Comment & analysis

A South African agenda for the post-2015 framework?

19 September 2013 Larry Attree

As South Africa co-hosts a special event in New York on achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), interest is growing in the role the country could play in helping shape the goals that will replace the MDGs after 2015. While South Africa will be sensitive to the views of other African member states before asserting its own position, both its domestic and foreign policy priorities make it a potentially crucial advocate of a new global agenda to tackle violence, injustice and inequality, argue Larry Attree and Sunil Suri.

With record unemployment (currently 25%), rampant inequality (a gini coefficient of 0.69), and widespread corruption, South Africa has a challenging domestic agenda as it approaches two decades since the end of apartheid. So it is little surprise that South Africa’s foreign policy receives scant attention at home, with the exception of particular events, such as President Mugabe’s disputed electoral victory, and the recent killing of South African peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. Even in these cases, it is overlap with domestic concerns that ensures widespread coverage.[1] 

However, from a recent visit to South Africa as part of Saferworld’s new Rising Powers and post-2015 project, it is clear that there is growing interest in the country about the regional and global debates taking place about a post-2015 development framework. While officials we met stressed that ‘post-2015’ was not yet part of their lexicon, suggestions about what should be included in the framework were plentiful.

Violence against women and girls, inequality, transnational crime (including the narcotics trade and the spread of counterfeit goods and piracy) and domestic insecurity were all repeatedly mentioned as problems that deeply affect South Africans. For example, the latest Victims of Crime Survey highlights the breakdown of trust within communities, with almost two-thirds of households believing that violent crimes are likely to be committed by people from their own neighbourhood. These concerns are tempered with scepticism about the value of a new global framework, and whether it would actually bring about change at the grassroots.

It is also important to note the contradictions between the role South Africans would like their country to play regionally and globally on issues such as the post-2015 framework, and what the country’s government can realistically achieve in the face of its domestic challenges. The South African Foreign Policy Initiative recently published a public opinion survey, which revealed that 63% of respondents believed that, ‘The South African government should be more involved in global affairs’, while 66% felt that, ‘South Africa should be known as a country which helps to end conflict in the rest of Africa’.

However, South Africa’s National Development Plan recognises that “The country has ... experienced a relative decline in power and influence in world affairs”. Deputy Foreign Minister, Ebrahim Ebrahim, has attempted to reconcile these views by integrating “domestic imperatives”, such as poverty, unemployment and inequality, into South Africa’s “Foreign Policy of Ubuntu”, but it is unclear at what this will look like, and it is likely to evolve over time.[2]

This could be very good news. Domestically, South Africans need progress on many of the peace and security issues that need to be integrated in the post-2015 framework: people’s security and access to justice, fair access to services, responsible corporate behaviour and progress on transparency and accountability. This could fit well with the work South Africa has done in promoting peace and good governance in Africa and the wider world through NEPAD, SADC and the AU.

Indeed, South Africa’s membership of various multilateral groupings such as the G20, BRICS and the African Union (AU) does afford it multiple channels of influence.[3] However, these multiple foreign policy orientations also mean that it has a tough balancing act to promote its core values at the same time as achieving its interests and maintaining the many strategic relationships it is publically committed to.

Under President Zuma South Africa has rarely sought to project its influence on the African continent, wary of accusations that it is a meddling “big brother”. One notable exception was Madame Zuma’s election to become Chair of the AU, which made other continental powers like Nigeria uneasy. What seems clear as discussions around a post-2015 framework gather momentum is that South Africa will pay close attention to the views of other African member-states before asserting its own position. At the same time, its core values and its triumph over apartheid means it has huge potential to promote progressive values that can address Africa’s biggest challenges in this global debate.

Larry Attree is Saferworld’s Head of Policy and Sunil Suri is Saferworld’s Project Officer. In August, they visited South Africa as part of our new Rising Powers and post-2015 project. Over the coming months Saferworld will continue its engagement on matters of conflict, security and development in South Africa and the post-2015 framework. To read more about South Africa and conflict-affected states and the implications for post-2015 debates, click here.

[1] The Zimbabwean elections laid bare tensions in President Zuma’s inner circle over his defence of President Mugabe’s conduct during the elections. The loss of peacekeepers in CAR, for reasons still unknown, has led many to speculate their presence was linked to elite-level interests in the mining sector.

[2] The meaning of Ubuntu is hotly debated, but Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has said, “It is to say. 'My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours”.

[3] South Africa is the sole African representative in the G20 and the BRICS and the Chair of the AU, Madam Zuma, has served under Presidents Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma.

“Domestically, South Africans need progress on many of the peace and security issues that need to be integrated in the post-2015 framework.”

Larry Attree