From outcast to a world leader

2004-04-26 15:58
Pretoria - Ten years after the end of apartheid, South Africa basks in its new-found prestige as an African powerhouse, able to project influence while carefully avoiding bullying its neighbours.

As the country holds festivities this week to mark ten years of democracy, it also celebrates its new world status which sharply contrasts with the apartheid days when the country was an international pariah, its economy hard-hit by sanctions and shunned in every fora.

South Africa's standing in the world soared after 1994, when it earned international respect for undergoing a "miracle" transition from apartheid to a multi-racial democracy and avoiding descent into warfare.

"South Africa has experienced time and again how countries, organisations and people have looked at us to provide leadership, new ideas and breakthroughs in deadlocked situations," said former foreign affairs director-general Jackie Selebi.

African Renaissance

Under Nelson Mandela and his successor President Thabo Mbeki, the country has committed itself to leading the continent to social and economic recovery in what Mbeki has termed an "African Renaissance".

"South Africa is a giant economically and consequently politically in the region. South Africa is the single largest source of foreign direct investment in Africa," said Neuma Grobbelaar of the South African Institute for International Affairs.

Mbeki, who was in charge of foreign policy for the ANC when it was still a liberation movement, has thrown his weight behind the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), a rescue plan for Africa.

Nepad, now embraced by 14 of Africa's 53 nations, promises good governance in exchange for aid from rich countries to finance infrastructure development in Africa.

Nepad is the official development platform for the African Union (AU) that was headed by Mbeki in its first year and is currently led by Mozambique President Joachim Chissano.

With the Nepad secretariat based in South Africa, Mbeki can keep a watchful eye on peace processes and political reform in Africa, at times intervening to nudge developments in the right direction.

SA a peacemaker

South Africa has been spearheading and financing peace negotiations in both Burundi and the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where a civil war at its height drew in more than half a dozen states in central Africa.

Its mediation successes in the DRC and Burundi - both countries now have transitional power-sharing governments in place - have been the highlight of its diplomatic efforts since the country's transformation to democracy a decade ago.

South Africa nevertheless still strives to underline that it has no superpower aspirations.

"South Africa is actually rather oversensitive on this issue. In many cases where leadership has been called for - such as in the case of Zimbabwe - it has been hesitant," Grobbelaar said. Mbeki has been the target of fierce criticism for failing to publicly confront Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe over human rights.

Political analyst Maxi Schoeman said SA's leadership role in Africa was best expressed in the "Mbeki doctrine embodied in the idea of an African Renaissance".

"What is interesting about this doctrine is the fact that South African leadership in an African revival or rebirth is implied, rather than explicitly stated," Schoeman wrote in a research paper.

"This may be due to the care the country has to take in projecting itself as a leader for fear of rejection by its African peers."

Africa first

South Africa's involvement on the continent goes further than southern and central Africa. It has sent a peace force to Liberia in west Africa and led regional leaders to a signing ceremony on the Comoros Islands last year.

In January, Mbeki attended the bicentennial celebrations of Haiti in the Caribbean, and South Africa recently said it would "in principle have no problem" with granting ousted Haiti leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide asylum.

But Mbeki's ANC has made clear that its diplomatic focal point is Africa, saying in a policy statement in 1997 that "South Africa is part of the African continent, and its economic development is linked to what happens on the continent as a whole."

Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was once asked why she had left open ambassadorial posts in central Europe. She replied: "Because we are not yet in Togo. Why don't you ask me why we have gaps in Africa?"

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