South Africa has variously styled itself as a “bridge” between the North, the global South and Africa as well as a “gateway” into the continent. It also sees itself as a spokesperson for Africa, given its membership of the alliance of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa BRICS and the G20.
It has declared its commitment to the continent’s Africa agenda, the African Union’s ambitious development plans characterized as “Agenda 2063 – The Africa We Want”.
But how do Africans beyond South Africa’s borders view the country? What are the perceptions of the country’s role on the continent? Are these aligned with the way in which the country perceives its role and influence on the continent?
In a recent round of interviews with senior African Union officials and observers of continental politics in Addis Ababa, headquarters of the African Union, we asked people about their views on South Africa’s African policy and actions. The agreement was that the interviews would be dealt with as unattributed quotes. This enabled us to solicit a range of frank opinions and observations to inform a research project on the implementation of South Africa’s “African Agenda”.
We were struck by the fact that the interviewees all raised similar issues and concerns. What was also striking was the extent to which these perceptions were at odds with South Africa’s self-declared role on the continent, as well as the impact it believes it’s had in furthering development and raising the continent’s international profile.
There’s a marked difference between how South Africans as people and as a government see themselves and how the rest of the continent perceives them. Our discussions in Addis Ababa highlighted a number of recurring themes that shaped these views.
Interviewees persistently raised the issue of xenophobia in South Africa. A sense of disbelief and continuing incredulity pervaded discussions.
A number noted that after the outbreak of violence in 2015 the South African government initially refused to recognize that the attacks were against foreigners. The problem was compounded when South African political leaders explained the xenophobic attacks as criminal acts when it was clear that they were targeted at non-South Africans.
It finally did respond, but only after the joint criticism of several African ambassadors in Pretoria and unprecedented protest action in several African countries.
Several interviewees mentioned that there have also been large-scale attacks on foreigners in 2008.
The views expressed were that attacks against foreigners proved that South Africans didn’t view themselves as part of the continent. And, as one of the interviewees commented, the government had not educated South Africans to understand how much the continent had contributed and sacrificed to end apartheid:
They (the South Africans) are not really African—they are their own Africa.
A deeper problem articulated by those we talked to is of a growing lack of trust in South Africa’s bona fides. The country claims to represent the continent in BRICS and the G20. But there’s a sense that very little benefit accrues to the rest of the continent.
The dominant view is that South Africa does not use these platforms to create or promote opportunities for wider African involvement. Rather, its own economic interests always enjoy priority. This, despite South Africa’s rhetoric of ubuntu (human kindness) and the African Agenda.
According to some of those we interviewed the trend of promoting its own interests has become particularly obvious during the era of president Jacob Zuma.
Related to this was the perception that South Africa behaved in a contradictory way when it came to the African Union (AU) and the UN Security Council. Several interviewees pointed out that in 2011 South Africa was against intervention in Libya and supported an African solution to the crisis. Yet in the Security Council it voted for Resolution 1973 which authorized NATO intervention. This led to Muammar Gaddafi being toppled and the subsequent collapse of the Libyan state which unleashed an era of unrest and instability in the Sahel.
As one interviewee put it:
South Africa has two platforms for projecting power. One is the AU and one is the UN and at times these roles are contradictory.
A third issue mentioned by all the interviewees was South Africa’s conduct within the AU, and the extent to which it projected a kind of “big brother, big bully” approach.
There is still strong resentment about the way South Africa ran its campaign to get Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma elected as chairperson of the AU. One interviewee explained how South Africa regularly berated other countries, particularly smaller Francophone states, for their “colonial mentality”, implying that their support for then presiding chairperson Jean Ping for a second term was tied up with their servility to France.
There was also a sense of South Africa undermining the continental position on the development of an African Standby Force. Instead, the country is insisting that a rapid response capability should be developed – the so-called African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises.
Leading through listening
Of course, from a South African perspective, most of these allegations could be denied and explained through “hard facts and figures”. During its second term as an elected member of the Security Council from 2011 to 2012, South Africa prioritized African security issues.
The country has invested in promoting peace and stability in war-torn countries such as Burundi, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s considered by some observers to contribute more than the UN-required 0.7 per cent of GDP annually to development aid on the continent.
But that’s not the point. In the diplomatic world perceptions matter as much as facts in the formulation of policy responses and the constraints on success.
The failure of policymakers to try and understand the perceptions of those at the receiving end of their policies can come at a cost. It can also frustrate well-intended policies and even lead to deep resentment and tension between countries.
It may do South Africans, whether ordinary citizens or foreign policy officials, well to ask themselves how others see them – and why. And the country’s policymakers would benefit from trying to understand how their actions are perceived by others.
Maxi Schoeman, Professor of International Relations and Deputy Dean: Postgraduate Studies, Faculty of Humanities, University of Pretoria; Asnake Kefale, Assistant Professor, Political Science and International Relations, Addis Ababa University, and Chris Alden, Professor of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science.