Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Written evidence submitted by Mr Keith Somerville



  South Africa is the dominant military and economic power in southern Africa and the most influential nation (in global and continental terms) in sub-Saharan Africa. In the nine years since the election of Nelson Mandela as president of a post-apartheid South Africa, the country has outstripped Africa's stumbling giant, Nigeria, on the world and African stage.

  The moral force of Mandela and of the reconciliation/Rainbow Nation message from South Africa as a whole, the power of a developed and diverse economy, the sophistication of its politics and the potential of its armed forces have all contributed to this position.

  But commentators, opinion-formers and critics of the ANC within and outside South Africa have expressed disappointment with the lack of engagement and positive results which have characterised regional and continental policy since 1994. Greg Mills, director of the South African Institute of International Relations, has pointed to the "controversy and confusion" which has surrounded the country's foreign policy since 1994.

  While he says that this to an extent is a result of unrealistic international and domestic expectations of the role that South Africa could play in the short-term, it is clear that foreign policy has not been clear, consistent or effective.

  In southern Africa, Pretoria has veered from the rather precipitate and clumsy intervention in Lesotho in 1998 (in concert with Botswana and Zimbabwe) to "quiet diplomacy" and non-intervention in Zimbabwe's political/civil unrest problems and little if any ovious role in Angola (either before or since the death of Jonas Savimbi in February 2002).

  This inconsistency has a number of sources but sits uneasily with South Africa's foreign policy rhetoric—as the leading force in Nepad and given President Mbeki's views on the African Renaissance.

  When South Africa's Foreign Minister in an annual address to the SAIIR declared rather pompously that "South Africa, together with its partners, has made remarkable progress in preparing the groundwork for the revitalisation of Africa and prevention of the further marginalisation of the continent", but was unable to prevent its partners in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) from active and partial military involvement in the DRC (not to mention the looting of DRC resources that accompanied this) and played no meaningful role in supporting democracy in Zimbabwe, then you know that the rhetoric bears little relation to the reality of policy implementation.

  Similarly, South Africa has declared its support for the UN, international peacekeeping efforts and multilateral approaches to conflict resolution, but has declined to provide personnel for UN operations (in Bosnia, for example), has acted unilaterally or in combination with one or two other states in some cases (Lesotho) and has been non-existent as a player in regional crises in which it could have had a major and positive role.


  It is fair to say that South Africa's regional and continental failures have been due partly to entirely understandable constraints.

  The priorities for the country in 1994 were reconciliation, economic redistribution but also continued economic growth and the building of a non-racial defence force.

  This inhibited concerted action on the foreign policy front in the first few years of ANC government—the Mandela government quite rightly and understandably declined a military role post-genocide in Rwanda when this was being suggested within days of the ANC's election victory in 1994.

  The country was also made cautious regionally by the role of the country, its armed forces and intelligence services during the 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 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.

  As member of SADC, South Africa has wanted to act multilaterally, but SADC, as a report from the Centre for Africa's International Relations at the University of Witwatersrand points out, has no real history of multilateral action and its members have generally opted for unilateral or bilateral action. This made things difficult regionally and led to South Africa acting with Zimbabwe and Botswana in its clumsy military intervention after a coup in Lesotho in 1998.

  The ability to act in a military capacity regionally or in global UN operations—to restore or maintain peace or as part of a multilateral force—has been reduced by the declining power, cohesion and funding of the armed forces. Greg Mills of SAIIR has said that South Africa is now far less able to act in those capacities than it was seven years ago.

  While denying that the South African army is in crisis and is able to field only small units for limited operations, South Africa's military chiefs have admitted major problems in the integration of the armed forces, continuing racism, a poor command structure, major issues with the health and age structure of the army and poor maintenance of weaponry and support equipment. A leaked SA Department of Defence document in July 2002 indicated the following as among the major problems:

    —  Only 3,000 of 76,000 troops can be deployed operationally.

    —  Only four out of 168 tanks are operational.

    —  The air force usually runs out of fuel in September.

    —  Seven out of 10 deaths in the army are Aids-related.

    —  Training has been stopped.

  Defence Minister Lekota denounced the publication of the leaks but was able to provide little or no evidence to refute the details published in South African newspapers and by BBC News Online (links to the reports at the end of this paper).

  Detailed studies have shown that operational spending in the SANDF has dropped to disastrous levels—the defence budget has declined by more than 50% in real terms in the last 13 years; less than 40% of helicopters are available for deployment; less than 10% of armoured vehicles are deployable and less than 50% of military units could be available for operational use at short notice (http//

  This low-level of readiness has meant that barely 1,200 South African troops could be available for regional or international peacekeeping and logistical support is almost non-existent. South Africa's small military role in the Burndi peace process has only been made possible by external logistical help and funding for medical support for its troops.

  This situation explains why despite its vocal role in support of the Liberia peace process and pledges to assist with peacekeeping operations, it has not been able to send troops—Lekota had to decline requests from West African states to send troops to support the peace agreement.

  The lack of readiness of the armed forces results from budget cuts, slow and poorly implemented integration of ANC, PAC and former SADF personnel and the lack of support for South Africa's peacekeeping capability from the developed world—typified by the suspension of US military aid to South Africa because of South Africa's differences with the US administration over the operations of the International Criminal Court.

  South Africa's declining military capabilities, lack of major logistical capacity and cuts in the military budget have led to the SANDF being a declining asset in SA foreign policy.


  In DRC, South Africa, along with SADC members Mozambique, Tanzania and Botswana, favoured negotiations and diplomatic means to end the civil war, but other SADC members (Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe) became involved militarily in support of the Kabila government and its allies and also used involvement to gain lucrative access to diamond, mineral and timber resources. South Africa stuck to the diplomatic path and tried repeatedly to forge agreement between the government and rebel groups. This was partially successful with the Pretoria agreement of 2002, but the lack of any strong, neutral African Union or SADC presence on the ground and the inability to deter Uganda and Rwanda from continually meddling has meant that however constructive Pretoria's role on the diplomatic side, the situation on the ground remains fluid and unsupportive of reconciliation and reconstruction.

  Pretoria seemed unable to influence its SADC partners (Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe) over Congo and having failed to influence them would not criticise them publicly over military intervention in the Congo.

  In Burundi, South Africa supported Tanzania and Botswana in seeking a solution to Hutu-Tutsi violence and has committed some 750 troops and some civilian personnel but has not had any great success in achieving real progress—but that might be too much to ask any outside mediator. This has been the only major South African commitment of forces to peacekeeping (apart from the short-lived Lesotho operation). At one point, the problems within the SANDF flared up in its force in Burundi—resulting in the death of a soldier during a violent row within the South African peacekeeping force.

  In Angola, South Africa has not been an open player since 1994. Its history of direct military involvement and support for the UNITA rebels makes this difficult as does the Dos Santos government's pre-1994 support and provision of bases for the ANC.

  In the mid-1990s, South Africa failed to prevent the private military company, Executive Outcomes, from direct military involvement on both sides of the conflict, was unable to mediate effectively between the government and UNITA and seemed to play a wait and see role, hoping that as the government gained the upper hand in the late 1990s, the situation would resolve itself.

  Since the defeat of UNITA and death of Savimbi, South Africa appears to have played little open role in assisting with reconciliation, humanitarian work or economic reconstruction—although South African commercial interests, such as the electricity giant Eskom, have extensive plans for energy and water utilisation involving resources in DRC and Angola to create a regional power and water grid—mainly to meet an expected growth in demand for power and water in South Africa in the coming decades.

  When it comes to Zimbabwe, South Africa has disappointed many domestic opinion-formers as well as major western and Commonwealth countries. Mbeki's stress on quiet diplomacy has gone down badly with the USA, UK and EU, its non-Agfrican partners in the Commonwealth, put it at odds with its neighbours Botswana and Mozambique and appeared in stark contradiction to the aims, principles and rhetoric of Nepad.

  South Africa has been critical of the declaratory policy of opposition to Mugabe's land and political policies emanating from the UK, the USA, the EU and non-African Commonwealth members and has opposed criticism of Zimbabwe that has come from Botswana's government.

  The SA Foreign Minister's comment in March this year that under an ANC government there would "never" be criticism of Mugabe and his policies let alone pressure on him to resign or hold new elections made clear the lack of common ground.

  The strong South African stand on this has been criticised not just by Western governments (even though Bush bowed to it during his visit to Pretoria in July and left the field open for South Africa's version of diplomacy—perhaps more an indication of Bush's lack of real interest in Zimbabwe than of his willingness to listen to Mbeki's arguments) but also by international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and domestic groups such as the Helen Suzman Foundation.

  The HSF said in an editorial comment on its website criticising the Mbeki stand on Zimbabwe that "African Renaissance is nothing if it is not built on human rights, democracy and the rule of law". The Foundation says Mbeki has made a huge error in his policy on Zimbabwe. The Foundation accuses the President of concentrating too much on the land issue and putting himself in a position where any criticism of Zimbabwe would appear to be "a sell out to white interests".

  The South African stance and its effective role as an international voice opposing intervention and repeating Mugabe's line on the land issue, has also been criticised by the business community, tourist operators and others who see the Zimbabwe crisis as a major obstacle to regional economic development, foreign investment in the region as a whole and investment in and trade with individual countries.

  One problem for South African policy is that criticism of President Mugabe's policies from the UK in particular have often seemed to concentrate on the land issue, the protection of white farmers and to have been too obviously pro-MDC rather than efforts to protect the rule of law and freedom of speech per se. This has then put South Africa in the position of appearing to support such a stance if it criticises Zimbabwe and backs any western sanctions or other means of putting pressure on Mugabe.

  But, crucially, South Africa has failed to support the principled stand in support of democracy, the rule of law and the general economic well-being of the region taken by Botswana and is believed by many in Botswana to have put pressure on President Mogae to tone down his public criticism of Mugabe.


  South Africa has disappointed as a regional political/diplomatic player, failing to punch its weight in Africa. While understandable in the years immediately following the end of apartheid, this is less understandable now given Mbeki's very public championing of Nepad and the African Renaissance.

  Domestic pressure and the sensitivity of the land issue have led to a position of effective support for the Mugabe government in Zimbabwe—alienating South Africa's friends in the West, angering those inside South Africa who want an ethical foreign policy supporting human rights and democracy and disappointing the business community and neighbours such as Botswana and Mozambique who see Zimbabwe as an obstacle to regional economic progress.

  South Africa's own military problems, budget cuts and ambivalent attitude to regional policy have rendered it surprisingly weak as a diplomatic and military force in its own region and sub-Saharan Africa as a whole and prevented it from taking a lead in regional or continental peacekeeping efforts. Globally, it is in the bottom ten contributors to UN peacekeeping.

  Keith Somerville is currently Training Editor (News) with the BBC World Service. He has worked as a programme editor, producer, reporter and documentary maker for the BBC World Service and BBC News Online, specialising in African military and political affairs. A long-time member of the now defunct RIIA Southern Africa Study Group, he has published four books on African political and military issues and been a contributor to other authors' collections on these topics and to academic journals on African affairs. The views expressed in this short paper are his own and do not represent the views of the BBC.

  Web sources used:

  Mr Keith Somerville

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