Menu Close

Uncertain times for South Africa’s foreign policy as country heads for coalition government

A woman faces microphones being held up to her. She is surrounded by other people.
South African foreign minister Naledi Pandor addresses the media outside the ICJ at The Hague. Selman Aksunger/Anadolu via Getty Images

After South Africa’s 29 May election, the African National Congress has lost the electoral majority it held for 30 years, but remains the party with the highest number of seats in parliament. This makes it a key partner in the formation of a coalition government.

For 30 years the ANC had a comfortable majority which allowed it to shape policy at home and abroad. The outgoing administration’s approach to foreign policy became more assertive recently. It sought to negotiate peace in the Russia-Ukraine War and filed a genocide case at the International Court of Justice against Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Though popular, the move against Israel may have split South Africans, some of whom are more concerned about the economy, while others support Israel.

With 40% of the national parliamentary seats, the ANC will have to negotiate its policy positions with its coalition partner, or partners. The three leading contenders to partner the ANC are the Democratic Alliance, the uMkhonto weSizwe Party and the Economic Freedom Fighters. The parties lie second, third and fourth in terms of parliamentary seats.

As a political scientist who has researched the nexus between South Africa’s electoral politics and its engagement with the changing global order, I expect South Africa’s foreign policy to be one of the bargaining points as the ANC engages various potential coalition partners.

This is significant because over the past three decades, the international community has come to know where South Africa stands on major geopolitical questions. In particular, the country has been a key player in the realignment of global power, partly through its membership of the Brics grouping – Brazil, Russia India, China and South Africa. As of 1 January 2024, five new members (Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) had joined Brics.

South Africa has also sought to be a voice for Africa and the broader global south. This is especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, when it spoke out against what it termed vaccine apartheid.

Based on electoral performance, the likeliest coalition partners for the ANC are, respectively, the Democratic Alliance (DA), with 21.7% of the vote, the uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MKP) with 14.66% and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) with 9.47%.

I have gauged how they might seek to influence the direction of foreign policy by looking at their party manifestos and leader statements. From this analysis the ANC seems faced with three broad choices: a Democratic Alliance that is pro-west, an Economic Freedom Fighters party that is more revisionist than the ANC itself, and an uMkhonto weSizwe Party that largely reflects the ANC’s own foreign policy posture but vehemently opposes the ANC’s current leader and has contributed to the ANC’s fall below 50%.

Democratic Alliance

The two issues that are most likely to be a sticking point for the Democratic Alliance are the ANC government’s attitude towards Israel and its relationship with Russia.

In its election manifesto, the Democratic Alliance lists seven priorities. All are domestic issues. Nevertheless, statements by its leaders and parliamentarians point to a party that is decidedly pro-Ukraine and anti-Russia. It’s moderate on Israel and sceptical of the Brics grouping.

Following the 2023 Brics summit in South Africa in August 2023, Emma Louise Powell, the Democratic Party’s shadow foreign minister, criticised the grouping, calling it an “increasingly unholy alliance”, and the summit a waste of money.

The party’s leader John Steenhuisen also visited Ukraine and expressed solidarity with Kyiv.

On the Israel/Palestine issue the party removed an MP from its shadow cabinet for expressing a pro-Palestine stance. And Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen refuses to call Israel’s conduct of its war on Gaza an act of genocide, saying:

One man’s genocide is another man’s freedom.

uMkhonto weSizwe Party and Economic Freedom Fighters

In its manifesto, the Economic Freedom Fighters party champions greater continental integration. This includes free movement of people.

Further afield, it not only supports Palestinians but also advocates giving weapons to Hamas, according to its leader, Julius Malema.

The uMkhonto weSizwe Party’s manifesto is more moderated. It envisions a government that would

ensure South Africa’s foreign policy reflects its national interests and values, advocating for fairness and mutual respect in international relations.

The manifesto expresses solidarity with Russia, Cuba and Palestine

in their struggles against western imperialist forces.

The party also calls for a review of international accords and agreements, including South Africa’s membership of the International Criminal Court – ostensibly to reinstate South Africa’s sovereignty.

It also calls on South Africa to

work with the Brics countries to explore alternative currencies and international settlement mechanisms.

This alignment of the ANC should come as no surprise. Much of the ANC’s current foreign policy (including the entry into Brics) was crafted under Jacob Zuma as president (2009-2018). In its appraisal of the Cyril Ramaphosa government’s foreign policy, however, the party is scathing.

Its manifesto states that

The current government seems intent on destroying our tradeable sector and reducing our country to total external dependence on the west.

This may also explain why some of its leading figures have declared they would not form a coalition with the ANC under the leadership of Zuma’s nemesis, Ramaphosa. The statement still leaves the door open for a coalition with the ANC should it decide to recall Ramaphosa.

The country, therefore, would see more foreign policy continuity under an ANC-uMkhonto weSizwe Party coalition, while there would be major stability-threatening disagreements within an ANC-Democratic Alliance or ANC-Economic Freedom Front government.

This is especially important considering that foreign policy is no longer made by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation alone. Virtually every government department has a foreign affairs desk.

This decentralisation of foreign policy also means that there might be considerable disagreement even if the ANC were to manage to keep the department for itself.

The Demoractic Alliance and the ANC have disagreed before when the alliance’s Solly Msimanga, then a newly elected mayor of the city of Tshwane, visited Taiwan in December 2016. The ANC, which recognises China’s claim of sovereignty over the island, expressed its discontent with the visit and its Tshwane caucus called it treason“.

In a national coalition government, such moves would bring instability.

Domestic and foreign policies

Domestic policy is also important for foreign engagement. The election outcome is not only about South Africa’s relationship towards the world, but also the outside world’s perception of the country.

The ANC government has in recent years struggled to attract foreign direct investment (declining by R54.5 billion or about US$2.9 billion in 2023, according to the Reserve Bank), in part due to corruption, power outages, and a perceived lack of competitiveness born of its post-1994 racial equity and labour laws.

The ANC’s choice of coalition partner will have an impact on this. If it gets into bed with the Democratic Alliance, it will be signalling a pro-market stance. If, however, it joins up with the smaller parties, it will likely result in a renewed emphasis on policies that drive greater equity in the country.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 186,700 academics and researchers from 4,994 institutions.

Register now