The More Things Change: What Zuma’s Presidency Means for the Rest of Africa

Image: Flickr, GovernmentZa
Image: Flickr, GovernmentZa

In a little over two weeks, Jacob Zuma will be sworn in as fourth president of South Africa since the advent of democracy in 1994.

At home, his presidency is viewed ambivalently – either as a breath of fresh air or as a worrying development for constitutionalism in South Africa. His supporters are quick to magnify former president Mbeki’s aloofness and policy failures on crime, employment creation and HIV/AIDS as compelling evidence that a more affable and down-to-earth Jacob Zuma is indeed just what South Africa needs. His detractors associate the former deputy president with personal moral failure, corruption and a belief in populism: perhaps unjustly, given that question marks attached to his character are often linked to failed litigation against the incoming president.

Yet, while the interests of his own domestic constituency naturally come first on the list of priorities for his administration, Jacob Zuma takes on the formidable task of succeeding a “foreign policy” president – and an architect of Africa’s continental institutions – notably the African Union (AU), New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and its flagship good governance initiative, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). Africa under Zuma is likely to remain a strong proponent and financial supporter of this network of institutions, which are themselves undergoing marked transformation.

On a continental level, the AU contends with division over the ideal approach to continental integration: with a distinct fissure between ‘gradualists’ calling for a slower, methodical and eventual integration through Regional Economic Communities and ‘radical’ African states advocating the speedier formation of a ‘United Sates of Africa’ under a more powerful and reconstituted African Union. South Africa has tended to lean toward a more gradual approach in this debate, pitting it against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi who currently chairs the AU.

Similarly, NEPAD – Africa’s initiative to combat its socio-economic challenges – is grappling with concerns over its performance in meeting its mandates as well as undergoing organisational change. The APRM, on the other hand, has made progress toward assessing the state of governance in nine African countries, with a handful more currently undergoing review – yet will need assertive leadership from key states to obtain greater political buy-in.

A fair question to pose here is whether Zuma is up to the task of filling the shoes of Thabo Mbeki, whose role as an intellectual and political force behind Africa’s institutions is difficult to question. On a more parochial level, what should the rest of the continent expect of Mbeki’s successor?

While these questions border on crystal-ball gazing, one can reasonably expect that Zuma’s presidency will be at best a change of faces. To begin with, there are few indications of a dramatic change of guard within South Africa’s Foreign Affairs Department, where Zuma’s former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is Foreign Minister. Under Dlamini-Zuma’s leadership, South Africa has pursued a consistently pan-African approach to its relations with the rest of the continent – which some decode as showing solidarity with other African leaders, contributing to the mediation of conflict and promoting an “African” agenda in international forums such as the United Nations and the G8.

Yet, as is the norm in politics anywhere, the imperative to reward loyal campaigners who lent their “blood, toil sweat and tears” to the election of Zuma as president may demand a new crop of foreign policy actors – who may take a surprisingly different approach to South Africa’s engagement with the rest of the continent. But this is unlikely. The author’s bet is that there will be continuity in South Africa’s foreign policy, regardless of the introduction of new personalities. Reading through the African National Congress (ANC)’s statements on foreign policy, one gets the distinct impression that change in South Africa’s foreign policy is by no means a probability.

The ANC’s election manifesto suggest that Mbeki’s approach to Africa is unlikely to change under a Zuma presidency: the party commits to a similar geographic focus to that of the Mbeki era – among other things, pledging to play an assertive role in Zimbabwe (where Thabo Mbeki’s role as SADC mediator has received little visible opposition from within the party) and in other troubled spots including the Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and interestingly, Swaziland. On a philosophical level, the ” fight against -imperialism” as it is referred to in the ruling ANC’s most recent Party Conference Resolutions is likely to continue to be the guiding foreign policy philosophy of an ANC government under Jacob Zuma. Arguably, the underlying force behind the Mbeki administration’s approach to Zimbabwe – and its choices to fight the UN Security Council’s former colonial powers on their condemnation of democratic violations in Burma and Sudan- stemmed from an ‘anti-imperial’ impulse that the current ANC leadership is committed to maintaining.

In this regard, the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane Conference resolutions assert that “imperialism has mutated into a sophisticated system in the globalised world, often associated with violence and aggression in its pursuit for exploitation of resources in the developing countries and its impact on the African continent”. The same document later commits the ANC to “respond to the challenge of imperialism”, fight for a more equitable economic global order, fight “cultural domination” (presumably by Western countries) and push for fairer and freer global governance institutions.

On a rhetorical level at least, the difference between Mbeki’s foreign policy philosophy and that of the incoming Zuma administration is difficult to perceive. A similar undertone to Mbeki’s commitment to an “African Renaissance” that would see the continent “depart from a centuries-old past which sought to perpetuate the notion of an Africa condemned to remain a curiosity slowly grinding to a halt on the periphery of the world’ – can be detected from the ANC’s current stance on international relations. Few expect South Africa’s new president to take a vastly different position to that of the party to whom he owes allegiance as president. For Africa, the new political leader in South Africa is unlikely to aggressively oppose majority views on the AU, APRM and NEPAD’s direction – in the spirit of “African solidarity” that was central to Mbeki’s approach to African affairs.

As South Africans agonise over a future under Jacob Zuma, Africa’s club of leaders may be confident that not much change is coming. Yet, for South Africa’s allies in the West who have struggled to reconcile Mbeki’s foreign policy decisions on human rights with Mandela’s legacy that placed human rights at its core, the hope may be that that there will be a markedly different foreign policy response to hot button human rights issues.
Nonetheless, while it is indeed early days, few signs suggest that a step change is underway. Perhaps there is substance to the French philosopher Rousseau’s famous assertion – ‘”plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – the more things change, the more they stay the same.