/ 1 April 2020

South Africa can reclaim its role as a diplomatic powerhouse in Africa

In the headlights : Cyril Ramaphosa
President Cyril Ramaphosa.


For the nine years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency, the uppermost levels of government were wracked by corruption, scandal and infighting. During this time, South Africa stepped back from its post-apartheid role as a diplomatic powerhouse — with a particular commitment to preventing and mitigating mass violence — on the African continent. But there are signs that this could be changing. 

When Cyril Ramaphosa became the president in February 2018, it afforded Pretoria an opportunity to chart a new course, and it has taken some steps to do so. One year into a two-year term on the United Nations Security Council, and just months into service as chair of the African Union, Pretoria has assumed roles that carry both the expectation and the opportunity for it to heighten its focus on peace and security issues. An interim internal report commissioned by Ramaphosa suggests that South Africa has been derelict in its attention to regional stability.

Certainly, there is more that Pretoria can do. It should start by focusing on four countries where historical ties and geography suggest that it can be particularly effective.

Elections in Burundi

First, it should look to Burundi, where the framework for peace that Nelson Mandela helped to broker in 2000 after he stepped down as South Africa’s president has been strained by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s repressive government. Although Nkurunziza appears to be stepping aside in favour of a chosen successor in the May 2020 election, it is hardly clear that this change will lead to an opening of political space for the exhausted Burundian people.

As AU chair, Pretoria should press for restoration of the high-level delegation that last visited Burundi in 2016, and use it to lobby Bujumbura to admit human rights observers and military experts who can help to assess whether conditions in the country are conducive to free and fair elections. Pretoria should also press Bujumbura to accept the deployment of election monitors.

Conflict in the DRC

South Africa should also consider how it might help prevent deadly conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). As a major troop contributor to the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, it is well positioned to press for changes to make that mission more effective, particularly by encouraging the UN to devote greater resources to understanding the complex links between armed groups that are ravaging the country’s east and the communities that live there. Pretoria should also discourage Kinshasa from inviting regional rivals Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda to step up their operations in the eastern DRC, which run the risk of starting a proxy war, and use its AU role to encourage broad regional support for a nascent mediation initiative to resolve differences among these rivals.

Civil war in South Sudan

South Sudan, which at the end of February saw President Salva Kiir and his long-time rival Riek Machar reach an 11th-hour deal that could help end a brutal civil war, is another country where South Africa is in a strong position to facilitate conflict prevention. Having flexed its diplomatic muscle in the run-up to the February deal, pushing Kiir to make a critical compromise on the demarcation of states within the country, Pretoria now needs to continue to apply pressure, especially if Kiir’s commitment to the agreed unity government begins to falter. South Africa may also be able to lend technical assistance to address the knotty problem of merging the two rivals’ armed forces into an integrated whole, having had its own experience with this task in the years after  apartheid.

Governance in Zimbabwe

Finally, in neighbouring Zimbabwe, where the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa has married political repression to a programme of economic austerity, Pretoria should pivot from its traditional “see no evil” approach. Although it has begun making veiled references to impatience with poor governance and corruption by Zimbabwe’s leadership, South Africa should increase the pressure, including in public. 

Harare should be made to understand that its powerful neighbour is not providing cover for its misdeeds and that the only way Pretoria can help to build bridges between Zimbabwe and alienated donors is if Mnangagwa begins to make meaningful progress toward cleaning up government.

South Africa can play an important role in mitigating some of Africa’s seemingly intractable conflicts and crises, especially if it leverages its position at both the UN Security Council and the AU to help deliver tangible gains for peace and security. In prioritising its efforts, it should look first to conflicts and crises with which it has long historical involvement and experience. With the AU focused on “silencing the guns” in Africa, the time is right for the Ramaphosa administration to take up these challenges and begin forging a new legacy for South Africa as a leader in preventing and mitigating the region’s conflicts.

Piers Pigou is senior consultant for Southern Africa for the International Crisis Group