Thabo Mbeki’s African vision

The transformation in South Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world since 1990 has been nothing short of remarkable.

South Africa’s increasing political and diplomatic engagement with the rest of Africa has been accompanied by growing investment by South African companies. (Image: South African History Online)

Brand South Africa Reporter

The transformation in South Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world since 1990 has been nothing short of remarkable.

Since the release of Nelson Mandela from prison signalled the beginning of the end of apartheid, South Africa has gone from being an international pariah to being “one of the most engaged, open and connected countries in the world,” The Economist observes in a survey of South Africa contained in its 8 April issue.

While much of this re-engagement was inevitable given the country’s position as Africa’s leading economy, South African President Thabo Mbeki “has added his own distinctive twist to this natural resurgence with a foreign policy based on African solutions to African problems.”

This, The Economist argues, is likely to be Mbeki’s most important legacy.

‘Quintessential African nationalist’

Driven by a desire to emancipate South Africa and Africa as a whole from racial oppression and colonialism, Mbeki’s principal aim, according to The Economist, has been “to establish the new South Africa as, first and foremost, a black African country.”

His other ambition has been “to persuade Africa to set up its own institutions and mechanisms for solving its problems, thus ending the constant, humiliating requests for aid to the West’s former colonial powers.”

The Economist report points to South African interventions led by Mbeki to tackle some of the continent’s most difficult political problems, most notably:

  • Helping to get the warring parties to the negotiating table to end the civil war in Burundi.
  • Helping to facilitate the complex negotiations that produced a successful referendum on a new constitution in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “one of the continent’s most war-ravaged states”.
  • Playing a part in ending conflicts in Sudan and Liberia.

South Africa not only played a part in bringing the fighting to an end in these countries; it also has thousands of peacekeeping troops stationed in these countries to maintain peace, oversee the integration of armed forces, and help create the conditions for democracy.

Setting up African institutions

However, The Economist argues, Mbeki has been at his most creative “in trying to set up permanent institutions to serve Africa” – most notably the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) and the African Union (AU).

Launched in 2001 and headquartered in South Africa, Nepad – “very much [Mbeki’s] idea” – is a socio-economic development blueprint for the continent which, crucially, “is designed to make African countries themselves responsible for upholding standards of democracy and good governance through the African Peer Review Mechanism.”

While Afro-pessimists are quick to belittle these institutions, The Economist argues that they have had successes as well as failures.

“The AU acted quickly in Togo last year to reverse a coup; and in January this year South Africa led successful diplomatic efforts to stop Sudan getting the chairmanship of the AU, in protest against the Sudanese government’s policies in Darfur.”

The new African Commission on Human and People’s Rights – another institution that Mbeki is involved in – has also “issued a report saying that the Zimbabwean government should be investigated for gross human-rights abuses.”

In South Africa’s own interest

South Africa’s involvement in the rest of Africa goes beyond altruism, The Economist observes, quoting Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad as saying: “We cannot sustain our economic growth if Africa continues in poverty … You can’t have development without conflict resolution.”

And South Africa’s increasing political and diplomatic engagement with the rest of Africa has been accompanied by growing investment by South African companies.

Since 1994, South Africa has become one of the biggest and boldest investors in Africa.

According to The Economist, local mobile phone operators MTN and Vodacom, hotel chain Protea and banks Standard and Absa have all recently successfully expanded into African countries.

A 2003 report by online business information firm LiquidAfrica Research found that SA was the largest investor in the rest of Africa between 1990 and 2000, with investment averaging around US$1.4-billion annually, totalling around $12.5-billion for the decade – followed by the US with less than $10-billion, and substantially ahead of France, the UK, Germany and other foreign investors.

Mbeki’s ‘one big failure’

Mbeki’s one big foreign policy failure so far, The Economist argues, has been Zimbabwe, where Mbeki’s “Africanist credentials trump his Nepad ambitions that African countries should help each other uphold standards of good governance, human rights and democracy, none of which Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president, seems to care much about.

“For blacks throughout Africa Mr Mugabe remains a revered icon of the liberation struggle, the man who helped to fund the ANC in exile, and South Africa will not break with the general African consensus on this.”

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