Now that the Republic of South Africa has inaugurated its third post-apartheid elected president, it is time for the United States to accurately assess its relationship with this southern African cornerstone. One can look at a thing or a person and not really see clearly because of misconceptions and misunderstandings, and this describes the U.S. relationship with majority rule South Africa.
Most often when we look at South Africa, we see the industrial powerhouse of Africa – a nation with modern cities that are electrified, a strong currency with international standing, a global-ready stock exchange and products that sell in American stores. While all of that is true, there are other images we don’t seem to recognize. For example, there is the South Africa comprising the millions of poor people without sufficient, electricity, potable water, health care, roads or jobs. This South Africa erupted in violence last year against both illegal and legal immigrants they saw as taking their jobs and consuming scarce social services. It is this South Africa that President Jacob Zuma must satisfy soon because they are losing patience with what many see as government excuses for not meeting their needs. This will encourage solutions that are contrary to free market policies.
There is the South Africa that is seen by its neighbors as dominating the southern African region. This, of course, began during the apartheid era, when white-run South Africa attacked its neighbors in pursuit of African National Congress freedom fighters. While the South African government is run by blacks, its economy is still largely controlled by whites. Other Africans see companies such as South African Breweries and Shopright Checkers as interlopers who take over their companies and expand South African control. So when regional trade agreements are being negotiated, South Africa is often not as helpful as we would expect because of their concern over being seen as a bully state.
Nelson Mandela was certainly a preeminent liberation movement leader, but regional leaders, primarily Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, were jealous of his international standing and influence. Mugabe had been the region’s liberation hero before Mandela’s ascension to power, and he and others never accepted Thabo Mbeki (son of Mandela contemporary Govan Mbeki) as an equal able to make demands and likely won’t see Zuma as an equal either. This has led to a diplomatic style that sometimes has South Africa taking a back seat when we think the country should use its political and economic muscle, such as in leading the effort to reform Zimbabwe.
Much will be made in the coming months about Zuma being a polygamist. We see South Africa as a modern state, a member of the G20 in which polygamy is not the norm. In fact, one recent poll showed most South Africans oppose polygamy, but we must not forget the exception to that view contained in the same poll. South Africans said they will accept a polygamist if that is his tradition, and if his wives willingly accept their arrangement, as the three Mrs. Zumas apparently do. President Zuma is a Zulu traditionalist, and the sooner we understand all that entails, the sooner we will be able to form a mutually beneficial relationship.
If we truly learn to recognize South Africa’s genuine position in Africa, then we can understand how and when our mutual interests coincide, and that will ensure a more successful partnership.