Sun | Jun 16, 2024

Adekeye Adebajo | South Africa at 30: home and abroad

Published:Sunday | May 26, 2024 | 12:06 AM

An election poster of independent candidate Anele Mda is displayed on a pole in Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, May 16, 2024.
An election poster of independent candidate Anele Mda is displayed on a pole in Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, May 16, 2024.
Adekeye Adebajo
Adekeye Adebajo

As South Africa moves towards its seventh successful democratic election this week (29 May), the main question is whether the ruling African National Congress’s (ANC) majority will fall below 50 per cent (from 57 per cent in 2019), forcing it to enter into a coalition government. Polls remain inconclusive, though it is clear that the ruling party has squandered much support due to its failure to tackle corruption, and the deterioration of public services.


The country recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of its first democratic election, which brought “Founding Father” and Nobel peace laureate, Nelson Mandela, to power. The high priest of reconciliation is often accused today of having granted the wealthy white minority forgiveness for 350 years of colonial and apartheid crimes without a proper penance for its overwhelming black victims. There has been some impressive socio-economic transformation over the last 30 years: 3.4 million houses have been built; 90 per cent of households are electrified; 82 per cent of homes now have piped water; while 18.8 million South Africans receive valuable social grants. South Africa has thus achieved greater development in this equivalent period than any country in post-colonial Africa. However, unemployment remains stubbornly high at 32 per cent while 18.2 million people still live in extreme poverty.

South Africa recently charged Israel with genocide crimes at the International Court of Justice: a bold action consistent with the ANC’s proud history of promoting self-determination. During three stints on the United Nations (UN) Security Council in 2007/2008, 2011/2012, and 2019/2020, Pretoria consistently championed self-determination for the people of Palestine and Western Sahara. Until this year, South Africa was the only African country in the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) grouping; it remains the only continental member of the Group of 20 major economies; and the only African global strategic partner of the European Union.

After 1994, Mandela sought to promote human rights and democracy. His aspirations, however, did not survive the first contact with reality. When Nigerian military dictator, General Sani Abacha, hanged environmental campaigner, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight fellow activists in 1995, Mandela’s call for oil sanctions and expulsion from the Commonwealth resulted in South Africa being portrayed as a Western Trojan horse. Rather than isolating Nigeria, South Africa instead found itself being isolated. Mandela’s deputy, Thabo Mbeki – the real power behind the throne – reversed course, ensuring that South Africa returned to the African fold.


On assuming power in 1999, Mbeki acted as a Philosopher-King championing an “African Renaissance”: social transformation at home, while building the key institutions of the African Union (AU) with Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo. He also sent peacekeepers to the Congo and Burundi, and mediated Zimbabwe’s crisis. Mbeki and Obasanjo unsuccessfully engaged the Group of Eight rich countries to annul Africa’s external debt and fund its socio-economic transformation. Mbeki pushed to democratize the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Front, and the World Trade Organisation; and helped to create the India, Brazil, South Africa (IBSA) Dialogue Forum in 2003 to pursue his goals.

Building on IBSA, Mbeki’s successor, Jacob Zuma, successfully joined the existing BRIC in 2010. Zuma pursued a more openly mercantilist trade policy to position South Africa as the “gateway to Africa”, even as its white-dominated corporate giants continued to fan out across the continent in the areas of telecommunications, hotels, supermarkets, and fast-food chains. His administration was, however, accused of widespread graft.

Under Cyril Ramaphosa after 2018, South Africa has continued to court foreign investors. He, has, however, been embroiled in protracted intra-party squabbles. Ramaphosa has also been accused of a half-hearted approach to tackling corruption, and struggled to rehabilitate lobotomised state institutions like Eskom. Abroad, he chaired the AU in 2020, strongly championing equal access to COVID vaccines, while continuing to contribute to peacekeeping missions in the Congo and Mozambique. As BRICS chair last year, Ramaphosa oversaw the expansion of the grouping, bringing in Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates. South Africa’s foreign policy remains broadly popular among its black majority, despite a vocal, largely white, minority which sometimes appears to be nostalgic for the apartheid-era anti-Communist cosiness with the West.

Pretoria, however, has sometimes clumsily pursued its foreign policy, appearing to be too close to Beijing and Moscow on Ukraine. But while Mandela’s heirs have not always played a difficult hand with tact, the country is justified in maintaining good ties with BRICS allies, China and Russia, as well as with its global South partners, alongside promoting sound relations with traditional Western partners. South Africa must continue to pursue a non-aligned stance that seeks to benefit from ties with both East and West in order to lift many of its 62 million people out of poverty, while playing a leadership role across Africa and the global South.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa. Send feedback to