Perspectives #01/2017: South Africa: Emerging Power or Fading Star?


South Africa, 2006. The country’s GDP growth rate stands at 5.6 percent, the highest since the first democratic elections in 1994. After supporting the transformation of the Organisation of African Unity into the African Union at the beginning of the millennium, President Thabo Mbeki’s vision of an “African renaissance” of peace, stability and development is glowing with vitality. In July, the Democratic Republic of Congo holds its first multiparty elections in 41 years, following a peace deal that Pretoria helped to broker in 2002. In September, the India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) Dialogue Forum meets for the first time in Brasilia. A month later, South Africa is elected non-permanent member to the United Nations (UN) Security Council (2007–2008), with 186 out of 192 votes. Given its economic prowess, regional influence and international aspirations, South Africa cements its role in the world as an “emerging power” and the most influential player in Africa.

Fast-forward ten years. Although Africa has experienced a decade of rapid economic growth, the expectation that the continent’s most sophisticated economy would remain its most prominent has not been fulfilled. Instead, fast-growing African economies like Ethiopia and Kenya have begun to take the limelight. Once by far the largest African economy, South Africa now changes ranks with Nigeria and Egypt, depending on the current valuation of their currencies against the US dollar. In 2016, South Africa’s economic growth is close to zero and Standard and Poor’s sovereign risk rating puts the country just one notch above sub-investment grade – so-called “junk status” – with many economists expecting a downgrade in 2017.

While the current commodity price downturn has put a damper on Africa’s growth prospects, the international community’s belief that South Africa can speak on behalf of the continent in global fora is increasingly contested. And although South Africa was granted a second stint at the UN Security Council in 2011–2012, its aspiration to become a permanent member has been challenged in its own region. While President Jacob Zuma’s administration managed to gain access to the Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) Forum in 2010, and it remains the only African country represented in the G20, South Africa’s foreign policy seems to lack any coherent strategy. The country is consumed by its domestic politics, which are mired in corruption scandals, institutional erosion and increasing public unrest. As a result, the international moral and democratic legitimacy that South Africa enjoyed following the transition from apartheid is waning, and its long-term stability is in danger. In short, South Africa’s star looks to be fading.

Both of these snapshots are, of course, incomplete and deliberately polarised. Nonetheless, as the international terrain begins to change, so have perceptions of South Africa. Informed by the discussions at an international conference jointly organised by the German Development Institute, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Stanford University on “Emerging Power or Fading Star? South Africa’s Role on the Continent and Beyond”, held 12–14 July 2016 in Cape Town, the articles gathered in this edition of Perspectives shed light on some of the nuances and challenges that define South Africa’s place in the world today.

Jochen Luckscheiter

Programme Manager

Heinrich Böll Foundation

Stephan Klingebiel

Head of Department

German Development Institute

Product details
Date of Publication
January 2017
HBF Africa