument

Has South Africa lost its soft power?

South Africa’s next president will have to work hard to reclaim the country’s moral leadership — and its place at the international table. By Janis van der Westhuizen When the South African government failed to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama last month, ostensibly because his presence would distract attention from the 2010 World ...

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South Africa’s next president will have to work hard to reclaim the country’s moral leadership — and its place at the international table.

By Janis van der Westhuizen

When the South African government failed to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama last month, ostensibly because his presence would distract attention from the 2010 World Cup festivities, the decision triggered a domestic outcry. Although foreign policy has rarely played a role in South African election campaigns, this issue hit a nerve — resurrecting a long-standing debate about South Africa’s commitment to international human rights. Failing to tread the moral high ground in foreign policy, many feared, would rob South Africa of its soft power on the world stage. In fact, that process may already be underway.

The South Africa of 2009 is very different from the one governed by Nelson Mandela in the mid-1990s. The iconography of an irreproachable Mandela gave the country an equally unblemished reputation and opened diplomatic doors often denied to others. Mandela’s stature was not the only factor. South Africa used its reconciliation process as the basis for its role as a global bridge builder, mediating in conflicts far from home, such as East Timor, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and the Lockerbie incident. It played a crucial role in getting African support for the international campaign to ban land mines and was instrumental in extending the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In fact, shortly before U.S. involvement in Iraq, Colin Powell in his address to the UN Security Council heralded South Africa’s decision to unilaterally disassemble its nuclear capacity as a model for Iraq to follow. South Africa occupied a degree of symbolic power disproportionate to its size.

Of course, South Africa’s popularity had to come to an end — and it did, abruptly, in 1995 when Mandela decided to withdraw the country’s representative from Nigeria in protest of the military execution of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Many Western powers had done the same, prompting accusations that South Africa failed to conform to African norms; it was a “white country with a black president.”

Since then, South Africa has struggled to balance its identity between that of an African regional power and a global moral leader. Mandela’s South Africa won points in the West for its emphasis on international human rights. Yet some South African foreign- policy hands counter that conforming to regional sentiments will bolster the country’s African and developing-country credentials and boost its acceptability as a continental leader. South Africa has tried to evade this dilemma by, for example, deferring controversial cases — such as the U.N. Security Council debates about Zimbabwe and Burma — to other bodies within the U.N. system.

Unfortunately, through its ambivalence, South Africa is implicitly privileging continental solidarity over its waning moral authority, as was most evident in the case of Zimbabwe. Pretoria prioritized protecting a fellow African government over upholding human rights. The result has been disastrous for both countries. While Zimbabwe fell into disarray, Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president and negotiator on a deal for Zimbabwe’s transitional government, lost much of his credibility on the world stage. Thanks in part to his unwillingness to push Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe into concession, Mbeki was unable to sell to the West his ambitious agenda of a kind of Marshall Plan for Africa.

There is much work to be done in reconstructing South Africa’s soft power after the Zimbabwe debacle. Yet after the upcoming South African elections on April 22, the likely next president, Jacob Zuma, may well be tempted to spend more time at home. If he can demonstrate an unflinching commitment to the rule of law there, he might lay the groundwork for regaining the confidence of the international community.

But if South Africa does not want to become “just another country” in Africa, Zuma needs to demonstrate that global leadership entails rising above pressures to kowtow to bloc sentiments. Maintaining soft power will require South Africa to take risks and hold unpopular regional or even global positions. That means representing independence by deciding whether to grant the Dalai Lama a visa, give Mugabe another chance, or host Fidel Castro, not based upon conformity, but on merit. In a word, South Africa will have to answer, at last, to its own uncertain identity.

Janis van der Westhuizen is associate professor in political science at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and Lester B. Pearson visiting professor at Dalhousie University in Canada.

LIONEL HEALING/AFP/Getty Images

Tag: Africa

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