South Africa’s history of majority rule is less than two decades long yet the country ranks among the wealthiest African nations and is often invited to send representatives to G8 conferences. The entire period between 1948 and 1994 was one of infamy as the country was ruled by the minority white population under the apartheid system. Discrimination against the larger but disenfranchised black population was so pronounced that South Africa’s trade partners including the United States had to step in to oppose apartheid.The country held its first democratic elections in 1994, leading to the election to presidency of the celebrated Nelson Mandela. Since 1994, South Africa’s image has improved significantly internationally and it has established good ties with many Asian, African and European states.

New South Africa’s foreign policy has been the subject of spirited scholarly interest. Analysts have expressed concern that the African National Congress, which was formed as a liberation movement in 1912, held on to its “revolutionary socialist ideas” which influenced the country’s domestic politics and foreign policy. Evolution of South Africa’s foreign policy South Africa’s domestic politics, and historical and economic realities have played a critical role in shaping the African giant’s foreign policy. Critics of South Africa’s foreign policy have argued that it is a continuation of the apartheid-era foreign policy.

During the apartheid era, the country’s foreign policy gravitated around wealth and security.However, the over-riding intention of the policy was to widen the number and scope of privileges available to the ruling minority and to legitimize oppression of the black population. The oppressive foreign policy earned the country a place on the list of international pariah states, which led to the “diplomacy of isolation.” South Africa’s trade and military relations with other countries including the U.S.

yielded benefits for and solidified the strength of the white population. A new South Africa was born in 1994. With the birth came expectations that the country would adopt a new policy to guide her relations with other countries in the region as well as countries in the wider world. From 23 in 1985, South Africa had increased the number of embassies to 124 by 1996, making clear her intention of expanding diplomatic representation abroad. In charting out its foreign policy, the democratically-elected government came face-to-face with mutually exclusive yet competing interests.

For instance, policy makers had to choose between the ideal Afro-centric and solidarist foreign policy, and strong ties with European and North American states.A policy which favored relations with the west had the potential of hurting South Africa’s relations with other countries in the region but promised economic gains to the country. Policy-makers also had to look for a way of embracing the post-Cold War international order without seeming to betray the country’s revolutionary elements and ideals to which the country owed its independence. It is worth noting that while the Soviet Union trained and armed, and offered diplomatic support to Umkhonto we Sizwe (ANC’s military wing) during the Cold War, western states offered no support for the liberation struggle but actually branded the ANC a terrorist group. In turn, the ANC blamed the west for supporting and sustaining the apartheid regime. South Africa’s founding president observed that ANC had problems setting out its policies because it was largely inexperienced.

Mandela and some of his government officials had been “taken from the bush, or from the underground or from prison” and charged with the duty of “running a highly developed country.”The transition period between 1994 and 1999 was chaotic as far as South Africa’s foreign policy went. It could not decide how to deal with Cuba, whose relations with the U.S.

were not rosy, or Taiwan, which was involved in a tussle with China. Presidents Mandela and Mbeki advocated respect for human rights and democracy in South Africa and across the continent. In a series of rare acts, Mbeki openly criticized the leadership in Zimbabwe, South Africa’s neighbour to the north, for using force against opposition to establish a de facto one-party state. Very few other African leaders would dare criticize fellow leaders.In spite of the criticism against Mugabe’s leadership in Zimbabwe, Mbeki was accused of dealing with Mugabe with kid gloves for not taking any decisive action even when the African Union and the South African development Community empowered him to propose action against the dictatorship.

Such inconsistencies precipitated the confusion which surrounded South Africa’s foreign policy. President Mbeki managed to shape South Africa’s foreign policy to the level where it was deemed as “entirely coherent.” Mbeki made it clear that South Africa was committed to not only promoting peace and democacy in Africa but also establishing international relations in response to globalization.South Africa’s foreign policy has positioned South Africa for a leading role in Africa, a role which has for decades been in the cross-hairs of Angola, Libya and Nigeria. Principles which underpin the country’s foreign policy include: Commitments to the promotion of human rights and democracy; to justice and international law in the conduct of relations between nations; to international peace and internationally agreed-upon mechanisms for resolving conflict; to promoting the interests of Africa in world affairs; and to economic development through regional and international cooperation in an interdependent and globalized world (Nathan, 2005: p 362).

A skilled analyst easily tells that many of the principles, including the call for democracy and respect for human rights, are informed on western liberal ideology yet Mbeki’s ruling party, the ANC, had retained its revolutionary face. Mandela and Mbeki defended South Africa’s foreign policy by identifying with the Third World. Apartheid-era South Africa was most interested in relations with the First World. Mbeki’s South Africa stressed on its awareness of the deep economic inequality which resulted from the marginalization of natives by the apartheid-era leadership.

Regarding its relations with its neighbours, South Africa would resist “any pressure or temptation to pursue its own interests at the expense of the rest of Southern Africa.”South Africa became a member of the Organization of African Unity and the regional body, Southern Africa Development Community. It also joined the World Trade Organization, the Commonwealth and the United Nations. The former pariah state has become so accepted internationally that only a month ago, it hosted the FIFA World Cup, arguably one of the biggest global sports event. Foreign policy and realism Many loyalists of the African National Congress and critics of the new South Africa’s foreign policy have argued that as soon as the country held its first democratic elections in 1994, the new leadership departed from ANC ideals and values to concentrate on domestic or national politics and interests. According to the critics, the country’s foreign policy represented a radical shift to realism (from idealism).

There is no consensus on to what extent idealism has contributed to South Africa’s foreign policy, and to what level realism is ingrained in the same. It is however clear that the Southern African giant’s foreign policy, like the foreign policies of many other countries, has been shaped by multiple factors and interests. The reason South Africa’s Department of Foreign Affairs had to integrate realism in the country’s foreign policy was that the country had been a prisoner of its past. The new South Africa could not just rise, dust itself and disown its notorious apartheid past, during which the despotic leaders had abused and used policy to legitimize marginalization and oppression of the majority.

The foreign policy was not formulated within a policy vacuum because an old order existed. To develop the foreign policy, South African policy makers have had to accommodate competing interests, ideals and many other factors. Contrary to the arguments of some analysts, South Africa’s foreign policy does not focus on national interests only. Lipton has argued that interactions between realism and idealism are a core feature of all countries’ foreign policies.

The creation of foreign policy involves negotiations of how much to sacrifice of one to accommodate the other. On the one side, South Africa advocates non-violence and supports disarmament in the region and outside Africa. The country has supported peace-making and keeping efforts in Burundi, Liberia, Lesotho, Ivory Coast, Somalia and the Comoros. On the other hand, South Africa’s arms industry has sold arms to the warring groups in the war-torn Sudan. Conclusion That South Africa has grown from a pariah state to become a very important player in the global playfield in not in doubt.

Its foreign policy too has changed over the years in response to changes happening within South Africa, within Southern Africa and internationally.As this paper has shown, there was much confusion over the nature of South Africa’s foreign policy which, according to many, was based on realism and not on pre-independence ideals. This paper has argued that while realism has contributed significantly to the nature and shape of the policy, idealism and other factors have also played an important role. This realism-idealism interplay is not unique to South Africa but a feature of other foreign policies too.