Summary Report: Emerging Power or Fading Star? South Africa's Role on the Continent and Beyond

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The BRICS leaders in 2014. Left to right: Putin, Modi, Rousseff, Xi and Zuma.

South Africa in 2006. The country’s GDP growth rate stood at 5.6 percent, the highest rate ever recorded since it held its first democratic elections in 1994. President Thabo Mbeki’s ‘African Renaissance’ project which sought to promote peace, stability and development across the continent was in its prime. In July, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) held its first multiparty elections in 41 years after Pretoria helped broker a peace deal in 2002. In September, the India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) Dialogue Forum met for the first time in Brasilia. A month later South Africa was elected non-permanent member to the United Nations Security Council (2007-2008) with 186 out of 192 votes. Given its economic prowess, regional influence and international aspirations, South Africa cemented its role in the world as an ‘emerging power’. Fast forward 10 years. The once largest African economy now ranks third after Nigeria and Egypt. Standard and Poor’s latest sovereign risk rating put South Africa one notch above sub-investment grade or so called ‘junk status’. Although South Africa under the Zuma administration has gained access to the Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) Forum in 2010, its foreign policy appears to lack any coherent strategy. Instead, the country is consumed by its domestic politics characterised by corruption scandals, institutional erosion and increasing public unrest. Europe and the US, which continue to be key trading partners, are increasingly questioning South Africa’s commitment to human rights and good governance at home and abroad. In short, South Africa’s star appears to be fading.

Both pictures are of course incomplete and deliberately polarised. Nonetheless, as the international terrain has started to change so have South Africa and the perceptions of the country as an emerging power. Against this background and informed by the discussions at an international conference on ‘Emerging Power or Fading Star? South Africa’s Role on the Continent and Beyond’, 12-14 July in Cape Town, this summary report sheds light on some of the shades of grey that define South Africa’s role and place in the world today.   

See column on the right for full summary report and conference programme.

For documentation of the public opening dialogue co-hosted by the Centre for Conflict Resolution, please click here.