Alliances in a Shifting Global Order: South Africa
South Africa: Pursuing Multialignment and Striving for Multipolarity
by LEN ISHMAEL
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Much of South Africa’s DNA as a modern state can be traced to the period of new statebuilding that followed decades of apartheid and the transition to democracy in 1994, ending the country’s position as a “Western outpost” on the tip of Africa. The legacy of that transition is visible in the country’s statecraft: its identification with the Global South, its approach to multilateral institutions, and its emphasis on mediation as a tool for resolving conflict. Loyalty to old friends is also politically important, as reflected in South Africa’s consistent branding of the US embargo of Cuba as unlawful and its muted response to Western sanctions on Russia. South Africa sees no legal obligation to enforce sanctions that lack UN support. The country abstained from the March 2, 2022 UN General Assembly vote condemning Russia—its fellow BRICS member—for invading Ukraine, and abstained again from the February 23, 2023 resolution calling for the withdrawal of Russian military forces from Ukraine.
South Africa views its relationships with Western countries as important, but they are mainly economic in nature. It has deeper political partnerships with other African countries, the BRICS, and countries of the Global South. And, while South Africa defines itself as nonaligned, its foreign policy reveals a deeper complexity that reflects a multialignment stance. Today’s South Africa is aware of its agency and importance as a global actor, and uses both to secure its interests.
The Cornerstone of African Security
South Africa is the dominant security anchor for regional and continental peace and stability. It has hosted talks between the Ethiopian government and Tigray representatives, and mediated in a recent conflict in Lesotho. The country has also developed an impressive domestic defense industry, exporting $179.3 million in weapons, ammunition, and military equipment in 2022 to more than 70 countries, including the Gulf States and Egypt, its primary buyers. Asked recently about arms sales to Russia, South African Defense Minister Thandi Modise remarked that the her ministry’s arms procurement agency, Armscor, would, “from time to time,” take advantage of “commercial opportunities with countries subject to international treaties, including Russia”.
In keeping with an early African National Congress dictum, South Africa has eschewed formal military alliances. The country does engage, however, in close interstate collaborations such as February’s joint naval drills with China and Russia in the Indian Ocean. In the face of Western criticism, South African Foreign Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor remarked that “all countries conduct military exercises with friends worldwide” and pointed to these as “part of a natural course of relationships between countries”. Indeed, South Africa undertakes joint drills regularly with several countries: China and Russia (2019, 2023), the United States (most recently in July 2022), France and Germany, and biannually with Brazil and India. South Africa is also party to bilateral defense cooperation agreements with several African countries and Cuba.
Navigating Through Turbulent Times
South Africa is the most advanced economy in the South African Development Community (SADC), and Africa’s most developed technology hub. Chronic power outages, weak energy sector governance, and currency depreciation pose significant constraints on growth, however. While access to electricity is high relative to other African countries (84% of the population had access in 2020), South Africa—the world’s seventh-largest coal producer and home to the continent’s largest coal reserves (62% of African reserves)—has faced years of crippling outages due to the breakdown of aging coal fired plants and a series of challenges faced by state-owned electricity provider, Eskom. These difficulties are estimated to have constrained economic growth by at least 2% over the last five years. Though the country has initiated a program to secure renewable energy through an initial $8.5 billion agreement with the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, coal will be part of its energy mix until it achieves a “just” transition to renewables.
Despite these challenges, the country remains attractive to investors. Indeed, Foreign Minister Pandor noted in a recent interview that a drive to raise $100 billion in foreign direct investment in five years was almost fully subscribed (95%) in three. China, the United States, and Germany are the country’s most important trade partners. In 2021, China, South Africa’s largest trade partner, exported $13.5 billion and imported $19.2 billion in goods and services bilaterally. Trade with all BRICS states is increasing, representing 17% of South Africa’s exports and 29% of imports, dominated by China (73% of BRICS trade), and India (21%). Trade with Russia is also growing, at an annual rate of 9.2%.
Leading disruptive technologies are transforming South Africa’s manufacturing sector, whose notable innovations include the CT scan. The country’s recent partnerships in the sector include one between global giant Johnson & Johnson and South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare in February 2021 to produce COVID-19 vaccines, followed by South African IT and business communications company BCX’s September 2022 partnership with Alibaba Cloud to bring cloud technologies to the country. Despite South Africa’s status as a technology hub, it has weak regulatory frameworks for cybersecurity. In 2021, the country ranked third globally in terms of the number of cybercrime victims.
China has emerged as a leading South African partner for information and communications technology, with cooperation on cybersecurity a key component. China’s International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace (ISCC) provides the basis for this cooperation, which is handled bilaterally and through the African Union. Chinese technology giant Huawei spearheads many initiatives and investments within the framework of Beijing’s Digital Silk Road.
South Africa’s National Space Agency (SANSA) and its US counterpart, NASA, collaborate closely on space programming. Having previously cooperated on the Apollo Space program, the two agencies renewed their lunar exploration partnership in November 2022, breaking ground on a new communications site at Matjiesfontein in the Western Cape province. The center will support NASA’s Artemis spacecraft. Since 2016, South Africa has also been working on a legal framework for sharing satellite data with its BRICS partners in the first phase of an initiative that includes commercial space operations. The second phase involves more ambitious projects, including the development of a BRICS space agency.
Committed to Multipolarity
In calling for “a redesigned global order” in which global power is more diffuse, South Africa shares a world view with the BRICS and with other countries of the Global South. It also advocates for a greater role for BRICS states in achieving this objective. South Africa uses alliances to further its own interests and also to “create platforms for collective statecraft to change the system of global governance”. Indeed, a review of South Africa’s position on global governance points to consistent advocacy for multipolarity as a way to ensure inclusiveness and secure the interests of developing countries.
Seeking a “transformation of the Global Order from one based on power to one based on rules”, South Africa articulates a persistent concern—namely, that the rules of the Western-led liberal world order are inconsistently applied, and that existing multilateral institutions are neither fit for purpose nor representative of the world today. In keeping with this ethos, the country has long advocated for reform of the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions. In November 2021, for example, South Africa advocated for waiving intellectual property rights as a practical solution to bottlenecks in COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution. In February 2022, as part of the Africa Group, and with Cuba and India, South Africa also championed an agenda for World Trade Organization reform, pushing for an institutional reorientation that promotes development and inclusivity.
As the current holder of the BRICS chairmanship, South Africa will host the group’s 15th summit in August. In that capacity, the country will preside over an agenda that includes expanding BRICS membership and leveraging the group’s considerable soft power to advance the interests of the Global South. Those interests include attaining greater multipolarity and diffusion of global power.
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