Despite political and accelerating socio-economic uncertainties, South Africa is still a destination of leadership and the driver of economic growth in the region and on the continent, while Africa is becoming even a more attractive zone of strategic interests for old and emerging power poles, writes Valdai Club expert Alexandra Arkhangelskaya.
Since the end of apartheid, a core strategy of South Africa’s foreign policy has been to position itself as not only a voice for less influential African and developing countries, but also as a leader in shaping strategic alliances to voice and advance their common interests in global fora and negotiations. The history of South Africa is replete with events and facts that have resonated far beyond the continent; the historical development of this country has its own special distinctive features.
However, over the past years, South Africa has largely failed to meet its declared goals and implement its full international potential. It has missed out on some strategic opportunities, which has led to a decline in the country’s role and influence, both regionally and on a continental and global scale.
In this light, it’s important to understand and analyse a number of processes and events that did not get as much attention or feature as prominently as BRICS or Pretoria’s foreign policy ambitions but in many ways represent the character and scope of South Africa’s situation today.
South Africa has enjoyed political stability and relative macroeconomic stability since apartheid fell and its first democratic elections were held in 1994, but now it is facing increasingly strong headwinds that became even more evident and menacing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it remains the most advanced, diversified, and productive economy in Africa, with a population of over 58 million and 1.22 million square kilometres, and is the world’s largest producer of platinum, vanadium, chromium, and manganese, South Africa is undergoing many significant challenges.
Since 1994, South Africa’s per capita GDP, compared to the rest of the world, has deteriorated by approximately 20% in relative terms. In 1994, per capita GDP was close to 85% of the world’s per capita GDP. Today, it is closer to 60%. Even when compared to the rest of Africa, South African figures have deteriorated. In 1994, per capita GDP was 2.6 times that of the rest of Africa. South Africa remains much richer than the rest of Africa, but is less so than it was in 1994.
The economy expanded by 0.8 percent in 2018 and by 0.2 percent to 350 billion US dollars in 2019. However, the Covid-19 pandemic led to a 7% contraction to 302 billion US dollars in 2020; as a result, GDP per capita has dropped to 2005 levels. Inflation is low and interest rates are at record lows. While the pre-Covid 19 nominal unemployment rate was above 29%, in the first quarter of 2021, according to Stats SA data, unemployment hit a record high, with 32.6% of South Africans jobless. For young people, the situation is especially dire, with nearly half of the country’s youth unable to find jobs despite their eligibility to join the workforce. Due to the poor state of the public education system, skilled labour can be difficult to find in many technical and professional sectors, regardless of steadily increasing unemployment. In addition, HIV/AIDS affects approximately one in ten South Africans, with negative implications for labour availability, productivity, and healthcare costs.
The results of the recent municipal elections underscored a low level of trust, not only in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, which received 45.59% of the vote (for the first time since 1994), and the rest of the 325 parties that took part, but in the state as a whole: voter turnout hit a record low of 45.87%. There were outbursts of social unrest in July 2021, and as many as 15 million mainly unskilled and illegal migrants have arrived from neighbouring countries, leading to crime and xenophobia. The level of corruption is unprecedented, and the government has been incapable of maintaining order and holding those responsible accountable. Load shedding has started to regularly deprive communities that have electricity and water of these for a minimum of 2 hours per day. A special app, Eskom se Push, from the state-owned company Eskom, which is in deep financial trouble aside from the power cuts, pings warning alerts and a schedule of the power cuts throughout the country. There are related infrastructural dilemmas: for instance, South Africa’s once-strong railway network is nearly destroyed; 35% of train stations have no electricity at all and overhead cables are constantly being stolen — signalling wires and catenary masts, affecting every route.
In the foreign policy realm, South Africa is challenged not only by its changing status, but also by the worrisome situations in neighbouring countries such as Mozambique, Eswatini and Zimbabwe. Yet another significant facet to South Africa’s changing status is the constant and dynamic atmosphere on the African continent as the whole — the country’s position is increasingly being challenged by other African states. The growing role of Kenya, Rwanda and Morocco in the international arena is rather noticeable.
Nevertheless, the country’s relatively effective and developed foreign policy mechanism, as well as the president’s role and involvement, are also crucial to maintaining the declared status of the regional leader. Although Cyril Ramaphosa’s international role and reputation are positive, his involvement in the foreign policy realm is minimal due to the prioritisation of the aforementioned internal challenges.
Despite political and accelerating socio-economic uncertainties, South Africa is still a destination of leadership and the driver of economic growth in the region and on the continent, while Africa is becoming even a more attractive zone of strategic interests for old and emerging power poles. South Africa still offers ample opportunities and continues to attract attention of those seeking the rest of the African continent.
Historically Russia has had a long-lasting political relationship with South Africa. However, to date, economic collaboration between the countries continues to be very limited, and Russia places more weight on co-operation in international relations rather than on economic opportunities. Thus, the interaction with the countries of the African continent should be an important area, and not only of foreign policy activity. Here the Republic of South Africa is still considered the gateway of the continent.