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From Rhodes to Mbeki

The greatest imperialist of the 19th century, Cecil Rhodes, had a dream to establish dominion over Africa from the Cape to Cairo. Rhodes’s heirs — the racist governments in Pretoria — historically saw Africa as an area of penetration, exploitation and destabilisation. This was the Africa of ”labour reserves” from which hundreds of thousands of Southern African migrants ventured to South Africa to work in mines, on farms and in industry for a pittance.

This was also the Africa of ”broken-backed” states, as apartheid’s marauding military bombed Mozambique, Angola, Lesotho, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe in a campaign of awesome destructiveness that eventually resulted in a million deaths and about $60-billion in damages in the 1980s. The collective memory of these actions is still fresh in the minds of regional states.

Can a country that has brutalised and exploited its own people, and acted as a regional tsotsi in its backyard, become a credible champion of human rights and development in Africa — even after a remarkable political transformation? To what extent can South Africa play a leadership role in Africa without being tripped up by its historical baggage? How is the country, and its largely white industrialists, perceived on the continent? And how sustainable is the remarkable transformation of South Africa, in a short decade, from being Africa’s greatest destabiliser to its most active peacemaker?

These are some of the pressing questions addressed by the articles in this survey, based on a recently published volume entitled South Africa in Africa: The Post-Apartheid Era (pictured in the masthead above) and edited by Adekeye Adebajo, Adebayo Adedeji and Chris Landsberg. They provide the socio-economic and political context for understanding South Africa’s foreign policy, on the premise that an effective foreign policy can be built only on a sound domestic foundation. In addition, the diverse group of pan-African scholars represented here also assesses serious challenges of regional leadership for South Africa.

Historically part of the ”white dominions” with Australia, Canada and New Zealand, South Africa’s apartheid governments saw themselves culturally and politically laminated to the West. Hendrik Verwoerd, a South African prime minister and one of the key architects of apartheid, claimed that whites had brought civilisation, economic development, order and education to Africa: South Africa would determine the continent’s destiny. Such patronising cultural arrogance was an intrinsic feature of political thought — from Rhodes, the ruthless diamond magnate and premier of the Cape colony, to FW de Klerk — leaving the black-led governments of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki little choice after 1994 but to engage the region with great humility.

Yet South Africa has made impressive strides since 1994. The country has a Constitution that is widely celebrated around the world. In 2007 the government reported an economic surplus for the first time in the country’s history, even as it announced plans to spend dramatically on social services infrastructure and a new social security system. However, many of the institutions inherited from the apartheid era are still largely intact: the economy, universities, think-tanks and the South African National Defence Force’s (SANDF) officer corps are still white-dominated. Socio-economic inequalities, still continuing largely along racial lines, remain among the highest in the world.

Mbeki has consistently sought multilateral solutions to resolving regional conflicts and skillfully used a strategic partnership with Nigeria to pursue his goals. Chastened by Mandela’s bitter foreign policy experiences over human rights and governance disputes over Nigeria (1995) and Lesotho (1998), Mbeki has been more prepared than Mandela to send peacekeepers abroad, deploying 3 000 troops to Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Mbeki was the first chair of the African Union and the intellectual architect of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad). Under his leadership, South Africa hosted two high-profile UN conferences on racism and sustainable development, gained a two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council and won the right to host the football World Cup in 2010: the first time the event will take place in Africa.

This survey therefore covers key South African initiatives in Southern and North Africa, as well as the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa, in addition to assessing the country’s role in building the AU and Nepad.

South Africa has many elements of ”soft power” that it can use more effectively to promote its interests and to win friends in Africa. The supreme irony is that while South Africans might be among the most uninformed people about the rest of Africa, much of Africa’s elite probably know more about South Africa than about any other country on the continent. South Africa can use Channel Africa, which transmits to 33 African countries, to expose Africans further to South Africa and, in turn, to improve the knowledge of South Africans about the rest of Africa.

South African cellphone giants, MTN and Vodacom, could connect the entire continent with their mobile phone network; while South African technology and capital could help build the roads, railways and ports that Africa badly needs for its industrial take-off. The strident corporate expansion of South African firms into the continent is covered in the pages of this supplement, as is the crippling effect of HIV/Aids on the dream of an African renaissance.

South Africa is gradually loose- ning its protectionist policies, restructuring the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), to offer greater voice and benefits to its other members (Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho).

But, despite Mbeki’s efforts to integrate South Africa into the rest of Africa, it is unclear how deeply entrenched these efforts are within South Africa’s political and business elite and citizens. Concerns have been raised in Africa about whether Mbeki’s heirs after 2009 will maintain the same impressive commitment to the continent that he has shown. Cecil Rhodes sought to unite Africa through military force and economic chicanery. Mbeki seeks to unite the continent through more peaceful Pan-African means in pursuit of an ”African century”.

We trust that this supplement will further enrich and inform these important debates.

Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the University of Cape Town

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