Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Fifth Report

South Africa's role in its region

A regional superpower?

58. Nearly all of those who gave evidence to our inquiry agreed that South Africa was undoubtedly emerging as the principal regional power in Southern Africa, and perhaps the continent as a whole. Keith Somerville, of the BBC World Service, stated that it was: "the dominant military and economic power in Southern Africa, and the most influential nation in sub-Saharan Africa."[71] Dr Jakkie Cilliers, of the South African Institute for Security Studies (SAISS), similarly said that the nation "had emerged from political and economic isolation to become the dominant power in the region."[72]

59. Professor Barber highlighted three particular reasons why South Africa was able to "punch above its weight" in regional affairs: it had the "momentum of the past" (its liberation struggle) which had drawn it to the world's attention and given it leverage with both Western and African leaders; it had the personal resources of men such as ex-President Mandela; and it was a "giant" in economic terms in comparison to its African neighbours.[73] (See graph above for comparisons of the South African GDP with some of its neighbours—figure 2.) In South Africa, the economic and communications infrastructure also functions far better than in its neighbours.

60. However, all of these submissions cautioned against becoming complacent about South Africa's ability, or willingness, to act as a regional 'superpower'. They highlighted a number of factors, including the relative weakness of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and the pressure on politicians to deal with many of the country's domestic problems first. Perhaps most importantly, South Africa is understandably unwilling to be seen as, in the words of one commentator, "a regional bully or hegemon" seeking to dictate to the rest of the continent.[74] Keith Somerville observed:

The country was also made cautious regionally by the role of the country, its armed forces and intelligence services during the end of apartheid era. South African forces had carried out raids against or intervened militarily or in support of rebels in Angola, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana and Zimbabwe—as well as being an occupying power in Namibia.

Robert Mugabe has been quoted as saying that with the end of apartheid in South Africa, countries in the region did not want to swap being victims of apartheid aggression for being treated by the new government as a province of South Africa—this has inhibited Pretoria's willingness and ability to exercise influence regionally. Some have described it as leading to a situation of Pretoria being damned if it does something and damned if it doesn't.[75]

61. It is also arguable that, following the dramatic events of 1990-94, the world community expected too much of South Africa's ability to tackle both its own significant domestic challenges and those of the continent as a whole. In his memorandum, Professor Barber expressed this succinctly:

World leaders hurried to South Africa to bathe in its reflected glory, to identify with Mandela, and to encourage it to accept continental leadership. In the West, South Africa was hailed as Africa's best hope of securing peace and prosperity in that troubled, poverty-plagued continent. A burden of expectation descended on the new government's shoulders, which was enhanced by Mandela's personal prestige—by assuming that he could achieve ends that eluded others.[76]

This fear of raising expectations too high was echoed in a recent speech by the Deputy President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, when he said that initial expectations of the country in 1994 were so high that a more realistic appraisal of what the country could achieve was needed.[77]

Peace-making and peace-keeping

62. Since 1994, the South African Government has undertaken a number of initiatives, some unilateral, some in the context of regional groupings, to try to bring peace to long-standing African disputes. These have included interventions in Lesotho, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The South Africans have also becoming increasingly involved in regional peace-keeping operations, despite the weaknesses in the SANDF noted above.

63. The two largest operations South Africa is currently involved in are in Burundi and the DRC. South Africa has played a key role in helping to broker peace in the latter country, both between the internal factions and the external players involved (primarily Rwanda and Uganda). It currently has around 1,400 troops stationed there as part of the UN Mission, and its reputation is not tarnished as is that of the military forces of Zimbabwe.

64. In Burundi, South Africa is currently leading an AU peace-keeping mission in the country, along with Ethiopia and Mozambique—African Mission in Burundi (AMIB)—the first 'African Mission' for the AU. South Africa is supplying 1,600 of the total force strength of 3,235.[78] The United Kingdom, EU and US are all supporting the peace-keeping mission, but it is undoubtedly proving a significant strain on South Africa's financial and military resources. While in South Africa, we were told that it was hoped that the UN might be able to take a more active role in supporting the mission to reduce the burden on the participating nations.

65. The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, recently reported to the Security Council on the situation in Burundi, praising the Mission's work there:

Despite the financial constraints that have plagued AMIB from the outset, the force has performed to the highest standards in implementing its mandate in Burundi. It has played a key role in providing an atmosphere of security and in assisting the parties to achieve progress in the disarmament process. [79]

He went on to recommend strongly that the UN's role in Burundi be expanded, to "provide the support required to consolidate the peace process."[80] The Secretary-General envisaged that the AMIB force would remain the core military component of any future mission.

United Kingdom support

66. Given the terrible impact that many long-running African conflicts have had on its peoples and the continent as a whole, South Africa's willingness to take on the burdens of peace-keeping duties is extremely welcome. We were very pleased to note the long-term assistance that the United Kingdom has been giving to support South Africa's emerging peace-keeping role. A British military assistance and training team (BMAT) has been working with the SANDF for eight years now.

67. The supplementary memorandum we received from the FCO also noted the most recent joint exercise to take place:

Exercise AFRICAN SHIELD, a UK/South Africa joint Command Post Peace Support Operation took place from 6-26 November 2003. Around 850 personnel drawn from both countries participated and it was the largest ever bilateral military exercise on South African soil. The objective of the exercise was to practise the command and control of a peace support operation in Africa. The exercise scenario concerned a fictional country abutting South Africa, riven by civil war, needing a Chapter 7 mandated coalition of the willing to turn a fragile cease fire agreement into a permanent peace.[81]

Such exercises are clearly very valuable for both sides, and do much not only to strengthen capabilities but to help cement the two nations' close working relationship. Given what we have said earlier about South Africa's reluctance to assume the mantle of regional 'superpower', however, the United Kingdom must clearly guard against giving the impression that it is withdrawing from the continent and leaving the burden of such work on the shoulders of South Africa.

68. We conclude that South Africa has played a crucial and very welcome role in its conflict resolution work across the continent. It has brought new energy and focus to attempts to settle long-running disputes such as those in Burundi and the DRC. We recommend that the United Kingdom continue to offer every assistance to South Africa to strengthen its work in this vital field, while remaining fully involved in the continent itself. We further recommend that, in its response to this Report, the FCO set out how it sees further co-operation in the field of peace-keeping work and training of regional forces developing in the long-term.

Southern African Development Community

69. South Africa is a key member of the regional Southern African Development Community (SADC). This organisation was originally established in 1980, in part as an attempted counterweight to apartheid South Africa, and its original membership of nine has now grown to fourteen: Angola, Botswana, the DRC, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa (which joined in 1994), Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.[82] SADC's objectives include the promotion of development and economic growth, the alleviation of poverty, the enhancement of the standard and quality of life of the peoples of Southern Africa and support for the socially disadvantaged through regional integration.[83]

70. Since its foundation, SADC has developed a number of different institutions and embraced a wide range of ambitious programmes and targets. For example, the member states aspire to create a free trade area by 2008, a customs union by 2012 and a common market by 2015.[84] One recent development was the signing of a Mutual Defence Pact in August last year, which aimed to promote regional co-operation in politics, defence and security. This followed on from the establishment of the SADC's Organ for Politics, Defence and Security, which is intended to prevent conflicts and breakdown of law and order, both between and within member countries.

71. Critics, however, frequently point to the gap between protocols signed in SADC and their subsequent delivery. In a recent article, Ms Anne Hammerstad, of the South African Institute of International Affairs, highlighted this growing "credibility gap" between the rhetoric and actions of SADC, particularly in the field of security co-operation. She identified a number of key weaknesses with the organisation, including, in her opinion, its failure to engage fully with civil society and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and its lack of a common vision and identity. This was echoed by Dr Kibble who spoke of the need for a greater "SADC consciousness."[85]

72. Another key weakness of the organisation highlighted in our inquiry, has been SADC's inability to deal effectively with situations where member states disagreed or refused to be bound by majority opinion. Keith Somerville highlighted the destabilising role played by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe in the DRC, despite the protestations of fellow SADC members such as South Africa. A number of memoranda also highlighted SADC's unwillingness to recognise the problems in Zimbabwe or to reprimand President Mugabe in any way.[86]

73. Mr Mullin expressed his particular frustration at SADC's reticence on Zimbabwe:

We are rather disappointed; they betray a level of ignorance that disappoints us. For example, last August they put out a statement calling for the EU to end its economic sanctions against Zimbabwe; there are no economic sanctions. Following the Commonwealth Conference they put out another unhelpful statement which, again, did not demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the situation.[87]

The Minister stressed, though, that the United Kingdom was anxious to encourage SADC, and had offered them considerable support as an organisation. This included the donation of a quarter of a million pounds to help restructure its secretariat and a further £11 million, over the next four years, towards supporting the secretariat's regional trade and investment in integration work. The FCO was also supplying a senior adviser on tax policy for three years.

74. We conclude that SADC has the potential to play a very valuable role in helping to solve many of the challenges facing its region. If it is to realise this potential, however, and to be taken seriously as a respected international organisation, it must be willing to recognise the failings of member states whose behaviour does not meet the expectations placed upon them by SADC's high aspirations.

75. We recommend that the British Government continue to work with South Africa, as a key player in the organisation, to support SADC's work generally and encourage it to take seriously its role in promoting good governance and respect for human rights.

71   Ev 106 Back

72   Ev 109 Back

73   Ev 4 Back

74   Gerrit Olivier, "Is Thabo Mbeki Africa's saviour?", International Affairs 79/4 (2003), p 822 Back

75   Ev 107 Back

76   Ev 2. See also: Q 5 [Barber] Back

77   Q 116 [Kibble] Back

78   African Union Document PSD/206/B/2387, Back

79   UN Security Council, Report of the Secretary General on Burundi, 16 March 2004, para 62 Back

80   Ibid., paras 63-4 Back

81   Ev 80 Back

82   The Seychelles is due to leave the organisation in July 2004. Back

83   For further information, see: Back

84   Anne Hammerstad, "Defending the State or Protecting the People? SADC Security Integration at a Crossroads", South African Institute of International Affairs, Report number 39, p 1 Back

85   Q 117 [Kibble] Back

86   See, for example: Ev 109 [Cilliers]. Back

87   Q 195 [Mullin] Back

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