Redefining Transatlantic Engagement with an Ambivalent South Africa
BRUSSELS—South Africa — as an upper middle-income country and aspiring gateway to southern Africa and the continent as a whole — should be engaged in new ways by partners on both sides of the Atlantic. Relations are no longer about development assistance, which is coming to an end. South Africa’s aid from the European Union declined sharply from nearly €1 billion for 2007-13 to €250 million for 2014-20. Meanwhile, the United States will be hosting the first U.S.-Africa Summit in August, and South Africa is set to be a major interlocutor on renewal talks for the African Growth Opportunity Act, which expires in 2015. Understanding the context for South Africa’s foreign policy engagements will be crucial as Europe and the United States redefine relations with that country. Important shifts are occurring in South Africa’s political landscape. Contrary to expectations in the transatlantic community, the African National Congress (ANC) secured 63 percent of the votes, distantly followed by Democratic Alliance with 22 percent and the newly established Economic Freedom Fighters with 6 percent. However, the ruling ANC suffered significant setbacks in major economic centers such as Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Port Elizabeth.
This trend will likely continue. Dividing lines, still racial and socio-economic in nature, are also increasingly generational and geographical, with a growing rural-urban split. This year’s presidential election was the first in which so-called “born-frees” — black South Africans born after the end of Apartheid in 1994 — were able to participate. Many chose not to. Voting patterns, which have largely been guided by the legacy of the anti-Apartheid struggle, will increasingly be about the government’s ability to address high levels of unemployment, the delivery of basic services, and widespread corruption. South Africa’s foreign policy is complex and can be difficult to decipher. Transatlantic partners have at times expressed frustration at the perceived gap between South Africa’s actions in global arenas and the values the country purports to defend. This can partially be explained by South Africa’s history. Demonstrating solidarity with some of Africa’s problematic revolutionary leaders — such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe , who was once a strong supporters of the anti-Apartheid struggle — remains a political imperative for the ANC. Yet despite positioning itself as spokesperson for Africa, the country does not always acknowledge the political dynamics and sensibilities of other African states or take into account their enduring skepticism of South African leadership. To establish South Africa’s Global South credentials, the ANC has tried to set the country’s interests and policy objectives apart from those of Western powers by wholeheartedly embracing the BRICS coalition (which also includes Brazil, Russia, India, and China). While South Africa’s economy does not compare in size to the other four countries, the weight the ANC gives to these relations points to a strong desire to elevate South Africa to the global stage and to anchor it as a strong actor in South-South cooperation. Pretoria’s relations with Europe are somewhat schizophrenic. Politically, Europe is not a fashionable partner, as shown by President Jacob Zuma’s decision not to take part in the fourth EU-Africa Summit earlier this year. Cooperation between the two actors, however, covers over twenty ongoing policy dialogues. As a bloc, the European Union is also South Africa’s largest trading partner, while South Africa is the EU’s largest trading partner in Africa. With a decreasing development assistance budget, internal tensions in the wake of the euro zone crisis, and governance and regulatory flaws in its own architecture, the EU’s position could easily slip. At the same time, South Africa’s relations with the United States are still shaped by resentment over Washington’s past support for the Apartheid regime as well as disappointment over U.S. President Barack Obama’s weak engagement in Africa. It is important for transatlantic partners to understand and appreciate South Africa’s international ambivalence.
While South Africa’s grand gestures and political shows of support might continue to disappoint the West, strengthening and deepening cooperation should remain a priority for transatlantic policymakers such as, for example, in the fight against trafficking. South Africa will likely muddle through the coming years in domestic and international affairs. With the increased domestic pressure put on the ANC to deliver, the next presidential election in 2019 is set to mark a profound shift toward more pragmatic policymaking. As South Africa rebalances its relationships, likely de-emphasizing the BRICS, the EU and United States should be ready to work with the country, which will continue to play a pivotal role in a rising Africa.
Madeleine Goerg is a program and research officer for the Wider Atlantic Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Corinna Horst is the deputy director of GMF’s Brussels office.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.