Zuma’s muddled foreign policy | Fin24

Zuma’s muddled foreign policy

Jan 29 2016 06:30
Mills Soko

A news report, published in the Mail & Guardian, claims that President Jacob Zuma requested that SAA open a new route to Khartoum, as a way of showing support for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The continuing al-Bashir furore draws attention to the conduct and performance of Pretoria’s Africa policy under the Zuma administration.

The Zuma government’s Africa policy has been a mixed bag of notable successes, glaring failures and costly blunders.

When Zuma succeeded Thabo Mbeki as South Africa’s head of state, there was speculation as to whether his foreign policy would prioritise Africa in the same way his predecessor’s did.

Such conjecture was quickly dispelled when he, in his first State of the Nation Address in 2009, proclaimed SA’s commitment to “continue to prioritise the African continent by strengthening the African Union (AU) and its structures”.

Zuma also reiterated SA’s desire to shore up regional integration, foster developmental partnerships with other African countries, bolster conflict resolution efforts, and “work towards the entrenchment of democracy and the respect for human rights on the African continent”.

It is significant that Zuma chose Angola as his first destination for a state visit. This underlined SA’s recognition of Angola as a rising economic and geopolitical power whose cooperation was vital to fulfilling Pretoria’s regional and continental objectives. It also served as an attempt to repair relations between the two countries after years of diplomatic and political estrangement.


Building on the foundations laid by Mbeki, Zuma succeeded in stabilising the political situation in Zimbabwe by brokering the establishment of a government of national unity in that country, which ended in 2013.

His administration also deftly rallied the member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in support of Dr Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma’s bid for installation as chairperson of the AU Commission.

Under the auspices of the SADC, Pretoria also played a key role in mediation efforts following the outbreak of a constitutional crisis in Madagascar in 2013. In the same year, SA sent 1345 troops to the DRC in an effort to assist the UN mission to neutralise armed groups in the country and bring peace to the conflict-ridden eastern frontier.


Arguably, the starkest failure was the catastrophic deployment of 200 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers to the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2013 to support operations aimed at keeping rebel forces out of the country’s capital, Bangui.

SA’s presence in the country, which led to the deaths of 13 SANDF soldiers, raised several troubling questions. Why were South African troops deployed to CAR, given that the country is not a member of the SADC, nor is it of strategic importance to SA?

Why was the presence of SANDF soldiers in the beleaguered country not anchored in any multilateral framework under the auspices of a mandate from either the UN or the AU? And what were the true intentions of SA’s bungled foray into the CAR?

Pretoria’s intervention in the CAR highlighted serious weaknesses in the country’s external engagement and exposed a lack of transparency and institutional accountability in South African foreign policy.

Among the Zuma government’s blunders, the most spectacular was its refusal to arrest al-Bashir in violation of a judge’s legal order. This created an unsavoury spectacle whereby the government’s mismanagement of its decision to withdraw from the International Criminal Court resulted in it breaking its own laws.

SA also blundered by backing UN Security Council resolution 1973, which constituted the legal basis for military intervention and eventual regime change in Libya.

No clear focus

What can be discerned from the Zuma administration’s policy engagement with the broader African continent is that, despite chalking up some successes, it lacks conceptual clarity and an overarching strategy.

There has been a conspicuous absence of a central organising idea and strategy expounding SA’s purpose and leadership role in Africa, and outlining how the country’s commercial, economic and diplomatic interests on the continent are aligned. This explains why SA’s approach to the continent has been unstructured, haphazard and unpredictable.

The unstructured nature of SA’s external engagement has created a great deal of uncertainty regarding the intentions and priorities of Pretoria’s Africa agenda.

Without a clear conceptual framework and strategy, the Zuma administration’s Africa policy will to continue to muddle along. This is regrettable, given the benefits for SA in leading and contributing to the process of African development, industrialisation and integration.

*Mills Soko is an associate professor of international political economy at UCT’s Graduate School of Business. 

This article originally appeared in the 4 February 2016 edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here

saa  |  thabo mbeki  |  jacob zuma  |  south africa  |  africa  |  government  |  sadc