South Africa lost 13 soldiers during a fight against the Séléka rebels, staging a coup in the Central African Republic last month. This was the worst military loss in a foreign country since the fall of apartheid and it triggered a political backlash for President Jacob Zuma, who authorized the mission. Foreign policy specialists say the loss could influence South Africa to re-evaluate its foreign policy on the continent.
The deaths of its soldiers in what seems like a faraway country has triggered a backlash for Zuma: the political opposition is seething, and the media is speculating on the existence of hidden economic interests for the South African political elite who seemed to have colluded to defend an embattled dictator in CAR.
But Alfredo Hengari, a researcher for the South Africa Institute for International Affairs, says Pretoria's sending of extra troops in January was in line with the 2007 bilateral agreement between both countries.
Hengari says Bozizé was still the legitimate president of CAR at the time. In his opinion he says South Africa's big mistake was a lack of preparation and ignorance of the complex political realities of the country.
Since coming to power in 1994, the ruling party African National Congress's foreign policy has promoted democracy on the continent and the search for “African solutions to African problems”. So, in this respect, interventionism on the continent is consistent with long-stated goals.
Check Achu, a researcher for the Africa Institute of South Africa, says that Pretoria also believes that helping achieve greater stability on the continent is in South Africa’s interest.
“If one look[s] critically at the number of people that come down to South Africa when there is a problem in any part of the continent, it is alarming," noted Achu. "So South Africa, by engaging in the continent, it will try to resolve the problem before it actually started, before it escalates to the point where refugees will come down to South Africa. On the African continent, we need a powerful nation to drive the United States of Africa project. And South Africa has all the resources, the manpower, the military drive, to actually drive this particular project.”
South Africa is, by far, the main power on the continent: its gross domestic product (GDP) is almost double Nigeria's, which is Africa's distant second richest country. In recent years it has shown a willingness to play a bigger role in continental affair. It lobbied extensively to ensure the election of one of its nationals, Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma, as chairperson of the African Union. As a member of the emerging powers grouping, the BRICS, it is also the voice of the continent in relations with China, Russia, Brazil and India.
But Siphamandla Zondi, the director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, says, although South Africa is flexing its muscle on the world stage, it remains wary of being perceived as a bully.
“South Africa is an enthusiastic leader but is a reluctant hegemon. It is reluctant to become a policeman of the continent," Zondi said. "What we see is a South Africa who is enthusiastic to play a role but is very worried of the implications of doing it alone.”
According to Zondi, the deaths of the 13 South African soldiers could dampen Pretoria's enthusiasm in continental affairs.
“The issue of South Africa's involvement in the Central African Republic is a seriously contested issue within South Africa," noted Zondi. "But it's almost a non-issue on the continent. That's the biggest implication that we might see in the coming years: it might cause South Africa to be reticent, a little bit, in playing the role of a stabilizer, supporter of democratization, governance strengthening, in fear of a backlash back home.”
Zondi says that South Africa learnt a hard lesson from its experience in the Central African Republic, where it sent troops according to the terms of a bilateral agreement. Instead, Pretoria should be seeking multilateral agreements to shield itself from the fallouts at home, he says..