Growing Pains for South Africa

Moving beyond politics can turn a debacle into a teachable foreign policy moment.

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South African president Jacob Zuma opens the South African Parliament as he speaks in the city of Cape Town, South Africa, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013.

Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS.  You can follow him on Twitter @robert_nolan.

South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress, is taking fire from political opponents this week following the deaths of 13 South African soldiers during an armed coup in the Central African Republic last month that saw President Francois Bozize removed from power. 

Critics of the ANC and South African President Jacob Zuma accuse the ruling party of dispatching roughly 300 South African soldiers to the CAR to protect Bozize from political opponents, as well as to safeguard major investments in that country from South Africa's ruling elite affiliated with the ANC.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

The ANC, which critics contend has failed to deliver on the promises made after the fall of apartheid and is increasingly concerned with maintaining its own grip on power, denied that the party has business interests in the CAR. The 100-year-old ANC lashed out at The Mail and Guardian newspaper, which first published the accusations earlier this week, calling the charges an insult to those killed in the line of duty. It also issued a statement threatening to approach "the courts of law for recourse and to honor those who are fallen whose sacrifice has been rubbished by The Mail and Guardian."

Zuma announced on Wednesday that all South African troops would be leaving the CAR immediately, but that they would be available again if needed. He failed to directly address the reasons behind the original troop deployment, adding to the kinds of public criticism depicted in these political cartoons

With South Africa gaining momentum as a driver of economic and political stability across the continent (it just hosted the fifth annual BRICS summit), the CAR debacle proves it still has a long way to go when it comes to projecting force and providing security in Africa. 

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South Africa, like most African countries, has historically deferred to the notion of state sovereignty and non-intervention when it comes to the affairs of other African countries. Its support for the 2011 international intervention in Libya was a rare endorsement, one from which it quickly backed away when the NATO air campaign began.

Instead, South Africa generally prefers to flex its muscles through regional institutions like the Southern African Development Community and the African Union, where former South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (no relation to the president) chairs the AU Commission. The AU suspended the CAR from membership and imposed sanctions on the self-proclaimed interim president following the coup, and is pressing for elections to take place soon. 

But if South Africa is truly to live up to its potential as a regional heavyweight, particularly as counterterrorism and other security issues like piracy threaten thriving continental economic growth, Pretoria will need to improve both its capacity and transparency in conducting future operations. That includes making clear why South African troops were originally deployed to the CAR, and investing in a more robust military capable of deploying across the continent to carry out successful operations when necessary. Moving beyond the politics can turn the CAR episode from an embarrassment into a teachable foreign policy moment for one of Africa's most crucial emerging powers.

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