SA returns to the UN Security Council with a new leader

After two controversial previous terms, will South Africa vote differently under Cyril Ramaphosa?

By happy coincidence, South Africa will take a seat on the United Nations (UN) Security Council next year with Cyril Ramaphosa at the helm of the country. This, combined with the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, provides an opportunity for the country to recover some of the international cachet lost during the Jacob Zuma years.

South Africa was the sole candidate endorsed by the continent’s leaders at last month’s African Union summit for the single African seat on the Security Council that will come up for election by the UN General Assembly in June. So, barring the unexpected, South Africa will join Côte d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea on the council next year to constitute the current iteration of the so-called A3 (African 3). The other two will be serving their second and last years.

This would be Pretoria’s third tour on the council. The first was 2007 and 2008 when Thabo Mbeki was president, and the second in 2011 and 2012 after Zuma took over. South Africa’s first term was controversial because the African National Congress (ANC) government, regarded as a great champion of human rights under Mandela, either voted against or abstained from several resolutions condemning authoritarian countries – like Myanmar/Burma – for human rights abuses.

The vote for Resolution 1973 on Libya had a profound impact on South African foreign policy

This essentially was Mbeki giving the West an antidote to its Mandela euphoria – sending it a blunt message that its professed human rights concerns were just a cover for abusing their undemocratic domination of the UN Security Council and other international political and economic institutions.

Undoubtedly the major controversy of South Africa’s second term on the council was its vote in March 2011 for Resolution 1973 that authorised military action against Libya. South Africa later reneged, claiming Western powers had abused the resolution to topple Muammar Gaddafi rather than just protecting Libyans from slaughter.

The vote for Resolution 1973 had a profound impact on South African foreign policy. Deputy minister of international relations at the time, Ebrahim Ebrahim, vowed that South Africa would ‘never be taken for a ride again’ – resulting in the country refusing to vote for even the mildest resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for gunning down unarmed protesters (before the civil war erupted). Instead South Africa sided with China and Russia to block such resolutions.

And Pretoria’s bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council took a huge knock as its rivals – notably Zimbabwe’s then president Robert Mugabe – mobilised opposition to that campaign on the grounds that Africa could never be represented on the council by a country that had authorised foreign powers to attack a fellow African state.

So how will South Africa perform this time? Will it again step on landmines? Judging only by the themes it has chosen to pursue on the council, probably not. These are innocuous enough – honouring the legacy of Mandela, and mobilising support for the African Union’s (AU) ambitious initiative for Silencing the Guns by 2020. The two themes will be linked by invoking all of Mandela’s peace efforts.

SA's two themes while on the Security Council are honouring Mandela's legacy and Silencing the Guns

Gustavo de Carvalho, senior researcher in the Peace Operations and Peacebuilding unit at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, believes the theme of Silencing the Guns will be a good entry point for strengthening interaction between the UN and the AU – ‘the role played traditionally by the African 3 (A3),’ he says. ‘South Africa could indeed play a more active role in ensuring that the UN provides relevant support to AU initiatives.’

However, the tricky thing about being on the UN Security Council, as South Africa discovered before, is that the decisions that need to be taken are not always thematically manageable.

Stephanie Wolters, head of the Peace and Security Research Programme at the ISS, believes South Africa needs to make a significant shift in the way it tackles conflicts, such as in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ‘if it wants to make an impact in conflict management and prevention on the continent’. And then of course there are conflicts further afield, such as Syria, about which Pretoria might again have to make difficult choices.

Will a Ramaphosa-led South Africa cast its vote differently? Officials in the Department of International Relations and Cooperation suggest not – but of course they have a professional commitment to continuity.

Jakkie Cilliers, head of African Futures and Innovation at the ISS, thinks there could be changes, and that under Ramaphosa, South Africa might pursue a more balanced policy at the Security Council – less biased towards Russia and China and more even-handed when it comes to the West. This would be in line with the new president’s constitutional values, enabling South Africa to reclaim the legitimacy and stature lost during the Zuma years.

Cilliers believes, for instance, that Ramaphosa may not implement the Zuma administration’s decision, endorsed by the ANC at its December national conference, to withdraw South Africa from the International Criminal Court. 

From its position on the Security Council, South Africa can revive its campaign for a permanent seat

He also believes that Ramaphosa may be less interested in ideological gestures at the Security Council and more focused on advancing better regional economic integration in Africa. After all, greater trade and investment with its hinterland – especially exporting manufactured goods there – are key to South Africa’s economic prosperity. ‘It’s completely in line with his vision to revive the domestic economy,’ Cilliers says, adding that Ramaphosa could make this his key foreign policy objective. 

South Africa’s presence on the Security Council from next year would presumably also give it the opportunity to revive its campaign for a permanent seat on the council. As Cilliers notes, South Africa has effectively already abandoned the 2005 ‘Ezulwini Consensus’, the AU common position, which – because of its unstrategic demands – effectively thwarted the chances of Africa ever getting permanent seats.

But campaigning for a permanent seat on its own won’t help South Africa either, as it won’t get the African support it needs and because the protracted negotiations to expand the Security Council are in any case doomed to failure, Cilliers believes. He feels a whole new approach is necessary, which is why he helped launch ‘Elect the Council’ – a global civil society initiative to make the UN Security Council more democratic and representative over an 18-year transition period. Big powers would exchange their vetoes for enhanced voting powers and regional representatives would get longer terms. Cilliers admits this reform plan is very ambitious but that South Africa, revived with a new shot of international credibility by Ramaphosa’s ascent, is now ideally placed to consider it.

In fact, with messages of goodwill flooding in from world leaders eager to re-engage, South Africa under Ramaphosa seems well placed to pursue a range of foreign policy goals.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

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