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South Africa’s ANC marches to a different drum than Africa

The ruling party still sees the world as a battleground between neo-liberalism and revolutionary progressivism.

Reading the foreign policy chapter of the African National Congress’s (ANC) 2022 discussion paper, one gets a sense that South Africa’s ruling party is increasingly marching to the beat of a different drum to the rest of Africa. Yet the ANC is convinced it’s the only one in step.

ANC foreign policy documents have always been shot through with anachronistic-sounding, Cold War-evoking phrases like assessing the ‘balance of forces’ in the world and Africa. The ANC sees the world as the terrain of a mighty Manichaean battle between good and evil.

On the good side you have the ‘progressive’ or ‘revolutionary’ forces, of which the ANC regards itself as an important standard bearer. Pitched against them are the counter-revolutionary forces of ‘neo-liberalism’ led by the United States (US), North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), World Bank, International Monetary Fund, etc.

Globally, the document takes the gloomy view that the bad guys are winning, noting that ‘right-wing extremism, authoritarianism and illiberalism’ are threatening the pursuit of a progressive international agenda. The document makes clear why Pretoria has controversially never condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The ANC sees Russia as having been provoked by America’s alleged agenda to eliminate its world rivals.

However, as Priyal Singh, Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), points out: ‘While the discussion document very explicitly outlines the ANC’s opposition to the US-dominated international order, by promoting its own brand of “progressive internationalism”, it fails to account for the fact that Russia and China (in particular) are a poor choice of partners to realise this progressive agenda.’

The ANC still sees the world as the terrain of a mighty Manichaean battle between good and evil

The ruling party attributes this weakness largely to ‘the infiltration of the African Union by non-African states through their proxies’ – mainly France, the US, Israel and the ‘monarch-led’ Middle East states. Barely a mention of Russia, even though it is extending its tentacles all over Africa, largely through its proxy, the private military company Wagner.

America’s main crime is to have sucked African states into its global war on terror, particularly in the Sahel and West Africa. ISS Head of African Futures and Innovation Jakkie Cilliers observes that, ‘No doubt the US invasion of Iraq reinvigorated ISIS globally. That, plus NATO’s efforts in Libya are largely responsible for the spread of terror and instability in North and West Africa. So current US efforts to defend those countries are perhaps not inappropriate.’

In the discussion document, France reprises its familiar role as an archvillain in the ANC’s playbook because of its considerable influence in Francophone Africa. Israel is accused of aggressively pursuing relations with African countries and the African Union (AU) – a clear reference to Israel’s efforts to be accredited diplomatically to the AU, which South Africa so vigorously opposed.

Most African states just aren’t as bothered as the ANC about the Western Sahara and Palestine

No doubt there is outside meddling in Africa. But the continent – except among the ANC’s fellow former liberation movements in the south – is largely diverging from the ideological preoccupations of the ANC, if it ever shared them. Most African states, one suspects, don’t see the continent primarily as a battleground between neo-liberalism and revolutionary progressivism.

They are increasingly pragmatic and nuanced. Rightly or wrongly, African countries aren’t as bothered about the Western Sahara and Palestine. They see Morocco as an increasingly valuable trade and investment partner and the Israel partnership as useful, especially in fields like water and agriculture. Sahel and West African states probably still primarily appreciate US and French aid in fighting jihadists, even if France lost some ground in Mali, where a military junta recently evicted it.

‘Much of the rest of Africa has moved on from liberation-era politics (and economics) – but not the ANC or its Soviet-era liberation partners in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Mozambique,’ says Cilliers. ‘We continue to pay the price for that delayed maturation.’

The document is not without pertinent introspection. It wonders candidly whether the ANC government might have lost its ‘revolutionary credentials’ as the champion of progressivism in Africa because of its own internal problems. These are referred to as factionalism, the ‘inevitable compromises’ of being in government, the neglect of Africa under Jacob Zuma’s presidency, and growing xenophobia in South Africa.

Except for states in the south, much of Africa is diverging from the ANC’s ideological preoccupations

And the discussion document isn’t without insight into Africa’s ills, stating that: ‘Apart from poverty and underdevelopment, weaknesses and failures of governance probably constitute the single most important threat to the security of both citizens and states.’

But it still places too much faith in its former liberation movement comrades to address such problems, and allocates too much blame to external forces. For example, it reiterates the familiar party position that Western sanctions are the root of all Zimbabwe’s ills.

Singh is struck by the fact that the document offers few new solutions. He says it repeats the need for Africa to ‘silence the guns’ and for South Africa to invest more energy in this critical ambition. ‘Yet, over the last decade or so, South Africa has played an increasingly marginal role in undertaking bilateral peace and security interventions across the continent’s conflict hotspots.’

So, there’s more rhetoric than substance in this document. Maybe it will firm up at the ANC’s policy conference later this month, where it will be debated. But we probably shouldn’t hold our breath.

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

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