South Africa made diplomatic history this month by taking its seat for a two-year term on the United Nations Security Council, and the country hopes to become an influential member of the world community, just over a decade after the end of the former apartheid regime. Developing countries expect South Africa to represent their interests on the Security Council when proposals for wide-ranging U.N. reforms come up in the future. And world powers are urging South Africa to take a greater role in peacekeeping missions across Africa.
For the first time, the country infamous for its racist apartheid system is very much a part of the international community.
Over the last decade, South Africa has built up its diplomatic and military influence throughout Africa. South African police are patrolling in Darfur, the nation's peacekeepers helped organize last year's elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and they have just wrapped up a successful deployment in Burundi.
In Washington and elsewhere, South Africa is seen as a vibrant democracy, on a continent that has known too much war and hatred.
James Paul, of the Global Policy Forum says, "South Africa, because it has a strong economy, it has a strong leadership and is very well represented here at the U.N., is going to have a certain degree of greater independence and capacity for action."
But that very independence may expose stark differences between South Africa and the five permanent members of the Security Council. In this year's first debate, South Africa challenged the Council to put the Israeli-Palestinian question at the heart of its agenda.
Dumisani Kumalo, the South African ambassador to the United Nations, said, "In recent years, the Security Council has been too quick to threaten and authorize enforcement action in some cases, while being silent and inactive in others. For example, the Palestinian-Israeli issue is a legitimate agenda item for this Council. However, it has become quite noticeable how this Council has failed to act, even in the face of the most shocking contravention of international law."
South Africa also supports Iran's right to develop nuclear technology and will resist any discussion of the state of its neighbor, Zimbabwe. It also opposes the United States on some key aspects of U.N. reform.
South Africa led an effort last year to resist a U.S.-backed proposal to shift some powers away from the U.N. General Assembly -- most of whose 192 members are developing countries -- and transfer them to the secretary-general. Now that South Africa is on the Security Council, developing countries expect more clout.
Nigeria's U.N. ambassador, Aminu Bashir Wali, explains: "All Africans are looking to South Africa to see what role South Africa will be able to do in promoting the issues of Africa -- like, of course, Ghana has been doing, like Tanzania has been doing. But we expect South Africa to do more because it has more in terms of resources and in terms of its reach."
South Africa has another goal: to expand its two-year term on the Security Council into a permanent seat. There is broad agreement on expanding the size of the Council, which now has 10 temporary members seated alongside the big powers who are the five permanent members (the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France) and who have veto power over Council decisions. But amid multiple competing formulas over how to expand the Council, member states are deadlocked.
Some proposals would allot two permanent seats to African nations -- with South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt seen as the frontrunners. For South Africans, these next two years are a crucial time to show the world that their country has moved beyond healing its own divisions, and is now ready to help take a more active international role.