South Africa will hold its sixth elections since its transition to democracy 25 years ago. The elections take on added significance in the corrosive aftermath of nine years under former president Jacob Zuma. This period undermined the embryonic foundations of constitutional rule through a destructive “state capture” project, with widespread systemic corruption, fraud, and abuse of power as the main manifestations. The current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who replaced Zuma after the latter was removed before the end of his term on 14 February 2018, will be probably at the helm of government for the next five years. In almost messianic terms, Ramaphosa has presented himself as a figure who can restore faith in government, but crucially can address South Africa’s depreciated standing in international relations where it has lost much of its normative and diplomatic influence.
This depreciation has been particularly acute in the African arena where South Africa’s credentials as a trusted interlocutor and partner have been seriously affected, compounded by the xenophobic treatment of 2.2 million nationals from African countries who have settled in South Africa, mostly as economic refugees. During his inter-regnum since Zuma’s removal, Ramaphosa has sought to reinvigorate South Africa’s interface with Africa since this has been a central and strategic pillar of its foreign policy since 1994. Under Ramaphosa, the “African Renaissance” authored by former president Thabo Mbeki has been given added emphasis as a substantive focus of an overhauled African agenda. The focus is anchored on the regional neighbourhood of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and the continental integration agenda of the African Union (AU).
The SADC Dimension
The demise of apartheid in South Africa created conditions that were conducive to regional political and economic integration. However, since SADC’s establishment in 1992, the integration process has evolved against the backdrop of significant economic inequalities and imbalances among its 14-member countries. South Africa is a dominant economic presence in SADC, producing almost 80% of the Community’s GDP. This is characterised by asymmetric trade relationships where South Africa maintains massive surpluses with its neighbours in a hub-and-spoke model. Furthermore, South Africa is the largest foreign investor in the SADC region: by 2017 its total investment stock was around $8 billion in diverse sectors such as aviation, energy, construction, tourism, banking and financial services, telecoms, motor assembly, retail, and cement.
Since its admission to SADC in 1994, South Africa has been committed to the tenets of equity, reciprocity, and mutual benefit, mindful of its overwhelming presence in the region’s political economy. It is mainly for this reason that South Africa was the driving force behind the promulgation of the SADC Trade Protocol of 1996 and the establishment of the SADC Free Trade Area in 2008. This has been marked by the asymmetrical reduction of industrial tariffs, with South Africa making speedy and deep cuts to offset regional trade imbalances.
President Ramaphosa has signalled South Africa’s ongoing commitment to the SADC integration process, based on the recognition that it cannot be an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty. There is an emphasis on addressing SADC’s institutional and governance problems to strengthen the political and economic components of regionalised cooperation. The challenge for Ramaphosa is to ensure that South Africa becomes a better regional citizen which promotes the functional cohesion, normative unity, and strategic consensus of SADC.
The AU Dimension
As with the Southern African region, South Africa has played a major political and economic role in Africa. Its corporate and business footprint have been replicated in sectors such as mining, aviation, telecoms, financial services, construction, manufacturing, retail, and leisure industries. Due to its export-led growth strategy, South Africa’s trade with sub-Saharan Africa has increased by more than 300% between 1994 and 2017, when its GDP accounted for 20% of the region’s entire GDP. However, the SADC pattern is duplicated across Africa where trade remains heavily skewed in South Africa’s favour.
It is not surprising therefore that South Africa has struggled to forge a “consensual hegemony” in driving the growth and development fortunes of Africa. It has suffered from a poor image and an ambiguous identity that have been obstacles to its leadership ambitions. Both Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki attempted to locate South Africa’s interests squarely in the African “eco-system” of peace, security, and development. Under Mbeki, South Africa helped to craft the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) and concurrently had a hand in the transition of the Organisation of African Unity to the African Union in 2001.
Currently, the challenge for Ramaphosa can be situated along a continuum of two issues which could be the crucible of South Africa’s future impact and influence in Africa. The first relates to South Africa’s role in promoting the AU’s Agenda 2063 which it has endorsed. Agenda 2063, adopted in January 2015, represents a transformative vision of AU to achieve “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.” This vision is underpinned by strategic frameworks to transform Africa based on five ten-year operational plans. The second is the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (CFTA) which is an essential part of Agenda 2063’s programmes. It was adopted in March 2018 as a major step towards continental economic integration. South Africa has been prominent among the 49 of 54 countries which have signed the framework to create a single market. It is also one of the leading 22 countries which have now ratified the various instruments of the CFTA, thus making Africa the largest free trade area in the world, with a market of 1.2 billion people and a GDP of $2.2 trillion.
In conclusion, the next elections could provide an impulse for South Africa to consolidate its democratic transformation and be a resource of regional and continental legitimacy that is essential for South Africa’s moral authority in forging a new paradigm of partnership for growth and development.