Chatham House: Independent thinking on international affairs

International Affairs

South Africa in the company of giants: the search for leadership in a transforming global order

Chris Alden and Maxi Schoeman, January 2013

South Africa, the continental economic giant and self-appointed spokesman for African development, is finding its distinctive national voice.

Emboldened by the invitation to join the BRICS grouping, its membership of the G20 and a second term on the UN Security Council, Pretoria is beginning to capitalize on the decade of continental and global activism undertaken by Thabo Mbeki to assume a position of leadership. Gone is the defensive posturing which characterized much of the ANC's post-apartheid foreign policy, replaced by an unashamed claim to African leadership.

The result is that South Africa is exercising a stronger hand in continental affairs, ranging from a significant contribution to state-building in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, to an unprecedented assertiveness on Zimbabwe.

But this new assertiveness remains constrained by three factors: the unresolved issue of identity, a host of domestic constraints linked to material capabilities and internal politics, and the divisive continental reaction to South African leadership. These factors continue to inhibit the country's ability to translate its international ambitions and global recognition into a concrete set of foreign policy achievements.

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