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28/03/2018 13:03 SAST | Updated 28/03/2018 13:52 SAST

Just How Weak Is South Africa’s Global Standing Now?

Commentators have observed that South Africa’s leadership in Africa has been on a downward trend in recent years.

President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Chris Lee/ World Rugby/ Getty Images
President Cyril Ramaphosa.

South Africa's status on the world stage

It appears a new foreign and diplomatic dispensation is emerging in South Africa, after the assumption of the presidency by Cyril Ramaphosa with Lindiwe Sisulu as foreign minister. How do we make sense of the new South African outward trajectory?

The soft-power capital that greeted the transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994 has receded. That transition ensured that South Africa enjoyed a high moral standing globally, in part due to the "Madiba" effect as well as a foreign policy premised on human rights.

The Thabo Mbeki administration elevated South Africa's status under the banner of the African Renaissance, with South Africa leading the transformation of the OAU to the African Union along with the establishment of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad). The African Renaissance and International Cooperation Fund was launched and later transformed into the South African Development Partnership Agency (SADPA) with a focus on Africa. These were and are the building blocks of South Africa's global outreach.

AFP/Getty Images
Former South African President Nelson Mandela (R) waves as he arrives for the inauguration of Thabo Mbeki (R) as second democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa at the Union Buildings. 16 June 1999.

It's "superpower" status on the continent assured, South Africa lobbied, or was invited to join, global organisations such as the G20 and BRICS as Africa's representative. It served as one of the rotational United Nations Security Council members between 2007 and 2008, and 2011 and 2012. In a nutshell, South Africa became a major voice in the global south.

But commentators have observed that South Africa's leadership in Africa has been on a downward trend in recent years. By extension, this would threaten South Africa's global stature.

While South Africa is an economic and political power on the continent, the same cannot be said on the global stage. South Africa is not in the top 20 ranking of countries by GDP, and would therefore not qualify as a G20 country in a strict sense. South Africa's economic size is far smaller than the rest of the BRICS nations'. South African foreign policy officials are therefore fully aware that the nation must take leadership on the continent as a prerequisite to playing a role on the global stage.

To an extent, the decline of South Africa's global influence is due to the relative decline of its global-south partners. Under the India, Brazil, South Africa (IBSA) banner, a persuasive south-south narrative was advanced. Brazil has since experienced tumultuous political and economic times. The south-south discourse is informed by the formation in 2006 of the BRIC group of countries, to which South Africa was invited in 2009.

Although its international stature has declined, South Africa has not disappeared from the global stage.

BRICS, however, soon went into an economic downturn affecting particularly Russia, China and Brazil – especially after 2013. South Africa's own economy has performed at about or below 1 percent, a negative development coupled with a spate of corruption scandals and leadership schisms. These factors have meant that South Africa and its global-south allies have been constrained by domestic imperatives, thus limiting their global diplomatic agendas.

Although its international stature has declined, South Africa has not disappeared from the global stage. A favourable international public opinion was scored in the wake of the recent election of Cyril Ramaphosa. Earlier in January, South African Reserve Bank Governor Lesetja Kganyago was elected as chairperson of the International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC). The country's bidding for the rotational United Nations Security Council seat which has been endorsed by the African Union, suggests that it will return to the powerful U.N. organ in 2019 for the third time within a decade.

The height of residual South African global power can be seen in the fact that it is the only African country that has hosted a Forum on China Africa Cooperation (Focac) summit, which it did in 2015. The other African countries that have hosted the triennial event (Ethiopia and Egypt) have done so at a less significant ministerial conference level.

While China is clearly the larger partner in the relationship, the South African chairing of the Focac mechanism saw some of the problem areas in the Africa-China relations – such as natural resource extraction and wildlife poaching – written into the policy documents for the first time. However, South Africa will relinquish its six-year (2012-2018) joint leadership of Focac having failed to lead on the development of a common African policy towards China.

South Africa will be assuming the presidency of the BRICS as it hosts the 10th summit in July. This may explain one of the reasons why former Chinese foreign minister and a member of the apex State Council, Yang Jiechi, was in Pretoria last week to meet Ramaphosa.

Notably, South Africa lobbied hard to host the headquarters of BRICS' signature institution, the New Development Bank, but lost out to China (Shanghai) and settled instead for hosting the important but less significant Africa Regional Centre based in Johannesburg, with India providing the bank's CEO. While South Africa's tenure leading BRICS will be important, the country will still be hamstrung by the fact that it remains the lesser partner.

In the final analysis, South Africa's global standing has weakened, but the country retains lots of potential in the global sphere – mostly derived from its leadership on the continent.