South Africa and France in Africa: exploring new avenues for pursuing the African Agenda

Image: Cyril Plapied

After ill-tempered Franco-African relations under Nicolas Sarkozy, a new relationship is expected to emerge between France and Africa following François Hollande’s first visit to the continent as President of France in October 2012.

His predecessor, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s first trip was to Dakar, Senegal where he pronounced his infamous speech at Cheick-Anta Diop University. François Hollande for his part also chose Dakar on October 13 to pronounce his first Africa speech to the Senegalese National Assembly before proceeding to the annual summit of la Francophonie in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Dakar and Kinshasa were important for three reasons. First, the choice of Senegal and La Francophonie in Kinshasa displayed symbolic continuity, and Hollande’s tone emphasized without any departures the policy reforms that formed the cornerstone of French Africa policy under President Nicolas Sarokozy. These include the centrality of democratic governance, respect for human rights, rule of law and a more transparent relationship. In this regard, there was nothing new.

Second, Dakar and in particular Kinshasa where President Hollande met privately with a number of African Heads of States of all shades also signalled the importance of the francophone bias and l’exception française (French exception), as central pillars in French Foreign Policy in Africa and across the globe. Again, there is nothing new here.

Third, the visit and the speeches in Dakar and Kinshasa confirmed that France would continue to be a principal interlocutor in African affairs, acting as a spokesperson for Africa, and leading initiator of resolutions on African issues in the United Nations Security Council, the European Union and other global forums. Yet again, there is nothing new in this position, which bears the hallmarks of continuity.

So what is new?

Form, method and style and not necessarily a new Africa policy under a new president could shape the substance of Franco-African relations in the medium to long-term. President Hollande is known for a less confrontational, but principled and consensual style that could infuse interactions between the two partners with new possibilities in resolving some of the key challenges facing Africa.

Herein lie opportunities for South Africa to cooperate with France in delivering on the key priorities in Pretoria’s African Agenda. South Africa and France have an interest in solving deadly conflict in Africa through the various global and continental instruments, and institutions to which they belong. Solving conflict remains crucial to the African renaissance and the sustainable take-off of African economies. However, both countries have different comparative advantages that could be leveraged jointly in delivering on such an agenda.

South Africa is a key player in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU). As a continental power, the country pursues an activist foreign policy, with President Jacob Zuma having led various mediation efforts in Libya, Madagascar, Zimbabwe to mention but a few.

In addition, former President Thabo Mbeki adds weight to South Africa’s diplomatic imprint in Africa as the key interlocutor on the Sudan-South-Sudan question. The election of Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma as the Chairperson of the African Union Commission also provides South Africa with a unique opportunity to shape the trajectory of the African Union in the years to come. As a South African, Dr. Dlamini-Zuma could provide South Africa with intelligence about AU activities that could serve Pretoria well in pursuing a reform-minded and progressive African Agenda.

France for her part is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. This privileged position puts Paris at the heart of the most crucial decision-making processes in matters of peace and security. Furthermore, as a former colonial power, France has extensive bilateral relations with African countries, notably in Francophone Africa. These decade-old special bilateral relations provide France with unmatched opportunities to shape the course of events in these parts of the African continent.

In recent years, the French bilateral relationship has also extended to include deep economic relations with the rest of Africa, including South Africa, Kenya and Egypt. More important, as a leading country in the European Union (EU), France has been able to shape the EU architecture and policies on peace and security in Africa through the multilateralisation of French initiatives. The country has played a leading role in various security operations under the aegis of the EU over the past decade. These make France an obvious and indispensable interlocutor for South Africa in pursuing the African Agenda.

Crafting a way forward

While France is active in Africa, and thus of immediate interest to SA because of its focus on the continent, the two do not always have shared analyses on continental conflicts. Libya and Cote d’Ivoire are a case in point. The decision of the French government this week to recognise the Syrian opposition alliance is likely to add one more item of tension to the relationship. South Africa has strongly argued for an internal resolution of the conflict, albeit with support from the outside, not one that is externally imposed. Thus, Syria may potentially impact the overall tone of dialogue between the two countries.

However, both France and South Africa share similar concerns in Africa including, peace and security, promoting economic development, democracy and good governance.

To promote these meaningfully would require partnership and cooperation on the part of both countries. Competition and suspicion would be counterproductive with regard to the creation of a peaceful and prosperous Africa. Peace and security are key elements in South Africa’s African Agenda and the United Nations Security Council, of which South Africa is not a permanent member, remains the crucial arbiter.

With South Africa’s non-permanent membership coming to an end in December 2012, the country will need to consolidate its partnership with France in order to ensure that its voice is heard on  Security Council resolutions that relate to African issues. To do so would require of South Africa to accept that it is in the national interest of France to pursue an activist Africa policy.

For her part, France also needs South Africa in order to pursue these interests and legitimise its agenda in Africa. With both countries working closely in delivering Security Council resolution 2071 on the situation in Northern Mali in October 2012, possibilities for partnership exist. These should be nurtured and be extended to other domains, including defence diplomacy and closer security cooperation.

After all, there are clear limits to pursuing security approaches that do not take into account the interests of the two capitals. The development of common approaches to conflict management should be promoted and seen as a priority going forward. Reaching this stage would require trust and confidence building measures in order to advance the relationship.

With both Presidents Jacob Zuma and François Hollande having met on the margins of the G20 Summit in June 2012 in Los Cabos, Mexico, a window of opportunity exist for both countries to deepen cooperation in order to jointly deliver on global public goods in Africa.