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South Africa’s Stance on Goma not Surprising

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Today, the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation released a statement indicating that it “condemns, in strongest terms, the attack on the town of Goma” and remains “deeply concerned about the humanitarian impact…”

picture courtesy of Mail & Guardian, UK

Such a statement is hardly shocking or surprising…but sometimes in these things it is important to note what has NOT been said as much as what IS said.  In this statement, despite the deep concern about the humanitarian impact, no mention is made of taking action to help the DRC government .  No mention is made to exploring intervention through SADC or AU mechanisms to protect human rights…or even raising the issue at the United Nations Security Council.

picture courtesy of UN News Centre

This is surprising given that South Africa is part of the international system that is meant to put into action the Right to Protect Doctrine (R2P)…a philosophical mechanism that argues for intervention to prevent human rights abuses.  Indeed, South Africa has been an active member of the United Nations Security Council, until recently when it finished its second term, often adopting language in this body that reflected the R2P Doctrine.  This was best epitomized when South Africa voted for UN Resolution 1973 regarding establishing a no fly zone over Libya.

But upon closer interrogation – South Africa will often speak the language of R2P but is a reluctant implementor of this approach in Africa.  This is in part out of economic reality, the costs of armed intervention and peacekeeping are significant, but also out of sensitivity to historical legacies (Flemes, 2009).[1]  Such reluctance has elicited frustrated responses from nations such as Canada, particularly over the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zimbabwe crises, but fail to recognize the precarious balance that South Africa needs to play in African politics (Cooper and Taylor, 2001).[2]

South Africa is a leader on the continent and on the broader international stage.  It agrees to international principles but struggles to balance these with historical legacies and regional arrangements that make it difficult to implement such doctrines such as the R2P.  It seems oft forgotten amongst western nations that the continent still suffers from a preoccupation over colonialism.  As such, African states appear hyper sensitive to anything that encroaches upon their sovereignty.  The African Union’s (AU) Common Defence and Security Policy appears to embody this sensitivity through privileging the respect for sovereignty and regime security (AU, 2004).[3]  Whilst colonialism is past, the threat of neo-colonialism and the chance to use Africa as a proxy for geo-political struggles, such as those emerging between China, the US and the EU, remains on the mind of many African leaders, particularly those of the ANC government that come from Marxist traditions.

As well, for South Africa, there is an additional sense of loyalty that is apparent to those who took them in and trained them during the anti-Apartheid struggle.  It is with this in mind that a recent e-book publication edited by a colleague of mine, Dr Malte Brosig,  sought to explore the use and employment of R2P in Africa.  There is a compelling and rather critical chapter considering South Africa’s role in African security which argues that this regional hegemon often prefers to uphold sovereignty and regime security but speaks the language of human security (Aboagye, 2012).[4]

South Africa has struggled in this respect since 1994 and is even evident in the moment when Canada sought South Africa’s support in intervening in the “Zaire” crisis of 1996.  Cooper and Taylor (2001) note how South Africa was conciliatory towards Canada’s desire to intervene in the crisis but were unwilling to send South African troops.  Additionally, Aboagye (2012) argues that South Africa has vacillated between advocating international norms around the promotion for human rights, democracy, justice, and international law in its role on the UNSC, but has defaulted to upholding sovereignty and regime security as per the AU’s Solemn Declaration on a Common African Defence and Security Policy.[5]   Cote D’Ivoire and Libya are cases where South Africa found difficulty in balancing its position on the UNSC with that of the regional pressure to respect sovereignty and support regime security (Aboagye, 2012).  As such, South Africa often prefers mediation over physical intervention.

This approach to continental security suggests that South Africa seeks to maintain a careful balance between respecting and reinforcing its continental allies and the expectations as espoused by the international community.  This is why the statement by the Department of International Relations is not surprising in what it does and doesn’t say.  South Africa…the constrained hegemon.


[1] Flemes, D (2009). “Regional power South Africa: Co-operative hegemony constrained by historical legacies.” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 27 no.2:135-157.

[2] Cooper, A., and I. Taylor. (2001). “‘Made in Africa’ versus ‘Out of Africa’: Comparing South Africa’s Non-Leadership with Canada Leadership with the 1996 Crisis in Zaire.” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 39(1): 23-41.

[3] African Union. Solemn Declaration on a Common African Defence and Security Policy.  Adopted Febrary 28, 2004. Available from http://www.au.int/pages/sites/default/files/Solemn_Declaration_on_CADSP_0.pdf

[4] Aboagye, F. “South Africa and R2P: More State Sovereignty and Regime Security than Human Security?” in Malte Brosig (Ed). The Responsibility to Protect: From Evasive to Reluctant Action?  HSF, ISS, KAS and SAIIA. 2012. pp.29-48.

[5] Human Security as defined by the AU’s Common African Defence and Security Policy, 2004 is available online at http://www.au.int/pages/sites/default/files/Solemn_Declaration_on_CADSP_0.pdf

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