South Africa’s Economic Statecraft in Southern Africa: Non-existent or Nascent? An Examination of Relations with Zimbabwe and Swaziland

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The ‘new’ South Africa that has emerged since the country’s first democratic elections, held the year after this acceptance speech, has fallen somewhat short of these expectations for the ‘rainbow nation’.

As South Africa has matured, the idealism spurring Mandela’s universalist claims of ‘democracy, justice [and] peace’ for all has been challenged, leading to a reframing of the country’s foreign policy against realpolitik concerns. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the case of Zimbabwe, South Africa’s key neighbour to the north.

This occasional paper is concerned with the success of South Africa’s engagement with Zimbabwe and Swaziland in support of a normative and progressive agenda by means of economic incentives and other tools favouring the promotion of democracy and its accoutrements of human rights, transparency and accountability; in other words, this paper is concerned with understanding South Africa’s approach to economic statecraft in its immediate region. This in itself is no easy task, given that the term ‘economic statecraft’ is largely absent from South African policy discourse. What predominates, however, is the government-favoured terminology, ‘economic diplomacy’. The conceptual distinction between these two terms is subtle, where the latter is a more benign form of economic engagement – one that better suits a less aggressive post-apartheid South Africa that is wary of being perceived as a hegemon.

The paper starts with an outline of South Africa’s key foreign policy and economic diplomacy principles and vehicles. It discusses the conceptual distinctions between ‘economic statecraft’ and ‘economic diplomacy’, and provides explanations for why South Africa favours ‘diplomacy’ over ‘statecraft’ in dealing with the region. The paper then moves on to the political situation in Zimbabwe and Swaziland, while outlining how South Africa has opted to engage bilaterally and multilaterally in encouraging the promotion of human rights, democracy and good governance in these countries.

It concludes that in Zimbabwe and Swaziland, South Africa has displayed a distinct reluctance to use its economic power to push for democratic reform. While this is partly a consequence of close personal ties between political elites, it is also a result of the primacy the government places on the principles of non-interference and respect for sovereignty. This highlights an inherent or conceptual difficulty in pursuing a human rights-based foreign policy. The strained relationship between the state and business is another contributing factor to why economic statecraft has played a very small role in the country’s responses to Swaziland and Zimbabwe.