South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) has come under fire for the rather anachronistic pro-Chinese, pro-Russian and ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric in its latest foreign policy discussion document. This was put out for comment ahead of an all-important national general council (NGC) of the ANC next month. The NGC happens roughly every two-and-a-half years, midway between the ANC’s five-yearly national conferences.
The policy proposal, ‘A better Africa in a better and just world’, is not a final blueprint for South Africa’s foreign policy, but gives some indication of how the ruling party positions itself globally. The ANC won more than 62% of votes in elections last year in a country that is an important player on the continent and a major investor in Africa.
The lavish praise for China has irked commentators like the Atlantic Council’s director for Africa, Peter Pham, who notes that the ANC document is couched in ‘intemperate language that even Chinese regime mouthpieces do not use nowadays’. Phrases like ‘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’ and ‘Russia has not been spared the wrath of US-led Western imperialism’ reflect another era.
Yet these ideological overtones do not come as a big surprise, given the ANC’s history as a liberation movement and its close relationship with China. What the ANC says about Africa, though, is equally, if not more important.
The ANC’s reference to ‘the will of the people’ when it comes to the third-term debate is problematic Tweet this
The ANC predictably commits itself to a more peaceful and prosperous Africa, in line with the African Union’s (AU) visionary Agenda 2063. The influence of AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who came up with the idea of Agenda 2063 during the AU’s May 2013 summit, is clearly discernable in this part of the document. While diplomats in Addis Ababa complain about her frequent trips away from AU headquarters, she has made sure that, at least on some level, South Africans start taking note of what the AU is doing. Dlamini-Zuma is punted as one of the possible successors to President Jacob Zuma to lead the party (and eventually the country) in 2017.
The party, in its proposals, takes a strong stand against the International Criminal Court (ICC). It lambasts the ICC for its ‘arrogance’ and ‘cheeky’ behavior during the recent AU summit in Johannesburg when Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir was allowed into and out of the country despite a court order forcing the government to arrest him. ANC policymakers strongly recommend that South Africa withdraws from the ICC and supports other efforts to promote international justice.
It also speaks out against the regime of King Mswati III in Swaziland, sometimes presented as an ally of Zuma. The Congress of South African Trade Unions – an alliance partner of the ANC – has shown solidarity with the opposition in Swaziland in the past, but has so far not been able to elevate Swaziland on the foreign policy agenda. The policy document calls Swaziland a ‘police state’ and says the ANC ‘must ensure that the necessary diplomatic interventions are initiated to bring democracy to our neighbouring state’.
Africa’s third-term phenomenon is simply described as ‘worrisome’ by SA’s ruling party Tweet this
At least on the ICC and on Swaziland, the ANC is clear on its stance. When it comes to curtailing the powers of other authoritarian leaders on the continent, however, the ANC is far from explicit.
In the document, the ANC declares that the continent is ‘steadily becoming stable’ and that ‘most countries are embracing democracy’. It notes that ‘… the tendency by some in political leadership to remain in power for many years against the will of the people is a worrisome phenomenon’. The draft policy goes on to say: ‘The phenomenon has become a seedbed for counter revolutionary activities in the continent. It also cultivates an environment for social and political disharmony, creating [a] fertile ground for manipulation and all sorts of conspiracies by imperialist and neo-colonial forces.’ Again the ANC is still in Cold War mode.
It is no secret that one of the major threats to political stability in Africa currently is the attempt by African leaders to prolong their time in office, regardless of their countries’ constitutions. The violence and political conflict in Burundi due to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s insistence that he stand for re-election for a third term on 21 July this year is a textbook case of what can happen when leaders cling to power.
Stephanie Wolters, head of the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis division at the Institute for Security Studies, says the ANC’s reference to ‘the will of the people’ when it comes to the third-term debate is highly problematic. This phrase is too often used and manipulated by authoritarian leaders who stay on for decades ‘because people want them to’. Instead, there should be a reference in the ANC’s draft policy to the constitution and the legality of extending presidential mandates, she says. ‘I find it sufficiently vague, probably because the ANC doesn’t want to commit itself on this issue.’
Kabila and his fellow leaders who plan to overstay their welcome have nothing to fear from the ANC Tweet this
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, where President Joseph Kabila’s supporters are advocating a change to the constitution to allow him to prolong his term beyond 2016, his cronies insist that it is ‘the will of the people’ to allow Kabila to be re-elected. One of his ministers has even created a political support group called ‘Kabila Désir’ (Kabila Desire) and explained to the pan-African magazine Jeune Afrique that the Congolese people ‘have not had enough’ of their current leader.
Recently, supporters of President Paul Kagame in Rwanda gathered four million signatures to a petition that calls for a new constitution that will remove presidential term limits. Parliament voted to support the petition in July this year. Kagame’s term expires in 2017 and he is widely expected to extend his term based on a popular expression of ‘the will of the people’.
In the nearby Republic of Congo, longstanding President Denis Sassou Nguessou also announced that a referendum on a new constitution would be held following a ‘national dialogue’ with all stakeholders. Two ministers who opposed his third-term bid were subsequently dropped from his cabinet. ‘We know all these processes are relatively flawed,’ says Wolters.
Even though the ANC has a majority in parliament and Zuma has the authority to make final decisions on foreign policy issues, the party is not the only determinant of South Africa’s foreign policy. The official opposition has a strong track record of speaking out and last week the Democratic Alliance instituted a motion of no confidence in Zuma because of the debacle around Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir at the AU summit. In the final analysis, the ANC describes the third-term phenomenon simply as ‘worrisome’ and hints at some outside manipulation (presumably by Western countries) of the instability that is plaguing the continent due to some leaders’ attempts to cling to power.
This is not very helpful. An unequivocal statement by the ANC that rejects the manipulation of constitutions and supports term limits would provide clear policy direction on this issue. Meanwhile, as they manoeuvre their way towards longer stays in power, Kabila and his fellow leaders who plan to extend their terms, have nothing to fear from South Africa’s government and the ANC.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant