The geostrategic consequences of South African turmoil

Last week, nearly 40 percent of South Africa’s parliament voted to impeach President Jacob Zuma. The vote fell short of the two-thirds needed, but it shows the growing anger with Zuma and his catalogue of blunders. Even disregarding earlier scandals, Zuma has over the past few months dragged one of the most stable, powerful and important sub-Saharan democracies through a number of remarkable constitutional and political crises.

{mosads}In December, Zuma replaced his well-respected finance minister with an unqualified political ally, shocking investors. South Africa’s currency plummeted and business community outrage forced Zuma to reverse course. He then named the competent Pravin Gordhan to the post, but promptly directed spurious investigations toward him as punishment for enacting policies preventing opaque governance. Shortly after, reports emerged that amidst the Zuma Cabinet shake-up, various officials were being offered positions not by Zuma, as constitutionally appropriate, but by private-sector citizens — the unelected, ultra-wealthy Gupta family, who are close allies of Zuma. The offers allegedly came with quid pro quo policy requests that would enrich Gupta businesses. Gordhan warned that, unchecked, South Africa may “become a kleptocracy.” Most recently, Zuma was rebuked by the country’s highest court and ordered to repay some $16 million improperly spent on his private residence — after refusing to do so since first told in 2014. All of these self-inflicted wounds compound external realities that include a commodity price crash that has distressed South Africa’s large mining sector, a historic drought, and unemployment hovering around 25 percent.

The country’s institutions have shown some resilience, as the impeachment vote and high court ruling show. But because South Africa holds a unique position on the continent, the U.S. should watch its political struggles closely. The outcome may reverberate throughout the continent, and have important implications for regional stability and democratization.

South Africa has been a economic and democratic leader of sub-Saharan Africa since emerging from apartheid rule in 1994. The country’s economy is the second largest (after Nigeria’s vast oil wealth) and is four times bigger than the next largest economy. It consistently ranks among the best countries in the region to do business and hosts nearly a quarter of all of sub-Saharan foreign direct investment projects. It serves as the continental gateway for U.S.-owned businesses — including Amazon, GE, Procter & Gamble, IBM and Wal-Mart — and boasts impressive domestic industries too, making the country a vital throughway for developing much-needed skills on a long-impoverished continent.

Political achievements complement economic ones. South Africa has been deemed a free democracy for 22 years running, a label only six other sub-Saharan countries can claim at the moment. And it has managed its deeply divisive racial history quite well compared to some neighbors with similar histories. South Africa is one of only four sub-Saharan countries both politically free and upper-middle-income, and it dwarfs the other three in size and clout. Its armed forces, sophisticated and nearly 80,000-strong, are three times larger than the forces of those other three combined, making South Africa unique on the continent.

South Africa’s combination of democratic institutions and overall strength has been a boon for Africa’s wider security and stability. In what is called the “neighborhood” effect, South Africa serves as an anchor for its immediate region. Those other three free and upper-middle-income states include neighboring Botswana and Namibia. With respect to their achievements, it has been shown that it helps to be in a good neighborhood. South Africa has also deployed forces in at least 14 international peace operations, often paired with political mediation efforts. Currently, 1,300 South Africans serve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and another 800 serve in Darfur, Sudan. Pretoria has played a key role in mediating such conflicts, too. For example, in 2004 in Burundi, roughly 2,000 South African troops protected civilians while Nelson Mandela and others negotiated a transition out of Burundi’s protracted civil war. South African forces were also critical for defeating the predatory M-23 rebel group in the eastern DRC in 2013.

This has helped U.S. interests. In line with the priorities described in the “U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa,” South Africa has played a leadership role for the continent. It has taken responsibility for building global peace as a “middle power” and developed a robust economy with a manufacturing sector to be envied by other African states. It has also been a valuable market for American goods, importing over $7 billion in 2013 as the 36th largest export market for the U.S.

Yet South Africa’s stability and strength now look more tenuous, and this has had an impact on its influence throughout the continent. In contrast to less-resourced, less-free African countries, South Africa’s U.N. troop contributions have remained stagnant over the past five years even as a range of recent challenges might have benefited from South Africa’s involvement, most notably the reemergence of violence in Burundi in 2015. The country’s imports of U.S. goods have fallen as well, edging down toward $5 billion. This is quite likely a result of Zuma’s economic mismanagement, which has left South Africans with less cash to spend. It will take more time to see if the country’s political turmoil affects the “neighborhood,” but that would be troubling for one of Africa’s most stable regions. The net effect is a loss for South Africa, a loss for the United States and a loss for the African continent.

Extraordinarily, the mayhem affecting sub-Saharan Africa’s leading nation has received little international press coverage. But Congress and the U.S. government should take note. This comes at a time when a number of African countries — Burundi, the Republic of Congo, DRC, Rwanda — have struggled to adhere to term limits. South Africa’s importance as a democratic example and a key enforcer of regional security, then, is more important than ever. The country is an essential building block in the U.S. vision of a peaceful, economically strong and democratic African continent. While South Africa must deal with its political processes domestically, Congress should be clear in signaling its preference for good political and economic governance, and accountable and transparent democratic institutions.

Rettig is an assistant research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. All views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect an institutional position by the Africa Center or the Department of Defense.

Tags Jacob Zuma South Africa
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