South Africa’s foreign policy towards Latin America in the 21st century: from hyper-activism to a low profile

Mbeki’s globalism

President Thabo Mbeki came to power (1999-2008) within a favourable regional and international context. This led to the implementation of more pragmatic policies on the one hand, and a greater global outreach on the other. He promoted stronger links between South Africa and Latin America—mainly with Brazil—in the context of minilateralism. Mbeki, who was known as the ‘Foreign Relations President’, achieved international recognition for South Africa as a regional power and as an actor with global projection. Yet he was heavily criticized for the neoliberal economic orientation of his government and for departing from the traditional positions adopted by the ANC ‘old guard’ and its political basis.

Under Mbeki, South Africa consolidated its presence in Africa through policies such as the 'African Renaissance’ and the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). He was also a promoter of South- South cooperation in terms of what Landsberg (2010) called ‘the neo-Bandung spirit’. He actively participated in all the initiatives coming from the ‘South’, contributing to the revitalization of the Non-Aligned Movement, establishing the G20 on multilateral trade in 2003—which emerged at the fifth ministerial World Trade Organization conference, held in Cancun, Mexico—and the 1BSA Dialogue Forum with India and Brazil, as well as holding the presidency of the G77+China in 2005.

Despite the evident differences with Brazil and India in terms of socioeconomic indices, IBSA enabled Mbeki to increase his presence at the global level, thereby raising South Africa’s status. Through this trilateral strategy, he revived, in a certain way, Erwin’s butterfly wing metaphor, focusing on Asia and Latin America. In the former case, he looked towards the East, in 2003, with the first Asian-African Sub-Regional Conference and in 2005 with the first New Asian-African Strategic Partnership summit. Although with less intensity than in the relationship with the Asian continent, Mbeki also directed his attention towards the Atlantic west coast, by actively participating in bi-regional meetings, such as the ASA summit in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2006 and the sixth SAPCZ conference in Luanda, Angola, in 2007 in order to relaunch interregional cooperation.

South African activism towards Latin America developed in every possible sphere in bi-regional, minilateral and bilateral modes. The new century had given fresh hope to the new ‘leftist’ Latin American governments. Brazil was the centre of Pretoria’s attention, as it shared with South Africa a similar role and aspiration as the emerging regional leader.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva contributed to the development of an active and prominent policy, where South-South cooperation, Africa and South Africa had a relevant position. This would not have been possible without President Cardoso’s previous achievements and policies, since he had promoted the relationship with South Africa and conducted negotiations with MERCOSUR. Mbeki visited Brazil in 2000 to launch the Agreement for the Creation of a Free Trade Zone between MERCOSUR and South Africa. These negotiations continued until they bore fruit in 2004 with the conclusion of a preferential trade agreement (PTA) between MERCOSUR and SACU,3 along with a Dispute Settlement Protocol and a Memorandum of Understanding. The PTA eventually came into force in 2016 (see Morasso 2007 and Organization of American States n.d.).

President Lula and Minister of Foreign Affairs Celso Amorim, together with their South African and Indian counterparts created the 1BSA Dialogue Forum in 2003. The association among the three big democracies of the South embracing the three subcontinents heralded a new phase for these governments, which aspired to play regional and global roles.

Under the Lula administration, South-South cooperation was a priority for Brazil both in regional and trans-regional affairs, as illustrated by IBSA. ASA and SAPCZ (South Africa is also a member of the three initiatives), the Summit of South American-Arab Countries and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries. According to Lula, ‘There is no global challenge that Africa and Latin America could not face together’ (da Silva 2009). During his two terms in office, the president made 11 tours throughout Africa, in which he visited 23 states and went to Pretoria in 2003 (his first African trip as soon as he took office), in 2006, in 2007 for the IBSA summit, and in 2010.

In the field of cooperation on security and defence, Brazil continued to participate with Argentina and Uruguay in the subsequent ‘Atlasur’ naval exercises. Furthermore, in 2003 Brazil signed an agreement with South Africa on military cooperation that included defence industries, research and development, the acquisition and supply of military materials and the exchange of peace operation experiences (Valderrama Menes 2013).

Trade relations between Brazil and South Africa underwent substantial changes during Mbeki’s presidency. At the beginning of his tenure, South African imports totalled US $214 million while exports amounted to $165 million. In 2008 there was an increase in the volume of South African exports to Brazil, but there was an even greater increase in imports of Brazilian products, which reached $1.58 billion (OEC 2019), and this increased Pretoria’s trade deficit with the South American country.

The signals sent by the South African government to Argentina did not have the same warmth as those sent to Brazil, and nor did the response. Minister Dlamini Zuma of South Africa was present at the inauguration of President Fernando de la Rua in 2000 signalling the potential interest of Pretoria. The Argentine crisis of 2001 brought this possibility to a halt. A few year later President Mbeki had to postpone his presidential visit to Buenos Aires owing to the complications in Nestor Kirchner’s agenda, suggesting a limited interest in Buenos Aires. Nevertheless, the synergy between the respective ambassadors led to slow but steady advances in the creation of a network of agreements that helped to strengthen the bilateral relationship. The appointment in 2005 of the Argentinian Ambassador Carlos Sersale di Cerisano to Pretoria and the South African Ambassador Peter Goosen to Buenos Aires resulted in increasing contacts, which culminated in the proposal of an Argentina-South Africa Binational Commission (B1CSAA). BICSAA was inaugurated in 2007 in Pretoria and reconvened in Buenos

Aires in the following year (Lechini 2011a). In terms of bilateral economic exchange, in 1999 South African exports to Argentina totalled US $88 million dollars while imports were valued at $257 million. This deficit widened and reached its highest point in 2008, at $1.02 billion (OEC 2019).

Cooperation on the joint "Atlasur’ naval exercises continued with Brazil and Uruguay. In 1999 ‘Atlasur IV’ was carried out in Latin American waters. In 2002 ‘Atlasur V’ took place in South Africa. In 2006 ‘Atlasur VI’ was held in Montevideo, Uruguay, and in 2008 ‘Atlasur VII’ took place again in South Africa (Lechini 201 lb).

After many years of alignment with the United States, Venezuela’s foreign policy changed direction following Chavez’s ‘Bolivarian revolution’. ‘Afri- canness’ was rediscovered. From the onset, in 1999 the Chavez government proposed a foreign policy that would strengthen national sovereignty, diversify external relations and create new cooperation networks. In that context, the government decided to promote relations with African countries, using both a flamboyant rhetoric and quite impulsive actions. On the one hand, Caracas highlighted the role and value of the Afro-descendant segments of the Venezuelan population, just as Brazil did. On the other hand, it backed its African ventures with petro-diplomacy.

Caracas’s African strategy started to gain importance in 2005, with a significant presidential and diplomatic activism and with the creation of the position of Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs for Africa; Reinaldo Bolivar was assigned to the post. Venezuela launched the plan ‘Agenda Africa’, establishing the legal framework for comprehensive cooperation in every field, but targeting economic complementarities and political influence in particular.

To achieve economic expansion. Venezuela resorted to triangular cooperation with Cuba, Brazil, China, Iran and Russia for its African strategy (Lucena Molero 2013). Between 1957 and 2004 the country concluded some 30 cooperation agreements with Africa, and by 2010 there were more than 200 in place (Aporrea 2009a). In the early years of Mbeki’s mandate, South African exports to Venezuela barely surpassed US $16 million but by 2008 exports had increased to $34.7 million. South Africa’s imports of Venezuelan products in 1999 totalled $2.2 million, while in 2008 they were over $297 million, of which 99% were oil imports. Although these export volumes were not particularly significant for South Africa, there was an increase during the first decade of the 21st century (Department of Trade and Industry, Government of South Africa 2019; OEC 2019).

In order to increase its political influence, in 2008 Caracas established formal diplomatic relations with Madagascar and opened 10 new embassies. The first presidential tour of Africa took place in 2006, when Hugo Chavez paid three visits to the continent6 and attended the first ASA Summit in Nigeria. In 2008 Chavez visited South Africa to establish South-South cooperation and to conclude one cooperation agreement and three energy agreements. One of the energy agreements established that the oil companies of South Africa (PetroSA) and Venezuela (Petroleos de Venezuela, SA—

PDVSA) would work jointly to explore the Orinoco Belt. In 2005 the African Union granted Venezuela observer status, a symbolic and formal gesture that had little practical impact. Overall. Venezuela’s efforts did not achieve particularly remarkable results and remained inconsistent with its declared objective of achieving economic complementarity.

 
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