South Africa's proactive foreign policy often punches way above its weight. It draws its confidence from the country's political history and what many still refer to as a "political miracle" of the end of apartheid rule. The manner in which it managed its political transition from apartheid to democracy guaranteed South Africa's political inclusion in many international platforms.
Notwithstanding the size of its economy and, indeed, its geographical location, South Africa is a leading member of the African Union, IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa bloc of nations) and BRICS; it was formally invited to join the then BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) in December 2010, after which the acronym changed to BRICS. It was a momentous occasion for the country despite criticism at the time, including that South Africa was too small a country and economy to be part of the bloc. However, Pretoria insisted that its membership was not only to advance its own socio-political and economic agendas but also those of Africa and other developing economies.
South Africa was voted on as the non-permanent member of the UN Security Council by the General Assembly in June. It will serve from next year until 2020, having been nominated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a bloc of 15 states. The African Union subsequently endorsed South Africa, giving it a continental mandate of sorts.
The UN Security Council consists of 15 members, of which five are permanent and 10 are rotating and are elected each year. Membership is a big deal for Pretoria and the young presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa, having been the third time since the dawn of the democratic South Africa that it has been nominated for a place on the Security Council. It has not been all plain sailing, though. During its first term on the Council in 2007, the country voted against an important resolution calling for an end to military attacks against ethnic minorities in Burma, joining Russia and China who used their veto. South Africa is likely to make a similar difficult decision this time around, with a huge challenge regarding the ongoing war in Yemen. Pretoria, though, has already shown which way it might move in this regard
On 28 September, in Geneva, South Africa abstained on a vote calling for the extension of an international probe into alleged human rights violations in Yemen by both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels. The members of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted in favour of the resolution by 21 to eight, with 18 abstentions, of which Pretoria's was one. The Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt involved in the bombing of Yemen issued a statement condemning the resolution. It was an expected yet disappointing position taken by South Africa.
According to the Middle East Eye, "South Africa's arms exports to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have grown since the beginning of the war in Yemen, making it potentially complicit in war crimes committed by the two countries in Yemen since 2015." Moreover, South Africa's economic business interests in the Gulf have been growing rapidly. As a result, there are growing concerns in the Middle East about South Africa's non-permanent seat in the Security Council, for obvious reasons.
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Apart from its principled foreign policy position on Palestine, South Africa has been found wanting on several occasions on decisions pertaining to the Middle East. According to Human Right Watch, "During its second term in 2011, the country began to abstain on all votes relating to the global south after it was criticised as championing a Western agenda when it voted to authorise a no-fly zone in Libya." Just a few months after the Libya vote, Pretoria abstained on a resolution that would have "condemned grave and systematic human rights violations" in Syria. What is even more concerning to many people in the Middle East and, indeed, South Africa itself, is the strengthening of its political and economic cooperation with Saudi Arabia. On 29 September, Pretoria's Minister of Trade and Investments Rob Davies travelled to the Kingdom to co-chair the 8th Session of the South Africa-Saudi Arabia Joint Economic Commission (JEC). His ministry said that Davies was going in order to "follow up on Saudi Arabia's $10 billion investment pledge."
South Africa is still recovering from the negativity of its disastrous position on Libya in 2011; that diplomatic blunder has eroded the country's reputation. It also got it wrong on Yemen with its latest decision, and this will undoubtedly have a similar negative impact on Pretoria's reputation. In the long run, this could overshadow South Africa's positive contribution to world politics, including its constructive positions on Palestine.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.