South Africa, once leader in conflict prevention on the continent, has lost direction


The country’s foreign policy needs to become more strategic.

South Africa appears to be at a crossroads in defining its foreign policy priorities, particularly in terms of its peace and security engagements in Africa.

It still places peace and security at the core of its priorities in the continent but shifts in its approach are being questioned.

This comes at a time when there is a growing drive to bring prevention to the fore of global responses to conflict, as a result of an increasing realisation that such responses need to become more proactive, inclusive and thus more effective.

Acknowledging that the international community has not reached the potential of its peace and security tools, the United Nations conducted three reviews on its approach to peace operations, peacebuilding and women, peace and security last year.

The reviews reinforced the point that conflict prevention must be brought to the forefront of all UN initiatives. Similarly, the African Union, in its efforts to achieve its vision for Africa in 2063, has declared its intention to silence the guns by 2020.

South Africa has long advocated for better use of conflict prevention mechanisms internationally, including the use of tools such as mediation, good offices, dialogue, peacekeeping and peacebuilding support. South Africa could become a more active player in assisting the UN and the AU as the organisations rethink their conflict prevention initiatives.

Since its political transition in the 1990s, Pretoria’s foreign policy has been built on principles of solidarity, pan-Africanism and internationalism. South Africa has, in particular, highlighted its soft power as a way to engage the continent.

Between the late 1990s and late 2000s, South Africa’s responses to conflict in places such as Burundi, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), saw mediation, the deployment of peacekeepers and direct technical and financial assistance being used.

In these responses, South Africa was able to draw on its own experiences, including establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the process of developing the Constitution. These have often been used as entry points for initiatives and engagements on the continent.

South Africa has been active in supporting the development of early response initiatives, such as the African Standby Force and the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis – but, like the rest of the continent, has faced challenges in ensuring its effective and timely implementation.

In the past decade, however, there has been less clarity on the direction South Africa’s foreign policy is taking. Its engagements in countries such as Central African Republic became more limited and less connected to a sustained and continued engagement.

More recently, South Africa’s participation in peacekeeping operations has visibly decreased at the UN and AU levels. This year, the number of South African uniformed personnel deployed to peace operations reached the lowest level since the early 2000s, following the withdrawal of its soldiers from Darfur, Sudan.

Regarding longer-term approaches to conflict prevention, South Africa has been less consistent in its structural support for addressing root causes of conflict. South Africa might have played a pivotal role in the transitional processes of Burundi and the DRC in the early 2000s, but its voice and role in the 2015 Burundi election crisis and the looming political crisis in the DRC have been less evident.

It has also been far more reactive than proactive in developing conflict prevention responses, and its responses often had a limited time span.

Once a well-known advocate for measures on international justice, South Africa has been widely criticised for notifying the United Nations secretary general in October this year of its intention to pull out of the International Criminal Court.

In principle, South Africa’s foreign policy still acknowledges that diverse responses must be implemented as part of its efforts to prevent conflicts. The draft white paper on foreign policy directly acknowledges links between development and peace, where it stipulates that intra-state conflicts continue to frustrate sustainable development in Africa.

In practice, however, South Africa must unpack and clarify its various conflict prevention narratives: from engagement and support to political processes and dialogue, the deployment of peacekeepers and support to peacebuilding processes.

To increase its relevance, South Africa must identify a clear strategy, work with civil society and academia, gain trust and drive the solutions through multilateral organisations. South Africa cannot do everything and so it has to define where its strengths are.

In this way, it will increase its focus and show how specific engagements can work to prevent conflict.

Peace and justice are fundamentally connected, forming a basis for structural and long-term responses that can truly help countries to sustain peace.

The 2015 reviews argue that the common confusion, fragmentation and “silos” that typify responses to conflict are not just costly, but also reduce the overall effect of peace and security efforts. This is an important lesson for South Africa.

Countries often see engagement in conflict prevention as part of a pragmatic approach, where the international community is expected to do more with fewer resources. As a result, countries such as South Africa should play an active role in defining its own strategies for conflict prevention, reducing the risk of it becoming sidelined and underfunded at a global level. – ISS Today

Gustavo de Carvalho is a senior researcher and Kgalalelo Nganje an intern at the Institute for Security Studies’ peace operations and peacebuilding division in Pretoria

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