Turning from the West: South Africa’s Ominous Pivot

Operating somewhat under the international radar, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) has shifted its foreign policy in favor of China and Russia during the presidency of Jacob Zuma, which began in 2009. Also differing sharply from the more balanced multipolar approach of Nelson Mandela, who served as president from 1994 to 1999, is an upsurge of anti-Western, particularly anti-US, paranoia, clearly visible in “A Better Africa in a Better and Just World,” a document that set the parameters for foreign policy discussions at the ANC’s policymaking National General Council in October 2015.

The text was drawn up by a panel chaired by Deputy Minister Obed Bapela. Other members of the panel included such foreign policy heavyweights as Zuma’s ex-wife, African Union Commission Chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma; Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane; Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies; former Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency Billy Masetlha; and former National Commissioner of Police Bhekokwakhe “Bheki” Cele.

In the document, the ANC policymakers conclude that their model should be China’s Communist rulers:

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China [sic] economic development trajectory remains a leading example of the triumph of humanity over adversity. The exemplary role of the collective leadership of the Communist Party of China in this regard should be a guiding lodestar of our own struggle.

This is a case of rhetoric following reality. China is now South Africa’s top single trade partner, with $ 21.9 billion; the US accounts for $6 billion, Japan $4.7 billion, and the UK and Germany $4.1 billion each. According to Mills Soko, a political economist at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, the ANC government is treating China as a unique strategic partner. “The government’s refusal to raise tariffs on cheap steel imports from China,” Soko says, “suggests that it will prioritize its relationship with China at the expense of domestic interests.”

The pivot to China reflects a geopolitical and domestic political reorientation in South Africa. Sometimes the signs of the realignment are subtle. President Zuma and President Vladimir Putin of Russia attended China’s victory parade on September 3rd to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of the Second World War. American, Japanese, and British leaders did not attend because they were concerned about the implications of the Chinese show of military force at a time of regional tensions.

Sometimes the signs of the new partnership are more overt, as in the case of the ANC’s move to establish a Political School and Policy Institute at the old South African mining town of Venterskroon in cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party.Or the ANC government deal with the Chinese government on cooperative measures for Internet infrastructure and cyber security, itself a carom shot against the US, where the Chinese have been practicing cyber espionage for years. (In May 2015, the former chairman of the US House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, stated that a similar cyber security pact between China and Russia was “clearly designed to suppress dissidents” in both countries.)

China already assists the ANC government at the UN in obstructing or delaying the requests of minority-group NGOs seeking observer status. This is the experience of the US-based Freedom Now, which supports political prisoners, and the civil rights group AfriForum, which represents Afrikaans-speaking groups in South Africa from various racial communities. It remains to be seen to what extent China and Russia will intervene behind the scenes to stave off threats to the ANC’s dominance by democratic opposition groups in the future.


As in the case of China, both domestic and foreign considerations play a role in the ANC’s increasingly cozy relations with Russia. Peter Bruce, editor of the South African newspaper Business Day, speculated in 2013 that the ANC’s anemic finances would probably result in the party returning to its dependence on foreign funders, especially non-Western powers. A year later, there were reports that the ANC was broke. The Zuma government denied that this was the case, but news also circulated at the time of a mysterious personal deal Zuma struck with Putin on a nuclear energy program for South Africa. The deal contradicted South African energy and economic policies, including those laid out in the 2011 National Development Plan. Such policies favor a careful assessment of the nuclear option first as well as a Plan B focused on gas. Major departments in South Africa were not involved in the deal, reputed to be worth up to $100 billion. Observers believe that the deal has as much potential for corruption as the arms deal scandals of the 1990s. Putin also used the opportunity to extend Russian influence in South Africa, and enhance its position in Africa as a whole. When Zuma believed he had been poisoned in August 2014, it was to Russia that he allegedly went to get medical treatment.

Security cooperation, linked with political and economic interests, also remains strong with the Russians. The ANC and the South African arms manufacturer Denel have a symbiotic relationship that leads to deals that are mutually beneficial.


“A Better Africa” does not celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall a quarter-century ago, but it does lament “the sudden collapse of socialism in the world [that] altered completely the balance of forces in favor of imperialism.” The document also claims the US is leading a concerted effort to destabilize Russia:

The US does not appreciate the resurgence of China and Russia as dominant factors in the arena of international power relations. It has instead declared a cold war against these two emerging world powers . . . Russia has not been spared the wrath of US-led Western imperialism. As with China, the Russian leadership is constantly being portrayed in the Western media and official discourse as monsters abusing human rights. As with China, counter revolutionary demonstrations and marches are being staged and given huge publicity in the Western media in order to destabilize and/provoke [sic] the Russian government . . . Whatever genuine concerns may exist within the Russian population and populations of former Soviet Union, there is a clear plot to exploit this in order to contain the rise of Russia globally. It is an encirclement strategy that seeks to isolate Russia in the manner that is being attempted on China as well . . .

Similar paranoia about the US can be found in governmental statements and actions. In September 2014, Deputy Defense Minister Kebby Maphatsoe called Public Protector Thuli Madonsela a CIA agent because of her continued investigation of public monies spent on improvements to the president’s private homestead at Nkandla. The charge was so blatant, and so blatantly absurd, that the US ambassador lodged an official complaint.

When the foreign policy views of “A Better Africa” became known, Western media responded with incomprehension and outrage. The headline of an Economist editorial summarized the reaction: “Clueless and immoral: A country that symbolizes human rights and freedom is turning its back on both.”

The blowback was significant enough that President Zuma was forced to practice damage control during a meeting with foreign diplomats on September 15th. He denied that the ANC had swerved from Mandela’s multipolar position, but did not disown the discussion document. Instead, he diverted attention from the issue by criticizing the policies of Western countries in Libya and Syria and the current EU migration crisis.

Despite Zuma’s posturing, the ideas in “A Better Africa” have potential consequences, especially for South Africa’s policy toward the US Africa Command, which oversees nearly all of America’s military relations and operations on the continent:

The campaign to engage all [African Union] member state [sic] on the continent not to host these military bases continue [sic]; however, the question that should be posed is whether this is still preventable because in certain places on the continent AFRICOM has already established its footprint in the form of training soldiers and other newly devised mechanisms? [sic] The ANC has to deal with these realities and develop new strategies to take this campaign forward.


There is an element of rational calculation in the ANC’s policy shift. The international situation is significantly different than it was when Mandela was president. Global power has moved in China’s direction, and Beijing has become increasingly influential in Africa. Yet in addition to this realpolitik, some observers link the change in foreign policy to the increasing strength of the South African Communist Party (SACP). Zuma was a member of the SACP Central Committee in the late 1980s and a chief of the ANC’s military intelligence during the guerrilla struggle of the apartheid years. In governing, he has tilted South Africa toward personal and ideological networks he trusts, including the people he and his associates encountered while being trained in the Soviet Union. Almost the entire top structure of the SACP is in his cabinet, while the secretary general of the ANC and the president of the trade union federation Cosatu are both Central Committee members.

But the shift in foreign policy also reflects a broad shift to a hybrid regime under Zuma. As a result of an inability to deliver services, as well as internal corruption and nepotism, the ruling coalition of the ANC, the SACP, and the Cosatu is under growing pressure from the electorate.

The pressure is partially economic and partially political. The ANC’s policies have included the overuse of civil service employment, in conjunction with profligate spending and corruption. South Africa’s total debt to foreign creditors increased by 250 percent in the past decade, now totaling about 40 percent of national debt. The failure of new wealth-generating activities and productivity has raised the specter of economic crisis, which in turn has led the ANC to see Chinese state capitalism as a model for solvency and development. A “Five-to-Ten-Year Strategic Program” between China and South Africa, signed during a visit to China by Zuma in 2014, laid out specific aims of cooperation on state-owned enterprises. These include the alignment of industries to accelerate South Africa’s industrialization process as well as the enhancement of infrastructure development and human resource and financial cooperation. High-level executives at such South African enterprises will be educated at the Chinese Academy of Governance, in Beijing.

It is doubtful that such a policy will improve South Africa’s economy. It is certain that it will become entangled with the ANC’s crony capitalism and its intense factional struggles for power and resources—specifically control of developmental projects overseen by party councilors.

A recent example emerged in September, when Hitachi Ltd. had to pay $19 million to settle charges by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in relation to its contracts in South Africa with the parastatal energy company Eskom. According to the SEC statement, the arrangement between Hitachi and Chancellor House, a company set up to raise funds for the ANC which also had a 25 percent stake in Hitachi’s South African subsidiary, “gave the front company (Chancellor House) and the ANC the ability to share in the profits from any power station contracts that Hitachi secured . . . Through a separate, undisclosed arrangement, Hitachi paid the front company an additional $1 million in ‘success fees’ that were inaccurately booked as consulting fees without appropriate documentation.”

The ANC’s factional struggles are intensified by the fact that they occur amid the rise of breakaway unions, a nationalist opposition movement eager to nationalize banks and mines, and disillusioned new voters. According to the Civic Protest Barometer of the Multilevel Governance Initiative, an academic NGO that measures protest action trends in the country’s municipalities, the number of civic protests in South Africa increased in 2014, as did episodes of violence. In 2007, just less than half of such protests were associated with some violence, but in 2014 almost 80 percent of the 218 protests recorded involved violence in some form.

In this context, the political heads of the security services, the so-called security cluster, have become key actors of Zuma’s government. Ronnie Kasrils, a founding member of the ANC’s military wing and former minister of intelligence, stated in 2014 that the intelligence service had become a tool for the ruling party. Kasrils also claimed that intelligence officers were increasingly working for the ANC rather than for the state, including to cover up some cases of corruption. It has not helped instill confidence in the electorate that a large number of intelligence officials of South Africa have received training in Russia in recent years.

According to Laurie Nathan, one of three commissioners in the Mathews Commission tasked with investigating the intelligence services, they have become more involved in domestic politics during the past 20 years. Nathan recently told Business Day:“Previously we only knew about it through leaks, but now they are admitting it.”

Elections still occur in South Africa, but democratic institutions have been degraded since the Mandela era. Politics has become marked by the ANC and its use of cadres (or sub-groups loyal to the party) to capture state institutions; a weaker separation of powers with a weakening of checks on the executive and uneven implementation of the rule of law regarding the president and his powers; selective patronage and corruption; and the growing and increasingly public role of the Communist Party.

The more factionalized ANC is now more reliant on internal securocrats, which is to say military and police figures who determine political outcomes, and on Russia and China as foreign patrons. As Russian and Chinese networks become more influential, the ANC uses them (thereby increasing their power) to position themselves and to achieve domestic objectives.


As it sinks deeper into dissension and isolation, the ANC leadership looks to legitimate itself by manipulating the symbols that have always had power in South African political life. The most significant of these is the discourse about decolonization, which retains its potency even though decolonization per se in Africa largely ended more than a half-century ago.

In “A Better Africa,” the ANC leadership looks back at the decolonization fight to reassert its legitimacy:

The ANC is a revolutionary national liberation movement which is an integral part of the international revolutionary movement to liberate humanity from the bondage of imperialism and neo colonialism.

Movements for greater democracy or criticisms of ANC policies formulated by Western powers and media are increasingly portrayed as sinister maneuvers by “colonial” states who cynically pretend to care about South Africa’s development while their real motive is only to take its natural resources, as Zuma told the Russian news channel RT last May. He also said he believes the Chinese would “never” do such a thing and have embarked on more than a decade of African involvement merely “as equals,” and that “countries will be empowered” as a result.

The ANC also currently tends to label opposition groups and independent voices in South Africa as acting on behalf of the West, and makes little effort to hide its contempt for Western legal norms. Last June, for instance, the Zuma government helped Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir escape an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court, giving the back of its hand to a South African high court decision demanding that Bashir be handed over in the process. Abiodun Williams, a former UN official and president of The Hague Institute for Global Justice, stated on June 24th that this action was an abuse of executive power and a betrayal of Nelson Mandela’s ideals.

On September 1st, the multiracial official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), brought a motion in Parliament to impeach Zuma for the government’s handling of Bashir’s visit. The ANC responded by accusing the DA of serving an imperialist agenda. In the Western Cape, the only province where the DA governed, the ANC portrayed the party as racist and colonialist. Their motion went nowhere.


Electoral politics still matter in South Africa. The non-state media is still vigorous, the judiciary is still asserting its independence under tremendous pressure, and the private sector is still functioning. However, these spheres of South African life are threatened by a one-party state hostile to political pluralism.

How dangerous the situation is was shown dramatically during a November 12, 2014, session of Parliament. Opposition politicians were criticizing the ANC’s refusal to let Zuma appear in Parliament to answer questions related to alleged irregularities when armed riot police entered. One opposition MP, who refused to heed the speaker’s injunctions to stop calling Zuma a thief, was removed by the police. There was an even more sinister replay on the evening of February 12, 2015, when opposition MPs were again removed from the building as the televised broadcast from Parliament focused on the speaker’s podium so that it was impossible for viewers to see what was happening. Footage provided from mobile phones showed the entry of men wearing white shirts who used considerable force to evict not only the MPs ordered to withdraw by the speaker, but all MPs from the Economic Freedom Front party. Some MPs fought back. A female MP, Reneilwe Mashabela, was badly injured and hospitalized for a broken jaw. Zuma was photographed laughing as these events unfolded.

The soft oppression of the ANC is made more potent by its insertion of its cadres into the state-run media to weaken their independence. Freedom House’s report for 2015 mentioned that

. . . concerns about press freedom have grown in recent years as the ANC government has appeared to exert increasing political pressure on both state-run and independent outlets . . . The government is highly sensitive to media criticism and has increasingly encroached on the editorial independence of the South African Broadcast Company. Some government critics have been barred from SABC programs; a number of programs have been cancelled due to political considerations; and there is strong pressure on journalists to refrain from critical reporting of the ANC and Zuma.

In addition to its other moves to undermine democracy, the Zuma presidency has been marked by increased government intervention in the strong private sector. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness report for 2014–15, South Africa ranks 120th in terms of “the burden of government regulation,” a major drop from 2009, when it was ranked 65th. South Africa ranks 104th in terms of “favoritism in the decisions of government officials,” a similar drop from 2009, when it was 69th. In terms of “public trust in politicians,” it has fallen from 65th to 90th during the same years.

The ANC has flooded the political space with many new laws, bills, and regulations that have affected or will affect water, coal, steel, minerals, agriculture, and other economic sectors. In an earlier report titled “South Africa: Monitoring the Cabinet, Election Promises and Legislation,” the Swiss firm Credit Suisse put up a warning sign about doing business in this environment: “Any property can be expropriated by the minister in the ‘public interest’, and for redistribution purposes. Any possible compensation would occur at a level determined by Government and would not reflect the market value of said property.”

On September 15, 2015, representatives of several foreign associations expressed concern over the lack of investment security provided by the proposed Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill. Carol O’Brien, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in South Africa, which represents 250 US companies with operations in the country, including General Electric and Google, warned that if the bill were adopted it would serve as “another nail in the coffin” for the economy and would result in investment flight.

The ANC government under President Zuma has sought to consolidate its power by wrapping domestic and foreign policy, at least temporarily, in the mantle of racial liberation, saying that hard decisions—such as the tilt toward Russia and China and the condemnation of the West—are necessary to destroy once and for all the neo-colonialism that it claims continues to afflict South Africa. Whether this siege mentality will allow the ANC to succeed in its slow-motion strategy to create a one-party state is the preeminent question facing the people of this promising but imperiled country. Because of the lasting power of authoritarianism, South Africans now stand at a crossroads they thought they had gotten beyond.

Heinrich Matthee is a political analyst for international firms and an associate of the African Studies Center, in Leiden, Netherlands.

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