For a country that set out under Nelson Mandela to place freedom, democracy and human rights at the centre of its foreign policy, South Africa has championed some unlikely causes in recent times.
In a divided African Union, President Jacob Zuma led the camp backing Laurent Gbagbo in seeking a compromise to end the bloody post election stand-off in Ivory Coast last year.
Mr Gbagbo, who is now awaiting trial on charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, convinced Pretoria that he was the victim of a neo-imperial conspiracy led by France.
But South Africa’s position put it in conflict with Ivorian voters who, according to UN certified results, had elected (now president) Alassane Ouattara.
Trampling on a continental taboo – meddling in the backyard of other regional powers – it also placed Pretoria at loggerheads with Nigeria and the Economic Community of West African states (Ecowas).
When it came to Libya, South Africa’s position was even more confusing.
From its temporary seat on the UN Security Council, it voted with Resolution 1973 authorising “all necessary measures” to protect civilians – cover eventually for the overthrow of Colonel Muammer Gaddafi.
But Pretoria went on to oppose the rebellion against the colonel, leading instead a doomed mission to mediate an end to the violence that eventually saw his regime crumble.
South Africa has been a leading advocate for African development causes on the global stage, both from the temporary seat it has occupied at the Security Council, and as the only African member of the G20.
It has also been one of the main contributors to African peacekeeping initiatives, rarely far from the centre of debate at the AU. Nevertheless the nobler aspects of South Africa’s agenda sometimes fall short in the rough and tumble of continental realpolitik.
“Africa is so divided so South Africa must manage between strategic competition and co-operation. There are always opportunities for co-operation but also for competition and conflict. South Africa on its own is unlikely to manage that tension successfully,” says Aubrey Matshiqi, a political commentator, adding that his country is often “pulled in different directions by different multilateral contexts”.
Western nations have often expected Pretoria to fall in line with their own policy preferences in Africa. Yet South Africa’s alignment with the global south, its membership of the Ibsa (India, Brazil, South Africa) forum and more recent alignment with the Brics, often pulls it the other way.
Hence, it ended up appearing to be more in tune with China and Russia over Libya than it did either with the west or much of Africa.
“We have to take positions harmonised with the AU but also with Brics and Ibsa. As you saw in relation to Libya, it was irreconcilable,” says Mr Matshiqi.
Times have shifted too under Mr Zuma. On the one hand he appears more at ease in the company of other African heads of state, elected or otherwise, than either Thabo Mbeki or Nelson Mandela did before him. Thus, South Africa’s relations with neighbouring Angola under Mr Zuma, who gets on well with long-time autocrat President Eduardo dos Santos, have improved markedly.
South Africa, meanwhile, has taken a tougher line with Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. But partly as a result of the spats with Nigeria over Libya and Ivory Coast, the Abuja/Pretoria axis that gave Africa spine on the global stage under Mr Mbeki and former President Olusegun Obasanjo, is rather broken.
The bruising way in which South Africa sought to oust Jean Ping, the Gabonese diplomat and former chairman of the African Union commission, this year, also did damage to South Africa’s reputation in parts of the continent.
In a second round of voting, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the Southern African Development Community’s candidate, won and has now been installed as AU chair.
A former South African foreign minister and also ex-wife of Mr Zuma, she has a strong record as a conciliator and for administration, and there are hopes in some quarters that she will help reform the AU as an institution. There is lingering resentment, however, at how she came to the job.
“We really thought that, with the demise of Gaddafi, we were done with countries trying to bully others. That’s really the problem. South Africa wants to take over and be another Gaddafi,” one African head of state told the Financial Times, reflecting on the former Libyan leader’s attempts to control the AU.
“No one can deny the weight of South Africa on the African scene so South Africa does not need that job to carry weight.”
The sensitivities of smaller states are part of the dilemma for South Africa and will remain so as it lobbies for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council representing Africa – an ambition Nigeria, among others, shares.
“South Africa always needs to make careful calculations on when to lead from the back foot and when from the front foot,” says Mr Matshiqi.
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