South Africa as an Emerging Middle Power

Prof Maxi Schoeman
Department of Political Studies, Rand Afrikaans University, Johannesburg

Published in African Security Review Vol 9 No 3, 2000


Although the term ‘international division of labour’ has traditionally been used in international political economy to denote the global production structure, this term is also applicable to international politics. Despite the existence of an anarchical international state system, there is a clear hierarchy of states with roles and functions being adopted by, or thrust upon states, depending on their position within this hierarchy. One of the characteristics of this division of labour is the emergence of middle powers in the developing world. South Africa is now often labelled an emerging power, apparently referring to its position as a regional leader and its position in the broader or global political system as a possible middle power. The term ‘emerging regional power’ is also used to describe South Africa, as well as countries such as Brazil and India. The concept ‘middle power’ is not new and has been applied to countries such as Canada, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian states and New Zealand for a long time. However, when applied to South Africa it is considered to be ‘emerging’ (it has not, therefore, reached the status yet), it is part of the developing world (explaining the use of ‘emerging’, to go with ‘developing’) and it would seem to have a role somewhat different from established, developed middle powers.

This article examines the term ‘emerging middle power’
1 and the ambiguities surrounding it, pointing to the differences between these countries and the developed middle powers. Firstly, it is argued that the term ‘emerging power’ or ‘emerging middle power’ should be treated and applied in such a way that it draws a clear distinction between an emerging power as a middle power in the international arena, and an emerging power as a regional power. Secondly, this article provides an analysis of the extent to which South Africa can be classified as an ‘emerging middle power’, distinguishing between its role in the international system and its regional position.


The term ‘middle power’
2 — without the word ‘emerging’ attached to it — does not necessarily have a geographical connotation, or one referring to a level of development. Traditional middle powers, as defined in the literature, would seem to exclude the regional position of a state aspiring to or enjoying the status of being a middle power. Another interpretation would be that the middle power is defined vis-à-vis the existence of a major power(s) and is therefore not seen as a ‘major power writ small’ in its own region — the examples of Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden support this interpretation. Cox notes that middle powers had no "special place in regional blocs" during the Cold War era3 and Wight distinguishes between regional powers and middle powers, the former having a geographically more restricted range.4 Rather, the term ‘middle power’ points to a position within the broad or universal state system, based on an assumption that there is some hierarchical order of states, no matter the theoretical notion of the idea of anarchy and the equality of all states (the latter as, for instance, in the UN Charter).5

Secondly, size and rank placed these powers in an international division of labour and also offered them the opportunity of exerting a type of moral influence on the international system, a role they accepted and actively sought to play. Although their position or rank was determined by the structure of the international system, their role and functions were not. Structure gave them the room or opportunity to take up a certain role. Against the Cold War background of superpower rivalry, the UN Security Council often came to depend on the good offices and intervention of these middle powers. During this period, middle powers had a valuable role within the international system, specifically in the development of UN peacekeeping operations.

Thirdly, Robert Cox stressed that middle powers are closely linked to international organisation as a process.
6 According to Cox, a middle power supports the process of international organisation because of its interest in a stable and orderly environment, and not because it is seeking to impose "an ideologically preconceived vision of an ideal world order."7 Because it is a middle power and cannot impose its own vision of such an ideal world in the presence of big or superpowers, it would choose, almost logically, to exert influence at the multilateral level where it can build consensus around certain issues. By implication, a middle power is one active in international organisations, supporting the objective of international peace and security, also as one of its defined ‘national interests’. In other words, a sense of ‘global responsibility’ and ‘global citizenship’ is clearly present in the case of a middle power. The Scandinavian countries and Canada,8 in particular, contributed towards conflict resolution through their own foreign policy emphasis on human rights and democracy.

The end of the Cold War and the eruption of various conflicts and civil wars in the former ‘second’ and ‘third’ worlds seemed to have wrought a change in the definition, role and functions of some middle powers. This change has been captured in the term ‘emerging middle power’. One of the most important changes is the fact that ‘emerging’ middle powers are part of the developing world. This explains why the term is also applied to India and Brazil. Emerging middle powers are, furthermore, regional powers: in their own regions, they are considered powerful, irrespective of whether they represent regional relationships of enmity or amity. But, a more pressing change, or aspect of the status of being an emerging middle power, concerns the role and function of these powers. Traditional middle powers played their roles on a ‘world scale’. Yet, they were always subordinate to or in the direct presence of the superpowers and as interlocutors bridging the space between the powerful and powerless in the international system.

Emerging middle powers seem to play or are expected to play the role of regional peacemakers and police; they have the responsibility for keeping their backyard neat and orderly with a measure of support from the big powers. These powers, at the regional level, seem to be expected to support and promote acceptable rules and norms in terms of which international politics and relations are conducted. A broader role is also expected in their ‘moral position’ or status. Sometimes they are called upon to exert an influence in specific cases where big power influence does not seem to be sufficient to find solutions to problems. Again, during the first two decades after its independence, India was called upon to play this role.
9 South Africa, more specifically in the person of former President Mandela, was asked to assist in finding a solution to the Haitian crisis in 1995 and was again approached in 1999 to intervene in the Kosovo crisis, while also being involved in the Palestinian question and in East Timor.

However, the emphasis of emerging powers also seems to be focused regional leadership. The question then is whether the term ‘middle power’ can be applied to these states, or whether they are regional great powers rather than middle powers. A second question, closely related to the first, is to what extent such an ‘emerging middle power’ determines its own role and to what extent this role is assigned to it by the major powers; in short — who confers this status and why?

If a middle power is cast as a regional great power, it may in effect have to bear responsibility for regional peace and security and carry the blame for failure. Similarly, if a middle power assumes the mantle of regional responsibility and serves as the interlocutor between the region and the major powers, it may undermine one of the cardinal principles of the UN as a collective security system: that peace is indivisible and all states have a responsibility to avert a threat to peace anywhere in the system. Such a division of labour would or could turn emerging middle powers into regional hegemons (whether reluctantly or voluntarily), detracting from the broader (and original) role of middle powers and inherently changing the moral foundation of the UN which is based on the principle of collective security.

Le Pere quotes Kennedy et al on the American notion of ‘pivotal states’ in order to define the role and functions of an emerging power:
"A pivotal state is so important regionally that its collapse would spell trans-boundary mayhem ... A pivotal state’s economic progress and stability, on the other hand, would bolster its region’s economic vitality and political soundness …"10
Defined as such, the importance of an emerging power as a regional great power to maintain regional security becomes clear.11 It could be said that it does not really matter whether the regional power voluntarily assumes this role, or whether it is thrust upon it, or expected of it — what is important is that this power should fulfil this role in support of international stability.

But to fulfil this role, a number of conditions have to be met:
  • The internal dynamics of such a state should allow it to fulfil a stabilising and leading role in its region. The implosion of the former Zaïre illustrates the notion of a pivotal power whose disintegration not only reverberates across its boundaries to affect other states, but also the extent to which a lack of internal cohesion and stability can change or destroy a potential regional power’s ability to fulfil such a role.

  • The emerging power should indicate and demonstrate its willingness, and of course also its capacity or ability, to assume the role of regional leader, stabiliser and, if not peacekeeper, at least peacemaker.12

  • The emerging power should be acceptable to its neighbours — the members of the security complex in which it operates — as a leader responsible for regional security. A broader, or extraregional acceptance is perhaps a necessary condition, but not sufficient, even if supported and promoted by big powers.
Given the above, this seems a far cry from the original role and functions of a middle power. It is interesting to note that at least two of the so-called emerging powers in the developing world — Brazil and India — have traditionally attempted to play a middle power role, rather than a regional power role. Such an opportunity came through its sheer size and economic capabilities in the case of Brazil, and through southern leadership roles, for example, in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Commonwealth, for India.13 In the case of Brazil, its focus on regional relations, starting in the early 1970s, was based on a perception that its earlier policy of ‘regional neglect’ was, in fact, "thoroughly counter-productive"14 to its goal of a broader international role.

It would seem that emerging powers face and exhibit a dual role. On the one hand, due either to their economic size, military power or geopolitical importance, the role of regional leader seems to be specific, if not special, and they are supported by the major powers. On the other hand, because moral standing may be a defining characteristic of their power status, as in the case of India and South Africa, emerging powers would also seem, in turn, to strive for broader roles in the global system. This may be a quest for moral leadership or a pursuit of more tangible and immediate national interests (for example, Brazil). This role is more in line with that of a traditional middle power and is often pursued through international organisations and multilateral diplomacy. As with regional powers, this role is also sometimes supported and encouraged by major powers, though at times it is deeply resented, actively opposed, openly criticised and even subjected to threats of punishment. This happened in the case of India’s nuclear testing in May 1998, and in the case of South Africa’s relations with countries such as Cuba and Libya.


There are countless examples of the high expectations of South Africa’s role in the international system after 1994. Former United States ambassador to South Africa, Princeton Lyman, talked about "South Africa’s promise"
15 and Warren Christopher remarked during an official visit to the country: "When I look around the world, I see very few countries with greater potential to help shape the 21st century than the new South Africa."16 South Africa also seems to be accepting of a ‘special’ role, with (former director-general of Foreign Affairs) Selebi pointing to the fact that "South Africa has experienced time and again how countries, organisations and people have looked to us to provide leadership, new ideas and break-throughs in deadlocked situations."17

In its role as traditional middle power, though, it is somewhat difficult to identify the exact expectations that the big powers have of South Africa, as well as to assess the extent to which South Africa is given free reign in its search for such a role. The country’s scope for action and manoeuvrability seems to vary according to issue area, with perhaps the widest scope being offered in the field of arms control, and disarmament and through multilateral institutions and co-operation. In this regard, it is necessary to explore some specific issues and events as examples of South Africa’s role as a middle power in the domain of international security.

South Africa seems to prefer the use of multilateral forums rather than bilateral diplomacy as a vehicle for exerting influence. In the tradition of middle powers, the objective of multilateral diplomacy is to strengthen "a rules-based system which limits the possibility of unilateral actions by major powers", while the practical advantage is to provide the opportunity for smaller states to "participate on an equal footing on the world stage."
18 South Africa is driving its initiatives in the field of arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament through a variety of multilateral agencies and organisations and with the clear objective of "playing a leading role internationally."19 NAM, the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD), and various international agencies and UN committees dealing with arms issues and the development or review of international arms conventions are the focus points of South Africa’s participation in the field of promoting international peace and security.

Most prominent in the country’s achievements
20 in this field during the 1990s, were the following:
  • South Africa decided in the early 1990s to destroy its nuclear arsenal. By trading its status as a "minor nuclear power"21 for that of being the first ‘denuclearised’ state, it gained significant moral influence within international institutions seeking to promote non-proliferation and disarmament.

  • During the NPT Review and Extension Conference in 1995, South Africa was instrumental in brokering an agreement between the so-called ‘minimalist’ and ‘maximalist’ groupings. It succeeded in getting the Conference to adopt an indefinite extension of the treaty, tied to two other decisions concerning the strengthening of the review process of the treaty and a set of objectives and principles (non-binding) on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.22 South Africa was initially criticised for bowing to Western pressure or, alternatively, to be pro-West in its stance. However, the South African position and its role in finding a compromise during the review conference, and its success in ensuring the survival of the NPT, clearly reflects a leadership role for South Africa, and one that was accepted by both camps in the debate.

  • South Africa played a major role in the negotiations on the international convention on the banning of anti-personnel landmines, chairing the Oslo negotiations dealing with the final text of the treaty. Again, South Africa’s perceived credibility as a leader could be ascribed to the fact that it had been one of the first countries to enact a unilateral ban on landmines.23
There is also a middle ground, or area of overlap, between the roles of major power and regional power, as pointed out earlier. South Africa’s security policies are obviously directed towards its neighbourhood and then further afield on the African continent. Though the main justification for these policies has been regional needs, the decisions often reflect a broader influence. Two examples of South Africa’s role as a middle power illustrate the point:
  • In order to combat the international proliferation of small arms,24 the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) decided to destroy, rather than sell surplus stocks of small arms, a decision which elicited widespread international praise, and also again put South Africa in a leadership position with its example.

  • Problems related to increased mercenary activity and the privatisation of security world-wide, led to South Africa adopting the Foreign Military Assistance Act in 1998. This legislation is considered to be the most complete on the topic in the world,25 and a number of countries have already shown an interest in emulating the South African position.
South Africa’s role as a middle power in the security domain, focusing on issues of arms control and disarmament and the promotion of peace and stability, is one that seems to be approved of and encouraged by the big powers. It is obviously considered to be useful in bridging the gap between north and south.26 What is more problematic is its attempts at establishing and maintaining relations with so-called rogue states or terrorist states in the eyes of many Western powers. South Africa has been severely criticised and condemned by the US, in particular, for its relations with Libya,27 Syria and Cuba. In turn, South Africa made it clear that it would not abandon solidarity politics.28

South Africa’s role as an emerging power is actively encouraged and even solicited by the major powers when they need such assistance and support. Indeed, during his official visit to South Africa in January 1999, Britain’s Tony Blair discussed the Lockerbie issue with Mandela. Britain’s approval of South Africa’s relations with Libya only became clear when Mandela was able to strike a deal with the Libyan leader on the extradition of the Lockerbie suspects. The suspects were subsequently extradited to the Netherlands in early April, raising South Africa’s stature as a mediator and illustrating the success of its continued conviction that "political differences cannot, and should not, be solved by force."

An area in which South Africa finds it rather difficult to reconcile its role as an emerging middle power with its objective of the creation of wealth, is that of arms sales. This is one of the most contentious and complex issues for South Africa in both its foreign and its economic and trade policy.
30 It is difficult to reconcile the image of international peacemaker and champion of arms control and disarmament with that of international arms producer and dealer. Arms deals and transfers are subject to a stringent list of criteria that has been described as representing "the most sincere … attempt by any country in the world to balance strategic, economic and national interests with moral and human rights considerations."31 However, South Africa has been severely criticised for a number of arms deals by a variety of critics, ranging from governments such as the US to domestic non-governmental organisations (NGOs) promoting human rights. These deals included sales to or arrangements with Rwanda, Algeria, Turkey, Syria, Indonesia and, most recently, China. In a number of cases, opposition was so strong, though, that agreements were cancelled, suspended or only partially fulfilled.


The international donor community has made it clear that its support to South Africa was largely influenced by its potential to become a major player in Africa. During his official visit to the country in February 1999, the Austrian Chancellor Klima referred to the important role of South Africa in the region and to South Africa’s participation in finding a negotiated solution to regional conflicts.
32 The extent to which South Africa is considered and expected to be an ‘emerging power’ has become clear. It has a role in stabilising and securing the international system and environment, and in supporting the US as superpower in attempts to control problems such as international crime and drugs and small arms proliferation.

South Africa is widely touted as an example and model to other countries in transition. Its continued existence as a democratic and stable society supports the dominant global value system based on democracy and a free market economy. This interpretation of South Africa having an almost logical, if not predestined, leadership role, especially on the African continent, rests firmly on a hierarchical understanding of politics, as pointed out by Vale and Maseko.
33 In politics, though, logic does not guarantee ambition. Any analysis of South Africa’s role as an emerging power with a specific role and function in and towards Africa, concerns the extent to which South Africa is accepted as a leader by its neighbours.

Extraregionally, South Africa is encouraged in its role as emerging power with the emphasis on regional leadership and supported to this end by the donor community. In as far as responsibility for regional peace and security is concerned, South Africa is, for instance, one of the African countries targeted by the US (and also by the United Kingdom and France)
34 to accept Western support for building peacekeeping capabilities to be used in African crises. This effort, though, is viewed with scepticism by most African countries, including South Africa, and feared to be an indication of what Berman and Sams refer to as ‘constructive disengagement’.35

Western encouragement of South Africa as an emerging power results, inevitably, in South Africa being characterised as having a Western orientation in its foreign policy. South Africa’s experience of the criticism of being the ‘lackey of the West’ has resulted in punishment by its African neighbours by means of ostracism. This is best illustrated in the aftermath of its criticism of Nigeria after the execution of Sara-Wiwo and eight other political activists in November 1995.
36 The same criticism was levelled at South Africa after the NPT conference referred to earlier. It becomes serious when such criticism means that the country’s credibility is questioned or undermined and it is prevented from playing a positive or leading role in managing conflict or pursuing international peace and security. So, for instance, President Mugabe did not invite either President Mandela or Deputy President Mbeki to the Victoria Falls meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in August 1998 and African countries also ‘punished’ South Africa in withholding their support for the country’s bid to host the Olympic Games in 2004.37

South Africa’s quest for a leadership role in Africa and beyond finds its clearest expression in what has become known as the Mbeki doctrine embodied in the idea of an African Renaissance. What is interesting about this doctrine is the fact that South African leadership in an African revival or rebirth is implied (and very cautiously so), rather than explicitly stated. This may be due to the care South Africa has to take in projecting itself as a leader for fear of rejection by its African peers. Mbeki and other policymakers, in their public references to an African Renaissance, seem to take care always to use ‘we’ and ‘us’ or the passive form of reference in such a way that it can imply either South Africa, or the whole of the African continent. Perhaps the clearest indication of a South African leadership role in this renewal process, is a remark by a Mbeki aide that "[a]s South Africa assumes the presidency of the NAM, we need to ask ourselves a question: in what way can the NAM enhance the drive towards the restructuring of the world order and the project of the African Renaissance?"

South Africa’s reluctance to become involved in peacekeeping efforts beyond aspects such as mediation, fact-finding or facilitating negotiations may in fact backfire on the country when it comes to the issue of restructuring the UN Security Council and the possibility of a permanent seat on this body. Increasingly, it would seem, South Africa is considering making a bid for such a position, despite the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) decision that any seat(s) that might be allocated to Africa, will be rotated. In his 1999 budget address to parliament, foreign minister at the time, Alfred Nzo remarked that "[i]n 1997 I raised the question of South Africa having to consider whether it is prepared to serve as a permanent member of the Security Council … It is imperative that we have that debate."
39 In an interview in late 1998, Selebi said that, "[s]ince South Africa’s main foreign policy concern is to be part of shaping the global agenda, we would want to become a permanent member of the Security Council."40

Yet, compared with Nigeria, one of the main African contenders for a permanent seat, South Africa has little, if any experience in maintaining peace, security and stability on the continent. As Clough warns:
"Because of its size and past leadership role in Africa, the novelty of its recent return to democracy, and the international contacts and reputation of President Obasanjo, Nigeria could begin to supplant South Africa on many lists of ‘emerging powers’."41
It is doubtful whether South Africa has shown sufficient proof of its willingness to shoulder regional and continental responsibilities in a bid to become a regional big power to the extent that permanent membership of the Security Council would imply. Its contribution of troops to the proposed UN peacekeeping force for the DRC may indicate a new level of commitment and involvement, but does not compare with other African states. Whether true or not, the country is perceived to be able to play a bigger role, but that it is reluctant to do so. In March 1999, the Zimbabwean minister of defence, for instance, publicly stated that the war in the DRC could be brought to a quick end if South Africa would use its political muscle to press Uganda and Rwanda to pull out of the DRC.42

On the other hand, it is not always clear that South Africa would be welcomed as a regional or continental big power. The role of a regional big power may be one pursued by the country in question, it may be (and is increasingly) encouraged by the larger powers and it may even be an almost ‘natural’ or obvious role due to its geographic, economic and political size and position within a region. The West may have expectations of South Africa as a regional peacekeeper and may want to make it responsible for peace and security in its backyard, but that does not necessarily give South Africa the authority, capacity or inclination, to do so.

There is at times a deep-seated suspicion among some countries about South Africa’s intentions and ‘real’ role. Its legitimacy and credibility as an impartial leader, bent on doing what is right just out of concern and benevolence, are often questioned. This was the case during Operation Boleas in September 1998 in Lesotho, and also previously after mediation between the Angolan government and UNITA, when Savimbi was received by President Mandela at Tuynhuis.
43 South Africa’s subsequent reiteration of its support for Security Council resolutions on the Angolan civil war and public condemnation of UNITA have not done much to heal the breach.

Fermenting its neighbours’ distrust is the apparent rivalry between South Africa and Zimbabwe for regional leadership. This rivalry is perhaps best illustrated by the continued problems haunting the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security,
44 but one that has had some serious ramifications in the conflicts in Lesotho and the DRC, also clouding relations between South Africa and other SADC members. In the case of Lesotho, the South African intervention, regardless of the fact that it formed part of a so-called SADC operation, was deeply and bitterly condemned and resented in certain circles in Lesotho.

The Lesotho intervention in the form of Operation Boleas has been criticised for many reasons from many quarters, both in Southern Africa and abroad. Without passing judgement on the wisdom of the decision and the way in which it was carried out, it can be argued that using force in this instance has nevertheless been consistent with South Africa’s position on these matters. While emphasising its commitment to peaceful solutions, South Africa has also indicated that the one area, in accordance with SADC principles, in which it would not hesitate to use force was in the face of a threat to a democratically elected government. Not one of the other conflicts complies with this requirement. Arguably, South Africa is not so much lacking the conviction that it needs to act rather more assertively in the region, but rather that its conception of when to use force and when to refrain from it, no matter the nature and seriousness of the conflict, is based on a set of principles that considerably narrows down the possibility of South African involvement in peacekeeping or peacemaking operations.

However, leadership does not only have connotations of dominance, but also involves taking responsibility for those in need of assistance. In this sense, South Africa has shown beyond doubt that its emphasis on the Southern African region as its first and foremost foreign policy concern is sincere and tangible. It demonstrated that security is not only about military matters and threats of war. Rather, security is a broad concept, encompassing various dimensions, which should also be treated and implemented as such in practice. Juxtapositioned with the Lesotho intervention of September 1998 is the peaceful intervention in the country in 1996 by Mandela, Masire and Mugabe. South Africa has shown the strength of its commitment to security in the region through its involvement and practical disaster relief: to Tanzania after the ferryboat disaster of 1996; the heavy snowstorms and resulting food crisis experienced in Lesotho in the winter of 1996; and its assistance to Mozambique after the heavy rains, flooding and damage to infrastructure in February 1999, and again (and on a much bigger scale) in early 2000.


South Africa has adopted, in many ways, a middle power position in its foreign relations and policies. Typical of a traditional middle power, it emphasises the promotion of international peace and security and therefore highly values participation in international organisations, particularly those concerned with arms control and disarmament. In its defiance of Western opinion and preferences in the realm of relationships with ‘outcast’ states, especially Libya and Cuba, it has managed to create a space for independent foreign policy-making, while putting these relations, in the case of Libya, to good use in promoting peaceful relations among states.

In its quest to represent and promote the interests of the south, it is strengthening its position as a bridge with the north. Yet, although it attempts to fulfil this role in conjunction with other southern countries through organisations such as NAM, the development of a unified position on issues of international concern remains difficult. This was clearly seen in the 1995 NPT review conference. Perhaps its real test of ‘middle powership’ was during this conference where the rather tenuous south position all but disintegrated: South Africa then had to act not so much in concert with either north or south, minimalists or maximalists, but as a genuine mediator, trying to reconcile the two camps. Its success at the NPT seemed to have given it the confidence to act much more assertively in other forums dealing with arms control and disarmament and the country is clearly moving into a leadership position in these rounds of negotiations.

With regard to a role as regional big power, South Africa’s position is more uncertain. On the one hand, it seems to be willing to push for a stronger role in regional and continental affairs, as seen from its signals regarding Security Council membership. On the other hand, it is almost overcautious, at times, in its dealings with its neighbours and the rest of the continent, ever sensitive to possible accusations of domination or hegemony. Though the West has made it clear that it is in favour of a regional leadership role for South Africa and willing to support and encourage such a role, Africa itself sends mixed signals in this regard. Accusations of South Africa being too pro-West and not really serious and concerned about Africa and intracontinental relations can be contrasted with calls by African states and politicians for South African involvement in peacekeeping efforts and other aspects of security on the continent. There is as yet no clarity on or consensus about South Africa’s role and position in the region or in Africa at large, either on the part of South Africa or that of its fellow African states.

A twofold explanation can be proffered for the difficulty South Africa experiences in finding its place and playing a leadership role on the continent. The first is that due to the vested interests of other leaders and a measure of fear of being sidelined or overshadowed by South Africa, its leadership has not been generally welcomed, accepted, or solicited. A possible solution to this problem might be an even stronger focus on continental multilateralism, though it would seem that the smaller the scope of organisation (moving from universal to continental/regional to subregional), the more difficult leadership ‘softened’ by multilateralism becomes. The second explanation might lie in the fact that liberal democratic values are usually associated with the West. A commitment to these values on a continent with a rather flawed history of respect for democratic pluralism and human rights, combined with the vested interests of political leaders mentioned above, would then almost inevitably elicit accusations of being un-African and pro-Western. In this regard, the only obvious solution seems to lie in encouraging the development of like-minded political cultures. South Africa would therefore be expected to work very closely with newly democratised Nigeria on issues affecting the continent and broader international relations, and to support the transition in this country in every possible way.

In one area there is, however, no doubt about South Africa’s leadership role, both as a traditional middle power in the international arena and as a regional leader: in the country’s position and conduct as an example to other countries in a number of ways. It is not only in the sphere of peaceful change and dealing with the arduous process of democratisation and the consolidation of democracy that South Africa serves this role. In many other aspects, it has also become a trendsetter for both north and south, as witnessed in its unilateral decisions to ban anti-personnel mines and to destroy surplus small arms, its decision to ‘denuclearise’ and its progressive legislation on privatised security. These accomplishments, in themselves, point to a middle power role. To the extent that the ‘moral capital’ gained from these policies increases South Africa’s potential for playing an increasingly important role internationally, the country seems to fit the description of being an ‘emerging power’.


  1. It is not the intention to do this comprehensively, as the topic has already been addressed by J van der Westhuizen, South Africa’s emergence as a middle power, Third World Quarterly 19(3), 1998.

  2. The term ‘muddled powers’ was coined by Peter Vale and used by Van der Westhuizen, ibid.

  3. R Cox, Middlepowermanship: Japan and the future of world order, in R cox & T Sinclair (eds), Approaches to world order, Cambridge University Press, Cambrdige, 1996, p 245.

  4. M Wight, Power politics, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1979, p 63.

  5. See, for example, ibid; also H Bull, The anarchical society: A study of order in world politics, Macmillan, London, 1977; R Klein, Sovereign equality among states: The history of an idea, Toronto University Press, Toronto, 1974.

  6. Cox, op cit, p 243

  7. Ibid.

  8. An interesting analysis, though brief, of Canada’s role in the international system is given by the late Canadian author, Robertson Davies, Literature in a country without a mythology, in The merry heart: Reflections on reading, writing, and the world of books, Penguin, New York, 1996, pp 40-63, particularly where he employs the theatrical concept of ‘fifth business’ and muses that perhaps Canada "is Fifth Business in the affairs of the world" (p 59), the one "you cannot manage the plot without", which has "a career that sometimes outlasts the golden voices" (p 60).

  9. India, as leader of NAM, was called upon to assist in mediating and negotiating international conflicts in Korea, Indo-China (as it was known then), the Middle East and the Congo. See V Gill, India as a regional great power: In pursuit of Shakti, in I Neumann (ed), Regional great powers in international politics, Macmillan, Houndmills, 1992, p 52.

  10. G le Pere, South Africa — an ‘emerging’ power?, Global Dialogue 3(1), March 1998, p 1.

  11. Regional security is, of course, in itself also a form of international security.

  12. Brazil makes for an interesting case in this regard, but due to space constraints it will not be discussed. The reader is referred to an analysis of Brazil as a regional great power by A Hurrell, Brazil as a regional great power: A study in ambivalence, in Neumann, op cit, pp 16-48.

  13. Veena Gill notes that "in the first two decades of independence, India acquired an importance in international politics out of proportion to its power capabilities … Nonalignment provided it with an unusual form of power in international politics — moral influence; India as the spokesman and leader of oppressed mankind." See Gill, op cit, pp 49-69 (quote from p 52).

  14. Hurrell, op cit, p 30.

  15. P Lyman, South Africa’s promise, Foreign Policy 102, Spring 1996, pp 105-119.

  16. W Christopher, The US view of South Africa, International Update 19/96, 1996.

  17. J Selebi, South African foreign policy: setting new goals and strategies, excerpt from a speech, South African Institute of International Affairs, Johannesburg, 18 May 1999.

  18. Foreign Affairs budget vote: Address by Minister Alfred Nzo, House of Assembly, 4 March 1999.

  19. Department of Foreign Affairs, Thematic review: Strategic plans, DFA, Pretoria, 1998, section 3.

  20. The examples discussed here are selective, due to constraints of space. The annual reports of the Multilateral Branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs contain more detailed discussions of South African involvement in various arms control and disarmament issues.

  21. See M Clough, Constructing a role for South Africa in the emerging world order, paper read at a workshop on South Africa as an emerging power, Centre for Policy Studies, Johannesburg, 26 March 1999, p 9.

  22. A comprehensive overview and analysis of South Africa’s role is to be found in Z Masiza & C Landsberg, Fission for compliments? South Africa and the 1995 extension of nuclear non-proliferation, Centre for Policy Studies, Johannesburg, September 1996.

  23. L Boulden, Developments in the international landmine regime, in SAIIA, South African yearbook of international affairs 1998/9, South African Institute of International Affairs, Johannesburg, 1998, p 357.

  24. See P Eavis, Awash with light weapons, The World Today 55(4), April 1999, pp 19-21.

  25. G See Mills & J Stremlau (eds), The privatisation of security in Africa, South African Institute of International Affairs, Johannesburg, 1999, p 14.

  26. Consider South Africa’s attempts to act as spokesperson for the debt relief of Africa’s poorest countries.

  27. Business Day, 20 October 1997, p 2.

  28. See G Olivier & D Geldenhuys, South Africa’s foreign policy: From idealism to pragmatism, Business and the Contemporary World 9(2), 1979, p 273; P Batchelor, Arms and the ANC, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/ October 1998, p 57

  29. Foreign Affairs budet vote, op cit.

  30. See, for example, Batchelor, op cit; J Battersby, South Africa’s arms sales, in SAIIA, 1998, op cit, pp 251-256; R Suttner, South African foreign policy and the promotion of human rights, in SAIIA, South African yearbook of international affairs 1997, South African Institute of International Affairs, Johannesburg, 1997, pp 300-308.

  31. Battersby, op cit, p 251.

  32. Speech by Austrian Chancellor Viktor Klima held on occasion of an official dinner hosted by Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, 3 February 1999, Pretoria.

  33. P Vale & S Maseko, South Africa and the African Renaissance, in South Africa and Africa: Reflections on the African Renaissance, Occasional Paper 17, Foundation for Global Dialogue, Johannesburg, 1998, p 12.

  34. This is the so-called P-3 Initiative, an offer by these three countries of training, instruction and equipment related to peacekeeping to African states.

  35. E G Berman & K E Sams, Constructive disengagement: Western efforts to develop African peacekeeping, ISS Monograph 33, Institute for Security Studies, Halfway House, December 1998.

  36. See M van Aardt, A foreign policy to die for: South Africa’s response to the Nigerian crisis, Africa Insight 26(2), 1996, pp 107-119.

  37. See, for instance, M Mbeki, The African Renaissance, in SAIIA, 1998, op cit, p 215.

  38. V Mavimbela, The African Renaissance: A workable dream, in South Africa and Africa: Reflections on the African Renaissance, op cit, p 33.

  39. Foreign Affairs budget vote, op cit.

  40. Interview with Jackie Selebi, Global Dialogue 3(3), December 1998, p 15.

  41. Clough, op cit, p 8.

  42. The Sunday Independent, 21 March 1999, p 2.

  43. S Cleary, Angola’s unremitting agony: Time for a rethink, paper read at SAIIA, Johannesburg, 11 March 1998.

  44. See M Malan, SADC and subregional security: Unde venis et quo vadis?, ISS Monograph 19, Institute for Security Studies, Halfway House, February 1998; M van Aardt, The emerging security framework in Southern Africa: Regime or community?, Strategic Review for Southern Africa 19(1), 1997, pp 1-30.