South African Foreign Policy And The Global South: From IBSA To BRICS – Analysis


By Chris Alden and Maxi Schoeman*

South Africa’s role as an emerging power, and one which overcame apartheid to establish democracy in 1994, as well as its position as an economic leader on the African continent, sets it apart from other countries of the region.  Under President Thabo Mbeki, South Africa took on an activist mantle to restructure the continent’s economic practices through the New Economic Partnership for Africa (NEPAD) and its political institutions like the African Union to reflect South Africa’s own democratic values and development aspirations.  During this period, South African foreign policy became truly globalised as Mbeki reached out to other emerging powers in pursuit of South Africa’s national and international ambitions. The shift from IBSA to BRICS represents an important turning point in South Africa’s understanding of its role as a leader in Africa and an emerging power on the global stage.

The African National Congress (ANC), as the governing party, faced increasing criticism and pressure from its traditional tripartite alliance partners, the trade union movement, and dissident elements to address the deteriorating racially based class division in South Africa. Between 1994 and 2014, unemployment (narrowly defined) increased from 20 to 26 per cent. During the same period, the Gini co-efficient deteriorated and the percentage of black Africans living in poverty increased by 10 per cent.[1] Importantly, the wage share of GDP decreased from 56 per cent in 1994 to 50.6 per cent during the first decade post-apartheid,[2] reinforcing perceptions on the home front that the transformation had failed. Unexpectedly, political freedom did not bring economic freedom and prosperity. Further, the neo-liberalist growth-path favoured by Mbeki in his Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy, and subsequently his successor President Jacob Zuma’s New Growth Path policy of 2010[3], which aimed to create and promote a black capitalist class, failed to address the needs of the masses of black Africans who remained poor and unemployed.[4] Increasingly, South Africa had to turn to the external environment to seek resources – tangible and intangible – in the service of domestic power struggles.

South Africa explored opportunities for cooperating with like-minded, emerging South powers in the quest for global transformation. In 2003 the IBSA Dialogue Forum came into being, joining India, Brazil and South Africa in an informal alliance as the ‘three emerging countries, three multi-ethnic and multicultural democracies,’ underpinned by the values of participatory democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. The countries were cooperating on the assumption that ‘democracy and development [were] mutually reinforcing.’[5] For South Africa, IBSA offered an opportunity in the wake of the failure of the Doha trade talks, which worked to form a strategic partnership to ‘unlock the vast resources and economic opportunities within and between these countries.’[6] The 2007 IBSA summit hosted by South Africa reflected, as far as ethos and process were concerned, South Africa’s ‘traditional’ (at least since 1994) approach of incorporating business, civil society, women and academia in the various working groups of the meeting. South Africa twice went on to host IBSA summits – in 2007 and again (which turned out to be the last one) in 2011, the year South Africa joined BRICS.

Yet IBSA’s main image, domestically and internationally, was that of a club of South democracies with an emphasis on, first and foremost, promoting democratic values despite its clear enunciation of a developmental agenda. Promoting democracy and good governance internationally – the initial pillars of South Africa’s foreign policy – increasingly took a back seat to promoting international pluralism (particularly the reform of global institutions) in a trade-off between principles and South Africa’s quest for a continental (and global south) leadership role on the one hand, and on the other, an attempt to respond to domestic critics’ call for an economic-oriented foreign policy.[7] In short, IBSA was not sufficient as a vehicle for promoting South Africa’s growing domestic socio-economic needs and pressures, and new avenues of influence and resources were seen to be necessary to stem the growing tide of criticism and popular unrest at home.

There is little doubt that the main attraction of BRICS membership for South Africa is the presence of China, which, by the end of 2009, had become the country’s biggest trading partner. The status of inclusion in the group confirmed for South Africa its equality with these other emerging market powers despite its profile as a pygmy compared to the likes of Brazil, Russia, India and China. At its first BRICS summit attendance in Sanya, China in 2011, President Zuma, along with India and Brazil, demanded a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and presented South Africa as a gateway to Africa. Mindful of his undertaking to create five million jobs by 2020, Zuma was accompanied by a large contingent of South African business leaders[8] and, although acknowledging the continued importance of the US and EU to South Africa’s economy, he pointed to the ‘rising importance of the giants of the south.’[9] Investment in Africa and the need for alternative development resources for the continent would become the mantra of South Africa’s engagement in BRICS, whilst its membership served to demonstrate to home audiences that South Africa was actively involved in what some commentators were referring to as ‘counterbalancing western influence in major forums.’[10] The latter would find its clearest impression in the eventual agreement to establish BRICS’ New Development Bank.

South Africa’s hosting of the 2013 BRICS summit was undeniably a highpoint for the country in terms of summitry agenda-setting, its foreign policy objectives and demonstrating to domestic critics that the country was making headway in addressing the various challenges that face its domestic economy.  South Africa hosted the summit with the theme, ‘BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Development, Integration and Industrialisation.’ It invited African leaders to attend the summit and participate in a range of discussions on the margins of the summit and made much of South Africa’s chairpersonship in the African Union.

During the Durban summit, two agreements were made: one on multilateral infrastructure co-financing for Africa and one on cooperation and co-financing for sustainable development. Importantly, issues hitherto avoided by the group, such as human rights, gender, peace and security, were included in the Summit’s eThekwini Declaration and Action Plan.[11] All did not go according to plan, though. South Africa had hoped that the BRICS development bank would be headquartered in South Africa[12], but Beijing made it clear that the bank’s headquarters would be in China and South Africa would need to be satisfied with hosting its ‘African’ branch.

Importantly, though, it would seem that BRICS has overshadowed, if not eliminated, IBSA. Hailed initially as an ‘innovative partnership’ between three global south ‘model democracies’ sharing a serious commitment to democratic values, developing and promoting global south concerns, the forum has not met since 2011. Henceforth, the pursuit of aims, such as Security Council reform, would have to be pursued within the BRICS formation. This agenda, along with the now muted position on democratic values, is increasingly pinning its hopes on Chinese assistance in fostering the conditions for rapid development based on their own experience. South Africa’s foreign policy may have found international recognition of its global status, but it is still searching for a model of sustainable development from abroad.

About the authors:
*Chris Alden is a Prof at the LSE and Maxi Schoeman is a faculty member at the University of Pretoria.

[1] See e.g. Patrick Bond. 2014. ‘South Africa’s inconvenient truths’. 14 November. Accessed on 14 November 2014.

[2] Steven Gelb. 2003. Inequality in South Africa: Africa: Nature, Causes and Responses. Johannesburg: The Edge Institute. Accessed on 30 May 2014.

[3] Department of Economic Development. 2010. ‘The New Growth Path’.  November. Accessed on 20 April 2014.

[4] See the ANC discussion document, ‘The state, property relations and social transformation’. Discussion paper towards the Alliance Summit’. Umrabulo 5 (3) 1998.,+ANC,+State,+Property+Relations,+Social+Transformation, accessed on 4 July 2015; ANC discussion document ‘Social transformation’, 30 March 2007,, accessed 4 July 2015; Vusi Gumede, 2013, ‘Social and economic transformation in post-apartheid South Africa: policies, prospects and proposals’. April. Pretoria: Thabo Mbeki Leadership Institute,,%20April%202013).pdf, accessed 25 July 2015.

[5] ‘IBSA: Celebrating 10 years of partnership’ n.d., accessed on 29 July 2015.

[6]  ‘Remarks by the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, during the India-Brazil-South Africa meeting of heads of state and government with CEOs, Brasilia, Brazil’. 13 September 2006., accessed 25 July 2015.

[7] See Gilbert Khadiagala and Fritz Nganje. 2015. ‘The evolution of South Africa’s democracy promotion in Africa: from idealism to pragmatism’. Cambridge Review of International Affairs,, accessed 19 July 2015.

[8] ‘SA gains entry to Bric club’. 19 April 2014., accessed on 25 April 2015.

[9] ‘Zuma to BRICS: invest in Africa’s growth’. 15 April 2011., accessed 25 July 2015.

[10] ‘SA gains entry to Bric club’. 19 April 2014., accessed on 25 April 2015.

[11] See ‘Fifth BRICS Summit’, n.d., accessed 20 July 2015.

[12] Maarten Mittner. 9 April 2014. ‘Brics development bank in the pipeline’., accessed on 25 July 2015; see also ‘BRICS Bank: SA could emerge as compromise location’, 15 July 2014,, accessed on 25 July 2015.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *