Ramaphosa has disappointed South Africa on Human Rights
His talk of a “new dawn” and his calls for a return to the values of Nelson Mandela represented an implicit repudiation of his two immediate predecessors, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma.
Cyril Ramaphosa’s rise to the South African presidency in 2018 generated considerable optimism that his leadership would bring a more enlightened approach to policy, both domestic and foreign. His talk of a “new dawn” and his calls for a return to the values of Nelson Mandela represented an implicit repudiation of his two immediate predecessors, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. In the case of the latter, Ramaphosa also promised an end to the rampant corruption and state capture that characterized Zuma’s decade in office.
Human rights organizations viewed Ramaphosa’s presidency as an opportunity for a policy reset, and they encouraged him to use his leadership—as well as South Africa’s position as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council in 2019-2020 and chair of the African Union in 2020—to revive Mandela’s commitment to the protection of human rights and the expansion of democracy. Under both Mbeki and Zuma, these ideals had been subordinated to other priorities, such as South-South solidarity, pan-African unity, and the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in other states’ internal affairs.
Yet for those who put stock in Ramaphosa’s potential to promote liberal values at home and abroad, his years in office have thus far been disappointing. True, his government played a useful role during its U.N. Security Council term in shepherding through a resolution aimed at ending the scourge of sexual violence in armed conflicts. And Ramaphosa does not share Zuma’s enthusiasm for withdrawing South Africa from the International Criminal Court, an important mechanism of accountability in the global human rights regime. In fact, in June 2020, he told the National Executive Committee of the ruling African National Congress that the party must “consider a strategic retreat” from its position on withdrawing from the ICC. More generally, he has stressed South Africa’s official commitment to democratic rule and has condemned human rights violations across Africa.
However, these statements are quite general and perfunctory, and they have not led to any major policy departures. When confronted with specific examples of abuse in other African countries, Ramaphosa’s instinct has been to mute any criticism, with the effect of placing South Africa on the side of authoritarian regimes. For example, his administration’s policy toward Zimbabwe remains supportive of President Emmerson Mnangagwa despite the serious abuses occurring under his leadership. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ramaphosa recognized Felix Tshisekedi as the victor of the country’s January 2019 election, despite credible findings of massive fraud. South Africa also remained silent as two East African states—Tanzania under the late John Magufuli and Uganda under Yoweri Museveni—descended deeper into authoritarianism. Both of those leaders sought to legitimize their rule through elections that failed to meet even minimal democratic standards—Uganda in January and Tanzania last October.
Following the Ugandan vote, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor addressed concerns about the repressive climate that Museveni was fostering by maintaining that “you don’t do diplomacy in public.” Instead, she maintained, South Africa preferred to exercise influence through “a quiet talk in a room”—though there is little evidence that her government is doing so. Overall, Ramaphosa’s reset has been largely rhetorical, and South Africa’s foreign policy continues to privilege incumbent African regimes at the expense of democratic values and to indulge their authoritarian excesses to an unhealthy degree. This policy continuity implies an uphill struggle for those seeking to give South Africa’s foreign policy an ethical dimension.
When confronted with specific examples of human rights abuses in other African countries, Ramaphosa’s instinct has been to mute any criticism.
At the same time, it is worth noting that democracy and human rights are intimately tied to one of South Africa’s foremost foreign policy goals: the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict in Africa. South Africa is fully committed to the AU’s 2013 “Silencing the Guns” initiative, which sought to end armed conflict across the continent by 2020 but has now been extended to 2030. As former President Thabo Mbeki has noted, however, any successful initiative of this kind must be based on an understanding as to “why the guns started firing in the first place.” While each conflict has its own dynamics, the common drivers of violence on the continent include authoritarianism, endemic corruption, a lack of electoral transparency, and an over-centralization of power.
These democratic deficits provide the tinder for conflicts that, in turn, damage subregional and continental security. Therefore, South Africa, in cooperation with other like-minded states, would be wise to promote a democratic culture that includes presidential term limits, federalism, and power-sharing structures—although the precise approach should be adapted to meet the needs of individual states. There is also an urgent need for the construction of a broader democratic infrastructure across Africa that embraces judicial independence, a free press, and autonomous civil society. Democratic government creates mechanisms for dispute resolution and for the containment of political differences within constitutional frameworks. Promoting democracy is therefore vital, both to preempt conflict and prevent post-conflict states from backsliding. Although Ramaphosa and his predecessors have all sought to avoid the foreign policy implications of this basic truth, there is no prospect of “Silencing the Guns” in Africa while authoritarian rule remains entrenched. Quite the opposite—it will guarantee the further proliferation of conflict.
The obstacles to the development of a more enlightened South African policy remain formidable, however. Even if Ramaphosa were to shift from his timid approach to foreign policy thus far and strike out in a bold new direction, he would likely be hampered by other longstanding South African foreign policy imperatives, such as the country’s commitment to working within multilateral structures and promoting pan-African unity. Energetic efforts to promote democracy and human rights might well jeopardize such a project by rekindling residual African fears, dating back to the Apartheid regime and the Mandela era, of South Africa as an arrogant, domineering state.
Nor does its membership in the BRICS countries seem compatible with a foreign policy approach based on democratic expansion, given the authoritarian character of the grouping’s two leading states, Russia and China, and the ongoing erosion of liberal democratic values in India and Brazil.
Ultimately, the foreign policy platform of Ramaphosa’s ANC remains highly doctrinaire and is defined by its emphasis on South-South solidarity and “anti-imperialism,” which has become synonymous with opposition to the West. These enjoy a higher standing in the ANC foreign policy hierarchy than democracy and human rights, particularly when the latter are too easily characterized by domestic critics as a Trojan horse for Western interests.
Thus, Ramaphosa finds himself trapped in a paradox. He knows that silencing Africa’s guns and promoting human rights depends upon a radical overhaul of political systems across much of the continent. However, he also knows that he is unable to lead such a campaign, as it will meet with deep-seated African opposition, collide with Pretoria’s immediate foreign policy priorities, and run counter to the innate political instincts of the party he leads. Ramaphosa has made some progress in combating internal party corruption. But for those advocates and activists who were encouraged by his early rhetoric to believe that South African foreign policy would become more ethically oriented, there is little further reason for optimism.