In January 2019, South Africa returns for a third time to the UN Security Council. And this, after being yellow carded by US President Donald J. Trump’s UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley on the basis of South Africa’s voting record in the UN. There should be a sense of urgency attached to South Africa’s Security Council return, for complications await it. Notwithstanding the maliciously imperialist posturing of the US regarding those voting against Washington at the UN on matters such as Israel-Palestine, Tshwane will continue disappointing Washington given the Trump administration’s ‘in your face’ belligerently isolationist foreign policy. South Africa and Nigeria, throughout Tshwane’s Security Council tenure, could find themselves at loggerheads regarding the direction of the African Union (AU) agenda if they do not coordinate their positions and strategic interests better, especially given Nigeria’s seat in the AU Peace and Security Council. This is where South Africa’s Africa strategy will be in for a stress test in the two years of its tenure.
Regarding African peace and security, Tshwane will have to assertively confront the destabilizing partitioning of the continent; this is between northern Africa’s volatile geopolitics, within what is generally referred to as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, extending to the Horn of Africa, and the continuing instabilities in and around the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan. In this regard, the changeover in administration from the non-strategic transactionalism of the Jacob Zuma government to the more economic diplomacy motivations of Cyril Ramaphosa could not be better timed; this is especially inasmuch as the new incumbent at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, has clearly articulated how much she wants to return South Africa to an international standing exemplary of Nelson Mandela.
Let’s start out surveying northern Africa, from the Maghreb to the Horn. For it is throughout Africa’s northern tier that the AU’s cohesion faces its greatest challenge. Apart from post-Qaddafi turmoil in a Libya defying pacification, the crux of regional instability revolves around the Western Sahara and Morocco’s unrelenting opposition to implementing UN-mandated self-determination in this territory. Besides doubling down on a diplomacy of resolute support for Sahrawi independence, South Africa must strengthen the self-determination case by linking it to the urgency of operationalizing the functioning of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) and expanding its remit into the northwestern Sudano-Sahelian border regions extending into Chad Lake Basin instabilities. Given that Morocco currently sits in the AU Peace and Security Council, it will however not be straightforward to garner solid support from the African bloc given the manner in which South Africa has been somewhat caught flat footed by Moroccan diplomatic efforts on the continent in recent years. At a time when South Africa needs all the leverage it can muster on Western Sahara and other African strategic priorities, the country will have to consider carefully the implications of doubling down on the less-strategic priority of downgrading its embassy in Israel, especially when South Africa has already taken one of the hardest stances on Israel following the recent massacre of Palestinians during the controversial opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem.
Rather, with Germany also coming onto the UNSC, this means undertaking a no-holds barred security dialogue with the European Union at a time when the EU itself is undergoing its own stress test on a variety of fronts, including on trans-Mediterranean migration from Africa. This is why resolving the Western Sahara conundrum is so urgent, yet growing more complicated: Morocco is now closely aligning itself with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel by accusing Iran of intervening in supporting Polisaro. This situation could even become more complicated if Nigeria follows suit in joining these Sunni-Shia anti-Iran follies at the expense of resolving the Western Sahara standoff and operationalizing UMA, the missing pillar of the AU – with negative implications for an African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
Morocco’s decision to bandwagon against Iran with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel extends the penetration of fractious Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) geopolitics throughout the entire northern tier of Africa, from where the turmoil between the Saudi-UAE alliance against Qatar spills over across the Red Sea into Northeast Africa. Here, South Africa could explore how it might make use of Ethiopia’s recent willingness to implement the UN settlement of its Badme border dispute with Eritrea into navigating an AU common position on disengaging the Horn of Africa from the Persian Gulf civil war between Saudi-UAE versus Qatar as a proxy in Saudi-Iranian sectarian geopolitical interregional destabilization. An Ethio-Eritrean rapprochement is key to unravelling Persian Gulf militarization of the Horn. But this still leaves out other interrelated issues: Nile River Basin tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan with Egypt and ongoing peace and security diplomacy Tshwane is involved in with the UNSC in South Sudan. Given the priority Ramaphosa affords the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and its eastern and southern African dimension in the Cape to Cairo Tripartite FTA, South Africa must confront these preconditional peace and security challenges in greater eastern Africa.
Finally, coming to terms with the DRC’s endemic instability via the UNSC is also critical. Here, an AU-orchestrated intervention by SADC, the East African Community and Economic Community of Central African States is important in finding a lasting solution. A balance between centralist and federalist approaches in the Congo that embed the country in the three regional economic communities will thus be important. All in all, South Africa’s third go-round on the Security Council may turn out as a ‘beware what you wish for’ gift of pan-African challenges awaiting Sisulu’s presumptive revival of Mandela’s foreign policy legacy. Meanwhile, to be determined is where South Africa’s strategic priority lies: African Unity or the Middle East.
Francis A. Kornegay, Jr. is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA, a member of the JIOR international editorial board and a past fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center of Scholars. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent IGD/Unisa policy.