South Africa’s 20 Years of Soft Power Crescendos

Photo © South African Government (Zuma, Mbeki) and UN Photo/James Bu (Mandela)
[left to right] President Jacob Zuma, the late former President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, and former President Thabo Mbeki.

2014 marks two decades since the end of apartheid and the establishment of a constitutional democracy in South Africa. The manner of the country’s transformation to democracy imbued it with soft power of legitimacy and credibility that provided it with unique leverage in global affairs. Coupled with its willingness to become an active global citizen, South Africa has used this soft power in its foreign policy.

In a recently published article in Current History, Elizabeth Sidiropoulos explores South Africa’s soft power since 1994.

South Africa’s 20 Years of Soft Power Crescendos
By Elizabeth Sidiropoulos

While African nations do not often come to mind as primary agents of soft power, South Africa’s moral authority and willingness to play an active role in the world gave it unique leverage with both the global North and the South and positioned itself as the champion of Africa’s developmental agenda.

South Africa’s international relations have changed over the past 20 years. Many would describe the Mandela presidency (1994—99) as a honeymoon period, when South African moral authority was high and the human rights agenda was dominant. The African Renaissance best describes President Thabo Mbeki’s years in office (1999—2008), when the country actively pursued an “African Agenda,” accelerating its involvement in regional issues. In this period, anticolonial and anti-imperialist rhetoric became more prominent. Under President Jacob Zuma (2009—14), there has been a perceived increase in economic imperatives, reduced focus on peace building, and a more assertive stance on African issues, seen most visibly in the successful candidacy of former Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for the chair of the African Union (AU) Commission.

Over the years, external actors have conferred a continental leadership role on South Africa by virtue of its dominant economic position, its strong democratic character (which many in the West saw as creating an affinity with their own political values), and its actions in forums where it is often the only African voice (such as in the Group of 20).

Although the government is frequently at pains to emphasise that it does not speak on behalf of
Africa, but rather that it feels obliged to convey African concerns in international bodies, this approach imbues its foreign engagements with a greater degree of legitimacy. South Africa succeeded at lobbying the Group of Eight industrialised nations for a hearing on African issues. While South Africa’s foreign policy has undergone normalisation from the idealism of the early days to the reality of everyday trade-offs, Africa, the global South, and multilateralism remain central threads running through its narrative and its actions in the international realm.

Soft power is the ability of a nation (or a multinational organisation) to achieve desired outcomes without the use of hard force because, as Joseph Nye says, others admire its values, emulate its example, and aspire to its level of prosperity and openness. Soft power helps to shape the preferences of others and set agendas. Nye, the American political scientist who coined the term, also emphasises that soft power is not normative but purely descriptive: it is based on what states do, not what they say, and can be used for good or bad purposes.

Africa’s history has influenced the continent’s perception of hard power. The hard power of Western states brought colonialism and delayed national liberation. Postcolonial Africa has frowned on the use of hard power by external players, even though its states have become involved in both interstate and intrastate wars. Africa’s regional and continental institutions prefer to eschew military or economic coercion in dealing with recalcitrant leaders, except in the face of unconstitutional regime changes.

On the continent, setting aside external actors, South Africa is probably the country with the best claim to the exercise of soft power, as defined by Nye: through its culture, its political values, and the legitimacy of its foreign policy.

Nigeria may have Nollywood (cultural reach through its film industry), and its economy may have overtaken South Africa’s as the largest in Africa, after the April 2014 rebasing of its gross domestic product calculations; however, Nigeria still has some way to go in rivalling the South African story.

Some of the newer actors in Africa, particularly China, recognise the utility of soft power in advancing their interests on the continent. China has embarked on a robust public diplomacy and outreach effort, using as vehicles its considerable diplomatic presence, its media, and its Confucius institutes (which promote Chinese language and culture). The rhetoric of the China-Africa relationship disguises a very real power asymmetry, but China’s phenomenal development since it began reforming its economy is attractive to Africans. The “Beijing Consensus” (if there is such a thing) looks like a better proposition to African leaders than the Washington Consensus and its associated policy conditions.

Pretoria’s preferred instruments for advancing these priorities (everyday trade-oils, Africa, and multilateralism) have been consensus building, dialogue, and negotiations, while avoiding resorting to force—manifestations of the imprint left on the governing African National Congress (ANC) leadership by South Africa’s internal conflict resolution. Constructing bridges between positions that seemed irreconcilable has also proved a strong national trait.

Given its middle ranking as a power, South Africa’s influence and moral suasion must come largely from soft power. It will achieve this through not only public diplomacy but leading by example in both political and economic domains.

How this leverage will evolve over the next decade depends on the extent to which the nation is able to marshal its collective talents and resources, so as to ensure that its considerable powers of attraction are not squandered by its internal challenges and slow responses to the evolving African and global landscapes.

The above is an abridged version of a paper by SAIIA Chief Executive Ms Elizabeth Sidiropoulos on ‘South Africa’s Emerging Soft Power’ published in Current History, the 100-year-old publication devoted to contemporary international affairs, in its May 2014 issue on Africa.