South Africa in Africa: SUPERPOWER or Neocolonialist?

Published on 14th June 2016

Book Review;

Liesl Louw-Vaudran;(2016) South Africa in Africa: SUPERPOWER or Neocolonialist? Tafelberg, Cape Town, South Africa 240 pages.

By Dr. Njunga-Michael MULIKITA[1]                                                        

This book of 240 pages length is written by Liesl Louw Vaudran, a highly experienced South African journalist who has spent well over two decades covering African affairs. The author appears to have the asset of bilingualism (English and French),a strength most Anglophone Journalists do not possess. This book is a very illuminating analysis of what I might call South Africa’s Manifest Destiny to provide leadership to the African continent; a perspective that seems to guide Pretoria in its dealings with the rest of the continent. The book reveals that South Africa’s political class of the apartheid and post-Apartheid eras seem wedded to the notion of South Africa’s leadership in Africa.   Louw Vaudran observes, ‘in the 1970s South Africa’s policy towards Africa took a new direction under Prime Minister John Vorster’ and South Africa pursued a policy of ‘Constructive Engagement.’[2]  

Under the African National Congress governments since 1994, South Africa policy towards Africa exhibits policy incrementalism and continuity as Nelson Mandela and his successors have used the country’s soft and hard power to reconstruct the continent’s diplomatic and institutional architecture in a way that projects South Africa’s hegemonic preeminence.   Louw Vaudran appears to argue that notions of Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance, New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), the African Agenda etc   offer examples of South Africa stamping the imprimatur of Pretoria’s leadership on the continent.[3] 

The book, which has eleven chapters, is well researched and the author should be commended for carrying out empirical fact based research. Chapter one entitled, ‘Searching for the ANC in Exile’ brought the author to Lusaka, Zambia to retrace the steps of the ANC leadership in exile in advancing the anti-Apartheid struggle prior to 1994. She reveals rather surprisingly, and I agree with her entirely, that Lusaka has no enduring monuments consecrated to the ANC’s struggle. There is no Nelson Mandela Avenue and the house or houses that were occupied by late Oliver Tambo, leader of the ANC in exile have not been declared national monuments. This is rather odd, given the self congratulatory rhetoric of Zambia’s politicians about how Zambia, as a Front-line State sacrificed immense human and material resources to aid the ANC.[4]

Chapters three and four are devoted to what might be called the golden era of post-Apartheid South Africa’s    standing in Africa. In Chapter three, the author assesses the impact of Nelson Mandela’s successor ex- President Thabo Mbeki  in Africa.    Louw Vaudran recalls that in the 1990s, Mbeki popularized the term African Renaissance. ‘The expression encapsulates an ideal that strives for the economic, political and cultural renewal of the continent.’[5]

At this time, when South Africa’s moral stature was at its zenith, President Mbeki used South Africa’s soft power to reform the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and rebranding it as the African Union (AU).  Mbeki and his inner circle also pioneered the establishment of related Pan African structures such as NEPAD and mediated in several intra-African conflicts. Mbeki established the Africa Renaissance Fund to support projects aimed at promoting the so called African Renaissance. One such project that benefited from this fund was the South Africa- Mali Timbuktu Manuscript Project. During his State visit to Mali in 2001, President Mbeki announced that South Africa would assist Mali to preserve the Timbuktu manuscripts by helping with digitization of ancient manuscripts and by building a new library to house them.[6]

The author offers an insightful analysis into Mbeki’s role as Southern African Development Community (SADC)/African Union (AU) mediator in the Zimbabwean political impasse.   Louw Vaudran offers the credible explanation that Mbeki’s preoccupation with the ‘African Agenda’ (essentially anti Western position) made it impossible for Mbeki to publicly denounce President Mugabe’s alleged electoral and other human rights transgressions.[7]

Mbeki’s obsession with his African Renaissance concept brought him into collision with France, when he sought to project Pretoria’s soft power in Francophone Africa.  The author deserves commendation here for the energies she deployed in illustrating South Africa’s problematical foray into French speaking Africa.  Her mastery of the French language must have played a role in offering her well grounded analysis. She discusses the factors that led the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) to suffer casualties in a secretive peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic(CAR) in 2013[8]  and the failure of South Africa’s mediation in Cote d’ Ivoire after the 2010 post-electoral dispute between ex-President Laurent Gbagbo and his Western backed successor Alassane Draman Outtara[9] . South Africa’s political class seems to have underestimated the immense power of Francafrique; ‘the infamous network of political and business links between France and Francophone Africa,’[10] which preserves France’s hegemony in its erstwhile colonies.   

A salient theme that emerges from reading this book is that the immense moral authority/soft power that South Africa enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of the 1994 transitional elections has gradually evaporated.  South Africa is seen in Africa north of the Limpopo as an arrogant bully that wants to have its way in all the continent’s major diplomatic and economic Forums. South Africa is perceived to have appropriated the ‘Africa Brand’ by having assumed the self appointed role of Africa’s spokesperson vis-à-vis the rest of the world.  Eruptions of xenophobic violence against African migrants and its shabby treatment of Africans living within its borders have accelerated the decline of South Africa’s soft power in Africa.  The rivalry between South Africa and Nigeria has escalated over Nigeria’s resentment of efforts deployed by Pretoria to project economic and diplomatic influence in West Africa, which Abuja considers its traditional sphere of influence.

 A very good book is marred by a slight factual error when Louw Vaudran erroneously claims that the 45th OAU Summit in Lome, Togo, ‘was the last summit of the OAU’[11]. The last Summit of the OAU in fact took place in Lusaka, Zambia, 2001. The newly elected Secretary-General Amara Essy (Cote d’Ivoire) was tasked with transitioning the OAU into the AU at the Lusaka Summit.  The author does not   acknowledge the book written by her compatriot Olivia Forsyth (2015) which examines in detail the activities of the ANC leadership in Lusaka during the years of struggle[12]

On the whole, a very well researched and written book that anyone who seeks to understand South Africa’s role in Africa should read. I would also declare this book a recommended reading for students of African Politics.


[1] Dr. Njunga-Michael MULIKITA is Senior Lecturer/Coordinator of Programmes, Dag Hammarskjöld Institute for Peace & Conflict Studies(DHIPS), Copperbelt University(CBU), Zambia 

[2] Liesl Louw-Vaudran ;( 2016) South Africa in Africa: SUPERPOWER or Neocolonialist?, Tafelberg, Cape Town, p.37

[3] Ibid, p.53

[4] Ibid, p. 17

[5] Ibid, p.52

[6] Ibid, 57

[7] Ibid , 71

[8] Ibid, 96

[9] Ibid, pp74-75

[10] Ibid, p45

[11] Ibid, 60

[12] Olivia Forsyth, Agent 407: A South African Spy  Breaks Her Silence, Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg & Cape town, 2015

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