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South Africa's changing foreign policy in a multi-polar world

Written by R Anthony, P Tembe, O Gull
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In the past decade, South Africa’s foreign policy has been influenced by a number of developing countries. The BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, China India and South Africa) - an acronym for the association of five major emerging national economies - has been credited with forging a new geopolitical identity seeking to challenge what is perceived as a western-dominated hegemony of the global economic and political system. Underlying this new influence has been exceptional economic growth amongst South Africa’s BRICS partners, with a model of state-driven market adaptation substantially underlying performance. The most spectacular economic trajectory has been that of China, whose influence has been felt on a global scale. China has been South Africa’s largest trading partner since 2010, with a total trade volume of ZAR 270 Billion in 20131; economic growth has been accompanied by a cementing of relations between governments, formalized in a host of agreements.  

Despite a wide array of political dispensations, such as the fact that Russia and China are authoritarian while South Africa, Brazil and India are democratic, there are certain factors which unify these countries in such a way that offer potential opposition to Euro-American dominance. In particular, they take aim at what is perceived as dominance of the post-World War II Bretton Woods global financial system, in which institutions such as the United States- led World Bank and the European-led International Monetary Fund (IMF) are viewed as using their financial power to influence domestic politics in the developing world - particularly in the realms of governance, transparency, democratic reforms and human rights. Structural adjustment reforms introduced by these institutions in the 1980s and 1990s, which encouraged developing world markets to embrace international trade while enabling more accountability and transparency, are today largely disregarded. Additionally, there is a perception that in the post-colonial world, former colonial powers have continued to exert undue influence over the global political system; a persistent criticism has taken aim at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) which, despite its membership of Russia and China, does not adequately represent countries of the Global South – a grouping referring to Africa, Central and Latin America, as well as large parts of Asia.  Such grievances are situated within the broader context of Western European colonization of much of the developing world, as well as post-World War II United States’ global hegemony; in this sense, such institutions are perceived as contemporary extensions and adaptations of colonial control.

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