South Africa’s Foreign Policy Principles

For South Africa, the fall of apartheid and onset of democracy signalled a turning point in its domestic and foreign policy. Foreign policy during apartheid was based on simplistic principles, aimed primarily at diplomatically isolating South Africa and ensuring the maintenance of white minority rule. Post-apartheid foreign policy became more complex and South Africa has since struggled with creating its foreign policy identity, and finding out where it locates its interests (Bicshoff & Serrao, 2009).

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1.2.1 Nelson Mandela’s contribution to foreign policy

Former President, Nelson Mandela outlined the foreign policy principles that South Africa would strive for under the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) after apartheid in 1994. Mandela outlined these principles in the document, ‘South Africa’s Future Foreign Policy’. He believed that following a new foreign policy would create more peaceful and prosperous conditions in South Africa and in its interaction with the international system. The pillars upon which he based the new foreign policy were:

The importance and centrality of human rights; which embraces political, economic, social and environmental aspects of international relations.

The promotion of democracy to address the problems and solutions in the world.

Justice and respect for international law should direct the relations between nations.

Peace as the goal for all nations, and the break- down of peace should be addressed through internationally-agreed, non-violent means.

South African foreign policy should reflect the concerns and interests of the entire continent of Africa.

Economic development requires regional and international cooperation in an interdependent world. (Mandela, 1993)

Mandela recognises the anti-apartheid struggle as “the most important human rights crusade” (Mandela, 1993: 87) after World War II and as a result, South Africa has the responsibility to let human rights guide every aspect of their interaction with other nations. Mandela also emphasizes the fact that Africa (not only South Africa) should embrace the principles of tolerance, accountability and good governance. He discusses the fact that ideas of nationalism engender hostilities which threaten the existence of some countries, and should be dampened by a tolerance for diversity among all nations. Also mentioned in Mandela’s document; South Africa’s Future Foreign Policy’ is the gap between the “industrialized North and the underdeveloped South” (Mandela, 1993:89) – referring to the Global North as the wealthier more powerful countries and Global South being the poorer less powerful countries, and the active role that South Africa would need to play in bridging this divide. Mandela recognizes the important role that the UN can play in this regard; and that South Africa’s return to the UN after apartheid would help them address these global problems. He asserts that the UN would need to be restructured in order to accommodate the post-Cold War balance of power in the global system; the UN Security Council in particular would need to reflect the diversity of humankind and not be dominated by one or a few member-states. South Africa would also pledge to commit to general and complete disarmament under international control (Mandela, 1993).

In order to facilitate South Africa’s economic growth for the future, Mandela prescribes greater cooperation between South Africa and other African countries in trading networks and manufacturing industries. Finding an acceptable regional solution to African problems, would require cooperation and consultation from organisations such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Eastern and Southern African Preferential Trade Area. As much as foreign policy is about maintaining peace and security among nations, South Africa’s domestic national interests are also at stake and can be strengthened through international economic activities. Mandela highlights South African manufacturing and service sectors that need to be boosted and also identifies competitive manufacturing sectors. A developmental strategy that attracts foreign investment must be adopted (Mandela, 1993).

At the time that this document was written, the ANC was also acutely aware of the fact that the development of trading blocs such as the European Community and The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) might weaken the bargaining positions of developing countries, especially those who are not part of a trading bloc. Negotiations are disproportionate in that they mainly represent the interests of the developed countries. South Africa, being aware of this inequality, aims to maintain a close relationship to the European Community, but also help reinforce the needs of developing countries without a voice in the international economic community (Ibid).

Ultimately, Mandela proposes that South Africa take the role of being a “friend to the world” (Mandela, 1993: 97) that bases its foreign policy on the centrality of human rights. It aims to create peaceful and prosperous relations around the world that will support the concerns of the South African, African and developing world’s citizens.

It is unsurprising that human rights figured prominently in Mandela’s development of South African foreign policy, as post-apartheid South Africa was created on the foundations of human rights campaigns led by NGOs and other anti-apartheid movements from Third World countries willing to fight for South Africa’s liberation for apartheid in organisations like the UN. South Africa felt morally obliged to protect and promote universal human rights to prevent peoples’ lives from being threatened by an oppressive government (Youla, 2009).

1.2.2 Thabo Mbeki’s contribution to foreign policy

Thabo Mbeki was elected in 1999, as the second president of a post-apartheid South Africa, continuing the journey of democratic transformation of South African society. Comparing the policy objectives of Mandela and Mbeki, Christian Youla (2009) mentions that many scholars perceived Mandela to promote an idealist foreign policy, and Mbeki, a realist one. According to Youla (2009), Mbeki sought to promote South Africa’s international profile to be able to produce tangible material pay-offs therefore, promoting foreign investment and giving importance to material gains; which explains the realist label that Mbeki acquired among some analysts. Mbeki secured political control within the ANC using a close circle of colleagues in policy-making. This approach shows Mbeki employing his own individual beliefs and perspectives into policy-making and foreign policy, rather than solely operating under the relatively broad foreign policy framework that Mandela introduced to South Africa’s post-apartheid era.

President Mbeki initiated a new “integrated planning framework” (Youla, 2009:52) to determine strategic national priorities that the executive found important. The Department of Foreign Affairs headed this strategic plan that outlined key foreign policy objectives for South Africa under Mbeki’s leadership. Important aspects of this plan were; South Africa’s domestic interests, the objectives of an ‘African Renaissance’, the need to promote the agenda of the Global South, and creating an equitable global system (Ibid).

Mbeki’s conception of an ‘African Renaissance’ was not a new concept, but other African leaders such as Nkwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and David Kuanda had propagated similar principles; which promoted a common African continental effort to achieve stable democracies, respect for human rights and an end to violent conflict. These principles may sound similar to Mandela’s foreign policy objectives which also emphasized human rights and democracy. The ‘African Renaissance’ however, centralised the African continent to attaining South African foreign policy goals, and implied that South Africa would serve as the intermediate power between Africa and leading foreign powers in the rest of the world. The ‘African Renaissance’ became a more important part of Mbeki’s contribution to foreign policy during his administration (Ibid).

Concerning Mbeki’s agenda for the Global South and developing an equitable global system, he highlighted the following main goals:

Restructuring regional organisations like the African Union (AU) and SADC

Helping to reform international organisations like the UN, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Commonwealth and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)

South Africa hosting international conferences

Promoting peace and security in Africa and the Middle East

Further developing South Africa’s relations with the G8 group of states, and aspiring to create a similar economic alliance for the Global South (Ibid)

Laurie Nathan (2005) describes Mbeki’s foreign policy as having three important elements; being democratic, Africanist, and anti-imperialist. Nathan believes that these elements combine easily and foster coherence, although when these elements do come into conflict in any way, democracy usually suffers. Analysts have criticized Mbeki’s foreign policy as being ambiguous and lacking coherence, however Nathan argues that these elements that Mbeki introduced, consolidated government his ambitions for foreign policy. Mbeki’s policy coherence is evident in the ‘Strategic Plan’ published by the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2004, in which Mbeki reiterated South Africa’s commitment and promotion of human rights and democracy. However, more specific aspects were included, such as the support of justice and international law in managing nation-state relations; commitment to international peace and mechanisms of resolving conflict that are internationally agreed-upon; promoting African interests; and economic development rooted in regional and international cooperation. The objectives of the concept of ‘African Renaissance’ would be achieved through the promotion of AU economic and social development programmes, and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) regional integration programmes to promote security and sustainable development (Nathan, 2005).

Nathan (2005) believes that policy coherence was maintained by the themes of Africa and the ‘African impulse’ that Mbeki promoted; democracy and respect for human rights; good governance; a holistic understanding of security; and pacific approach to conflict resolution and multilateralism. Nathan believes that Mbeki projected a cosmopolitan and African image in his foreign policy that showed South Africa as the mascot or main representative of Africa in international forums. Regarding the pacifist approach to conflict resolution, this also reflects Mbeki personal style of politics, employing the mechanisms of persuasion and negotiations that he can direct and control, rather than the direct and unpredictable use of force. Multilateralism was seen as a primary goal and strategy for Mbeki’s foreign policy, which is congruent with South Africa’s pluralist political stance (Ibid).

As a result of Mbeki’s ambitious plans for foreign policy in South Africa, he is seen as the “father of South African foreign policy” (Pillay, 2011:1), seeking international prestige. Many see his approach to foreign policy as being more complex and yet more specific than Mandela’s foreign policy objectives.

1.2.3 Current foreign policy objectives

Following the departure of Thabo Mbeki, the ANC won the 2009 general election, positioning Jacob Zuma as the president of South Africa. Zuma’s own foreign policy agenda is still seen to be in development, and has essentially continued on the path of Mbeki’s foreign policy principles. However, some have recognised a decrease in emphasis on the ‘African agenda’ which was promoted by Mbeki; being replaced by a more ‘Western-supportive’ approach. Essentially, Zuma’s tenure as president has seen the same criticisms of Mbeki’s, in that many see a discrepancy between South African foreign policy principles and their actions in the international arena (Pillay, 2011).

The ‘Strategic Plan’ for 2010-2013, published by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation set out the foreign policy principles which South Africa endeavours to achieve, as well as national interests which the country pursues. The Plan highlights goals such as South Africa becoming a “performance-orientated state” (Department of International Relations & Cooperation Strategic Plan 2010-2013: 2) that improves planning, playing a significant role in African advancement, creating an environment that accommodates economic growth and development (especially in Africa); promoting regional economic integration through the organisations of NEPAD and the South African Development Partnership Agency (SADPA); focusing on developing an Africa-EU Action Plan; endorsing South Africa’s non-permanent member seat in the UNSC for 2011-2012; establishing a consultative process to encourage public participation in creating Foreign Policy and national interest; nurturing South-South cooperation while still strengthening the much-needed economic relations with the North. The Department seeks to promote the same principles of development, security, human rights and international law through its participation within the UN. Other enduring principles from Mbeki’s era include the fact that the resolution of international conflicts is aimed to be addressed through passive and peaceful means, in accordance with the UN Charter principles of international law. Additionally, South Africa still seeks to reform or restructure the organization of the UN and specifically the Security Council, for it to be more representative and reflective of the post-Cold War international system (Ibid).

1.3 Research Question

This research centres on South Africa’s voting behaviour as a non-permanent member within the UNSC and ultimately the main question that I endeavour to answer is:

Has post-apartheid South African foreign policy neglected its commitment to human rights in its voting actions within the UNSC, and if so, why?

It is my hypothesis that South African foreign policy has neglected its commitment to human rights in its voting of UNSC Resolutions, because its goal of becoming an activist for the Global South (and the Global South’s interests) in the UNSC has taken precedence over its responsibility toward human rights.

Therefore, I aim to investigate South Africa’s voting behaviour as a non-permanent member of the UNSC to show that South Africa’s voting decisions are not primarily based on the protecting and supporting of human rights. In order to explain why it has neglected its commitment to human rights, I aim to relate South Africa’s voting decisions to its allegiance to countries of the Global South and its goal of becoming an activist for interests of the Global South – which has become South Africa’s first priority in the UNSC.

The main objective of this report is to show the tension between the principles of South African post-apartheid foreign policy (as developed by Mandela and Mbeki) and also show that its role as a leader for developing countries has negatively affected South Africa’s pledge to promote and protect human rights in the international arena. This analysis alludes to fact that South Africa could be adopting a neo-realist approach to foreign policy.

1.3.1 Limitations and Scope of Research

Investigating South Africa’s voting behaviour within the international organisation of the UN, raises many other peripheral issues such as the dominance of powerful countries within the Security Council and the call by developing countries of the Global South for the restructuring of the UNSC to better reflect international relations the post-Cold War era. However, I will specifically investigate South Africa’s role as a leader of these developing countries, and not all the issues and reforms that they as a collective group suggest. There are many facets to South African foreign policy such as its commitment to democracy, its interests in the African continent, its approach to mediating conflicts and its commitment to international justice and law; however particular emphasis will be given to the human rights aspect of South Africa’s foreign policy and its interests in becoming a leader for the Global South.

Although a brief description of the development of South African post-apartheid foreign policy is necessary to establish its long-standing commitment to human rights, the analysis of this report will be focused on the South Africa’s voting behaviour in relation to human rights within the UNSC during the period of 2007-2008 and 2011-2012 in which South Africa was elected as a non-permanent member of the UNSC.

I will use a case study from the UNSC’s initiatives during 2007; the case of Myanmar and the UN draft Resolution for the conflict in the country will be used to assess South Africa’s voting behaviour. I will use a second case study during South Africa’s non-permanent membership in the UNSC in 2011; the case of the Libyan conflict and the voting surrounding the UN Resolution which was passed. These case studies will be used to link South Africa’s voting behaviour toward UN Resolutions regarding these conflicts, to the fundamental South African foreign policy principle of promoting and defending human rights. These particular cases present conflicts that involve the issue of human rights and the protection of citizens’ lives; South Africa’s voting behaviour concerning these conflicts therefore would give a reflection of its adherence to the protection human rights on a world-wide scale. A discrepancy between South Africa’s pledge to human rights and its actions in foreign policy engagement will be able to prove my hypothesis. Secondly, I will show how South Africa’s voting behaviour has been influenced by its commitment to being an advocate of the Global South. I will analyse its allegiance and support to its fellow developing countries within the UNSC and other organisations concerning the relevant conflict.

1.3.2 Research Design and Methodology

This research is largely descriptive in nature, describing South African foreign policy objectives and its action in the United Nations Security Council, and making an analysis based on the evidence found.

This research uses a qualitative method; using strategies to interpret concepts and meanings rather than quantifying and linking accidental relationships. As a result, I am able to explore questions and analyses that are often open-ended and without boundaries (Toloie-Eshlaghy et al, 2011). In contrast, quantitative methodology seldom addresses the nature of research activity; which does not necessarily mean that it is inaccurate however it is limiting to a certain extent. Quantitative methodology may show evidence of identifying and understanding of the important characteristics of the topic of research, but qualitative methodology shows empathy and deeper under understanding of the nature the research (Bryman, 1984). Certainly, when discussing issues relating to conflict and the violation of human rights and the loss of human lives, a deeper understanding of the issues involved is necessary. It is difficult to make an assessment of a decision that a country makes, by simply looking at statistical and numerical information alone to draw effective conclusions. Qualitative methodology allows for a better contextual understanding of different variables. It is also more flexible than quantitative methodology as it emphasizes finding unexpected findings; whereas quantitative methodology focuses on testing a particular hypothesis or premonition. Qualitative methodology is more exploratory, and researchers can therefore make broad and comprehensive discoveries rather than verifying one aspect of a topic or question (Ibid). Qualitative methodology would offer the best instrument of analysis for this research project as South African foreign policy actions are complex and cannot be easily explained by statistics and quantifications. In using a qualitative methodology, I can explore new variables and circumstances that South African foreign policy operates in, as I navigate through my research.

Case Studies will be used to contribute to the argument of this research project. The use of case studies can help narrow the gap between theory and practical real-life situations. Information about real people, events, and situations is used in a case study, allowing for contextual understanding, detailed study, focus on a specific subject, several resources and a general and systematic view of the research in question. A case study focuses on description, conveyance of information, prediction and control, eventually allowing for an explanation of a specific phenomenon. Qualitative research contains risks such as the use of personal bias, but this can be balanced through the use of different sources (Toloie-Eshlaghy et al, 2011).

This research project uses academic literature such as books and journals. Online journals and popular media sources such as online newspaper and magazine articles are also used to investigate current event examples. Literature is generally based on the relationship of South African foreign policy and its non-permanent membership within the UNSC, with emphasis on the aspect of human rights. The opinions and arguments of authors are used to present a coherent argument that is relevant to this research.


There is a wide range of literature surrounding the topic of South African foreign policy. Analysts, authors and intellectuals of political science and international relations, politicians and internet articles compiled by international and non-governmental organisations have contributed greatly to the literature surrounding South Africa’s actions in the international system. This research project makes use of all these sources of literature to make an informed analysis about South Africa’s foreign policy decisions. Themes that the literature explores include: the importance of foreign policy and its interactions with human rights; South Africa’s relationship with the Global South; the influence of former presidents, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki in South African foreign policy; South Africa’s role in the UNSC; South Africa’s foreign policy identity and the reasons for its perceived ambiguous foreign policy. Different perspectives and opinions are assessed within these themes to help make an analysis of South Africa’s voting behaviour in the UNSC.

Author and professor of international relations, Christopher Hill (2003) discusses the changing international contexts and mentions how the politics and interests of any country’s foreign policy are constantly evolving. I find this relevant for South Africa especially, as it is still developing its foreign policy under a new democratic government. Hill’s assertion implies that to some extent, a country’s foreign policy relies upon the contexts of the international system; a position which could to some extent, explain South Africa’s foreign policy behaviour in the UNSC. According to Hill (2003), foreign policy constitutes a major factor in understanding international relations. He also mentions that foreign policy can also reflect a country’s “agency” and “activism” (Hill, 2003:25) – concepts which refer to a country’s capable representations, active participation and promotions of their interests to the world through a variety of means. Despite the volatile context of the international system, Hill maintains that a country’s foreign policy should uphold democratic values that do not paralyse its actions, and its principles need to be ethical and rooted in the society it represents.

Hill (2003) also mentions the contentious issue of the protection of human rights in foreign policy; recognizing the fact that there is an inherent tension between protecting human rights and sovereignty. Evidently, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared in 1948 has proved insufficient in providing a mechanism for intervention and enforcement. Uncertainty about the rules and norms within the changing international context has proven difficult to avoid. Therefore, the adaptation of a state’s foreign policy objectives is necessary in order to be part of the global arena. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2012, What are Human Rights?) defines human rights as the rights that are intrinsic to every human being in the world, whatever their nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language or any other status. Such rights include the rights to life, liberty, security, freedom from slavery, torture, freedom from arbitrary arrest, equality before the law, freedom of movement and residence, freedom of assembly and association, nationality, work, health and education. Every human is entitled to these rights and freedoms which are interrelated and interdependent. Human Rights are expressed and executed through international law, treaties and general principles and sources of international and national law. International law applies to all states and governments and in many instances restricts governments for taking certain actions (which violate human rights), in order to protect human rights. States are meant to assume the obligation to respect and protect human rights (The United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2012 Universal Declaration of Human Rights). However, analyst, David R. Black (2001) describes the problematic definition of universal human rights, as it is contested among individuals, states and organisations. He argues that despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is still contention between the ideas of protecting universal freedoms and intrinsic rights for all humans, and the practice of human wrongs. However, Black thinks that socio-economic rights will be of great importance for South African human rights debates, due to its position as part of the Global South community and the consequent economic and social challenges as a developing country. South Africa also has a moral authority and the personal experience of its citizens from the apartheid struggle to motivate its perception of human rights (Black, 2001).

Danny Titus (2009) as a part-time commissioner at the South Africa Human Rights Commission and in a report for the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), specifically assesses the relevance of human rights in foreign policy and looks at the disparities between human rights as a foreign policy principle and practising the respect and protection of human rights. He sees the international legal human rights framework as the foundation for the engagement between human rights and foreign policy. However, the main challenge to a human rights-orientated foreign policy is the concept of state sovereignty. Titus cites issues surrounding intervention in states and legitimacy as the causal reason for the sacrifice of human rights emphasis in foreign policy. Titus sees South African foreign policy to have abandoned human rights activism, for respecting the inviolability of sovereignty. Titus identifies a need in South Africa, to draw a clear line of where its foreign policy allows for countering gross human rights violations outside its own jurisdiction. If human rights are such an important principle in its foreign policy, there should be practical guidelines and policies that reinforce human rights in the international system.

Black (2001) also assesses the human rights practices of the Global North and South, recognizing a gap between the understanding and practices between countries of the North and the South – a gap which needs to be narrowed. The Global North has a long-standing commitment to human rights and countries of the Global South should learn from this commitment; therefore suggesting that the Global South’s commitment to human rights is wavering and not as strong as it should be. However, he mentions that South Africa shows promise in its commitment to multilateralism, ‘quite diplomacy’ and an increased state-societal interaction – practices which have given some countries of the Global North (like Canada) a solid reputation for the protection of human rights in their foreign policy.

Author Sally Morphet, (2004) mentions that many countries of the Global South are members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The NAM is a formal alliance which historically has sought to represent countries that do not align themselves with the dominant powers and ideologies of the West and Europe (“The Global North”), but instead seek independence and multilateralism. The “Global South” consists of developing countries that have recently shown to be centres of major economic growth, experience urgent security issues, population problems and solutions, threats to global health and development approaches that profoundly affect the global environment. Much of the Western and European world, do not consider the multilateral policies and practices of the states which constitute part of the Global South, despite the fact that they constitute a majority in many global institutions. The Global South often pursues common interests at the UN, showing patterns of co-operation and allegiance – which the UN has so far, not given much attention to (Morphet, 2004). South Africa as a developing country, aligns itself with the Global South, and has become an advocate for not only African issues in the global arena, but also the interests of the Global South within the UN.

Furthermore, author Janis Van Der Westhuizen (1998) describes how South Africa has constructed itself as a bridge or ‘middle power’, between the Global North and the Global South. Many analysts would identify middle-powers based on their Gross National Product (GNP); although South Africa is a strong economic force in Africa, it is identified as a middle power based on its behaviour in various forms of peace-making. South Africa is a semi-peripheral country in the world system, but as a result of its regional dominance it is compared to developing middle powers like Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, Israel and Iran. South Africa has projected an image of being a ‘neutral’ agent pursuing reconciliation, especially since it plays such a prominent role in many organizations and mediatory movements like the African Union (Van der Westhuizen, 1998).

It should also be noted that middle powers are not identified simply for their participation in mediation, bridge-building activity and cooperation; but the status of being a “middle power” would suit their long-term interests as states within the world order, world economy, their societal values and interest. The concept of a middle power is therefore helpful in analysing South Africa’s international behaviour (Ibid).

South Africa’s post-apartheid foreign policy is largely influenced by its former presidents, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki who determined how its foreign policy would be constructed after apartheid and they also determined the way in which foreign policy was practiced. In examining and comparing each of their contributions to foreign policy, this research project will be able to gain insight into the extent to which human rights has been emphasized and it can determine whether South Africa’s foreign policy actions reflect the principles upon which it was created. Analyst, Christian Youla compares the influence of Mandela and Mbeki’s ideals in South African foreign policy in the post-apartheid era. His study focuses on investigating the classification of their foreign policies within the theoretical framework of International Relations. Youla investigates theories of realism, idealism and constructivism. Foreign policy irregularities can be found during both Mandela and Mbeki’s term in office, despite the ascription of idealis