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Leadership plays a critical role in diplomacy. What quality of leadership does South Africa need if it’s to secure its international interests?

This is a question my colleagues and I have had the opportunity to reflect on in researching and writing about foreign policy since the late 1980s.

Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki displayed assertive African and Global South leadership. Their successor, Jacob Zuma, did much to reverse the country’s international moral standing.

In our view, the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is restoring the country’s standing and role as a global moral leader. He has done so in an environment in which seismic changes are taking place in the balance of power between the world’s largest nations.

Ramaphosa’s messages, and tone of delivery, suggest an assertive southern leader who understands how the world works. He’s not afraid to challenge the dominant narrative and is prepared to put Global South demands on the table.

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In his speech on Africa Day on May 25, 2023, Ramaphosa said:

We are … witnessing Africa being dragged into conflicts far beyond our own borders. Some countries, including our own, are being threatened with penalties for pursuing an independent foreign policy and for adopting a position of non-alignment. South Africa has not been and will not be drawn into a contest between global powers. We will maintain our position on the peaceful resolution of conflict wherever those conflicts occur.

In a similar assertive tone, at a Financing for Development Summit in New York in September 2023, he said:

… at a time when solidarity was needed most, agreed international commitments were not honoured. Principles such as common but differentiated responsibilities are not being respected. Four decades since the right to development was established by the United Nations as a human right, the failure to act on commitments to support development is deepening the divide between the global north and south.

These statements reflect Ramaphosa’s shrewd reading of a fundamental shift in the global balance of forces. Over the past year, it is this that has informed his assertiveness in foreign policy matters. As a result, we argue, he has used the tools of diplomacy to lead Africa and the Global South to shape the architecture of a new world order currently being forged.

Facing a Complex World

However, Ramaphosa and his administration’s ability to advance South Africa‘s interests globally have become much more complex because of rising geopolitical tensions.

In particular, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 brought into sharp relief the longstanding tense relationship between Russia seeking recognition as a recovering superpower and the West’s pursuit of containment.

The conflagration has serious consequences for the world at large, including Africa, already struggling with food and energy insecurities.

Under these conditions, Pretoria struggled to formulate a clear position. It initially condemned the Russian intervention in Ukraine. It later took a more neutral position — “non-alignment.”

Yet it became clear that Ramaphosa was reading a fundamental shift in the global balance of forces. One of his responses was to call for reform of the UN Security Council.

He also led an eclectic assembly of African leaders on a “peace mission” to Ukraine and Russia. It was initially scorned by pro-Western commentators. The benefits of the initiative for Africa are becoming apparent, particularly in enhancing food security.

But the turning point in Ramaphosa’s increasingly assertive foreign policy conduct came with the hosting of the 15th Brics Summit in South Africa in August. His government succeeded in hosting, chairing, and steering the group to new levels of cooperation. Ramaphosa’s congenial personality played no small role in the successes.

Achievements include facilitating new trade relations between Africa and Brics, strengthening the New Development Bank, and forging an agreement to expand membership to make Brics more inclusive.

These breakthroughs are not to be underestimated. Reshaping the global order opens the space for an emboldened Global South to co-determine the future.

His seeming over-dependence on consultation, seen by many as a liability, stands him in good stead. Because he is comfortable with exercising soft power, he speaks boldly at international meetings. It has also given him the ability to position South Africa prominently, and on the right side of history, on the tragedy in Gaza, seeking peace, not war.

Criticism and Skepticism

Some foreign policy practitioners and scholars are skeptical of Ramaphosa as a foreign policy leader. An entire volume of the respectable South African Foreign Policy Review is dedicated to this theme — the decline of South Africa’s global moral standing.

Many commentators, including some from the Brenthurst Foundation think tank, view South African foreign policy through domestic lenses, colored by their aversion to the African National Congress which Ramaphosa leads and which runs the country.

From this perspective, they are quick to denounce South African foreign policy decision-makers as lacking awareness of the objective of international relations and diplomacy. The minister of foreign affairs, Naledi Pandor, in particular, has attracted scorn. In her case, it could be a result of her outspoken position on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

To understand the tough judgments made of the government’s foreign policy it’s useful to look at them against the backdrop of domestic politics. Domestic politics and foreign affairs are interwoven. What happens at home affects a country’s global standing.

In African foreign policy analytical circles, there is a belief that a weak president embraces international crises as it redirects the attention from failures at home.

Ramaphosa is indeed embattled on the home front. He was meant to put a stop to years of abuse and high corruption under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, and repair the damage he caused.

Euphoria and unreserved support for a “reformist” president turned into disappointment and cynicism as his efforts at “house cleaning” got bogged down in the intricacies of power play in the ANC.

Nevertheless, we would argue that if Ramaphosa survives the forces of disruption at home as his ruling party decomposes, he will surely be counted among those who read global events, understood that there was a need for a stronger voice from the Global South, and acted to make it happen.

He should also be remembered for breathing new life into the vision of the African Union: an integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Anthoni van Nieuwkerk is a professor of international and diplomacy studies at the University of South Africa's Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs.

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