In early September, a wave of violence spilled over in the streets of South Africa’s Gauteng province. In many reported cases, the targets of the mob were small businesses owned by foreign, mainly African, nationals. The incidents quickly became labelled as xenophobia and follow similar intermittent incidents over the last decade, which have tarnished South Africa’s image and influence, especially in Africa. This episode has been the first of its kind under the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa. The government’s response to the situation presents several insights to guide an understanding of South Africa’s renewed approach to international diplomacy, notably regarding Africa.
A tarnished image
The reasons for the recent violence are complex and diverse. As in previous episodes, legitimate disquiet surrounding national concerns became hijacked by vigilantes; combustible national conditions sparked. These events played out in the days leading up to the World Economic Forum Africa. The Cape Town-based event attracts influential African and international guests. It is a carefully constructed South African exhibition to attract and encourage investor confidence. Instead of curating an appealing image, South Africa was smeared in the press by African dignitaries. Nigeria publicly rebuked South Africa and boycotted the event. In supposed retaliation, a number of South African franchises in Nigeria were looted. While there was no proof that Nigerians were specifically targeted, Abuja retorted with unprecedented threats, dramatically escalating tensions between Africa’s two largest economies. Early signs of a continental challenge for supremacy are surfacing. Nigeria’s foreign minister warned that Nigeria “will take definitive measures to ensure the safety and protection of her citizens…we are hoping to see the possibility of sending some security agents.” Hundreds of Nigerian citizens were repatriated from South Africa through the efforts of a local airline, Air Peace.
Pretoria’s response to domestic and continental animosity has been instructive. After the events in Gauteng, Pretoria set out to appropriate attention through a charm offensive aimed at regaining control of the national narrative. Its international diplomacy has taken on the frank, proactive approach that is proving to be symptomatic of the new government. It has spoken out against criminality and violence; Ramaphosa has insisted that “South Africans are not xenophobic, not against nationals from other countries, we welcome people from other countries.” Naledi Pandor, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, has said that the media has misrepresented the violence as xenophobic and “is very keen to keep this impression alive.” Pandor’s indictment against the media moves to close the forensic argument by detailing the programs that the government is implementing to address lawlessness and illegal migration. Significantly, the transformation here is from reacting to leading; through specifics, the government takes authoritative control over the shaping of the story.
Pandor used her recent address to the United Nations General Assembly to atypically atone for domestic actions. Pandor made South Africa’s repudiation of intolerance the focus of her speech. She berated “the incidents of violence and looting… (as) regrettable and shameful for a nation with such as proud history of struggle and international solidarity support. The government of South Africa strongly condemned these actions and is working harder to ensure we address the security lapses… South Africa has an unwavering commitment to our continent, Africa.” This confession of guilt suggests Pretoria’s urgency to win over Africa.
Steering the story
Both Ramaphosa and Pandor recognize the breakdown in law and order as an opportunity to lead. This is a key approach that the new government has adopted. Instead of averting tensions, it has sought to shape perceptions. A day after water cannons and stun grenades dispersed crowds protesting against criminality and gender-based violence outside the World Economic Forum Africa, Ramaphosa called off his address to the Forum to speak to the protesters as they gathered outside parliament. His symbolic performance did not simply reject the Forum. It proved his authority and sense of urgency. He allayed the protesters, declaring ‘enough is enough,’ a key slogan of the crowd. That evening, on national television, he proposed several interventions and called for a rare special sitting of both houses of Parliament to debate the issues in their seriousness. Throughout his communications, Ramaphosa employs ethos and pathos appeals, seizing opportunities for persuasion. At the funeral of controversial former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, Ramaphosa seemingly changed his speech after being booed by the audience. Referring to the violence directed at foreign nationals, some of whom were Zimbabwean, he offered “a national apology… on behalf of the people of South Africa for what has happened over the last few weeks.” After expressing his remorse, the crowd’s jeers turned to cheers.
Ramaphosa’s government is positioning itself favorably in order to advance its public diplomacy, especially on the continent. Following the attacks on African nationals, Ramaphosa announced his dispatch of high ranking envoys to a number of African countries. Pretoria’s unprecedented charge to promote social cohesion and perform Pan-Africanism is proving fortuitous. The presidency has reported that leaders of the states visited by the envoys have relayed their “appreciation” and their “concern” of the “irresponsible use of social media by certain individuals to create confusion and tension in the public mind.” Ramaphosa further announced his invitation of former presidents Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania and Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique to lead a fact-finding mission into the episode and to make recommendations to prevent future incidents. This approach extends to South Africa’s foreign policy a tested tactic of Ramaphosa, to lead after bringing a diverse group of stakeholders around the same table.
South Africa’s shuttle diplomacy to dispel negative African perceptions forms a foundational part of the new government’s strategy. According to Minister Pandor, South Africa’s foreign policy “will reiterate the centrality of the African continent… (and) focus increasingly on economic diplomacy.” In his special sitting of Parliament, Ramaphosa affirmed solidarity with the continent. He claimed: “our fortunes are linked to those of our fellow African nations… rather than retreating into a laager, we must embrace African integration and the benefits it will bring.” This charge not only rejects animosity, it effectively drives engagement and concomitant benefits. This is confirmed by the president’s very next comment addressing the recently signed African Continental Free Trade Agreement. The agreement, says Ramaphosa: “will fundamentally reshape the economies of our continent, and we need to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that will be created.” Pandor’s address to the General Assembly further stressed the significance of the agreement: “it will unleash Africa’s economic potential and consolidate its position as a new frontier of new economic growth and development.”
South Africa’s public diplomacy offensive takes place at a time of strategic opportunity. It coincides with the country’s first year of a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Here it insists that it represents the entire continent and the African Union. In 2020, for the first time since 2003, South Africa will also assume the chair of the African Union. These initiatives in 2019 are strategically laying the foundation for an advance, despite recent setbacks, in 2020 and beyond.
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