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BLOG: The domestic political-economy of South Africa, and the implications for its foreign policy

last modified Nov 29, 2017 11:09 AM
A blog article about the talk with Dr Oscar van Heerden on 3rd November 2017, by Jackie Crowell, MPhil student in Development Studies, CGHR student group.

Dr. Oscar van Heerden’s “South Africa: Domestic and foreign policy” discussion on Friday, November 3rd described the country’s struggles and triumphs in navigating the demands of nationalism, pan-Africanism, and globalization. While attempting to move beyond its liberation origins in the international and domestic spheres, South Africa is focusing on establishing an economically competitive and socially equitable state. In arguing that South Africa has implemented a consistent foreign policy stance from 1995 into the twenty-first century, van Heerden presented three arguments covered in his recently launched Consistent or Confused? The Politics of Mbeki’s Foreign Policy 1995-2007. Van Heerden first discussed South Africa’s continued mediation of the Zimbabwean crisis, as the region prepared for looming end of President Robert Mugabe’s regime. Although South Africa has spent the past seventeen years arbitrating with Zimbabwe’s ruling party, van Heerden ultimately claimed that South Africa is not yet ready for its neighbor’s crisis. Faced with Zimbabwe’s recent security force intervention and Mugabe’s resignation, South Africa’s role in mediating this transition will be increasingly tested. Van Heerden described South Africa’s consistent role in engaging with multilateral organizations while often contesting their imperialistic slant. South Africa has disputed the Western domination of the United Nations (UN) Security Council and the International Criminal Court by voting against UN interventions in Myanmar and noting complications arising from compliance with the Rome Statute. While van Heerden explained that South Africa has resisted globalism imposed by certain international organizations, he examined the country’s efforts in enhancing its economic interests by engaging in bilateral trade deals and flooding the rest of the continent with its exports. Van Heerden interpreted Mbeki’s South Africa as representing both a champion of anti-imperialism in its interactions with the West and an encroaching powerhouse toward neighboring states. 

Dr Oscar van Heerden
Dr Oscar van Heerden

Van Heerden connected South Africa’s foreign policy stances to the country’s liberation legacy. Leveraging the UN’s anti-apartheid stance, the African National Congress (ANC) under Oliver Tambo increased pressure on proponents of apartheid. Despite South Africa’s criticisms of the UN, this early alliance between the UN and ANC has continued today. On the domestic front, van Heerden commended South Africa’s progress while criticizing the recent deterioration of governance. He acknowledged corruption but also emphasized the introduction of a basic income grant that already covers seventeen million recipients and the durability of governmental institutions that can withstand President Jacob Zuma’s interference.

When assessing these developments in South Africa’s domestic policies, van Heerden referenced critical theorist Frantz Fanon’s forecast of revolutionary movements’ potential to harden into corrupt, inefficient bureaucracies that replace the exploitation of the colonizers with that of the formerly colonized elite. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon quotes Marx, stating that “the revolutions of the nineteenth century have to let the dead bury the dead,” to explain the need for national liberation movements to evolve beyond their original struggle and establish viable forms of governance.1 Van Heerden’s talk clarified that these features of times past – liberation, isolationism, and exertions of global dominance – are not dead but remain driving forces in the current politics of South Africa.