South Africa’s apartheid past has remained to haunt its present, leading to questions about whether it is a messiah or mercantilist power in Africa. The damaging effects of the destabilization of the apartheid army which resulted in one million deaths and $1 billion in damages in the 1980s alone, continue to affect South Africa’s continental leadership ambitions. Likewise, its “beggar-thy-neighbor” mercantilist trade policies, economic sabotage, and dislocation have not been forgotten. This history has left profound scars on its neighbours and a distrust that even a black-led African National Congress (ANC) government will need decades to overcome. After 1994, Nelson Mandela led peacemaking efforts in Lesotho, the DRC, and Burundi (which he took over from Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere), and sought to promote human rights abroad, while reconciling his nation at home. He had a nasty spat over the SADC security organ with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, but shunned sending troops abroad.
Mandela’s successor between 1999 and 2008, Thabo Mbeki, was more prepared than Mandela to send peacekeepers abroad, deploying 3,000 troops to the DRC and Burundi, and increasing South Africa’s credibility. He also helped build the institutions of the African Union (AU), which, however, remain fledgling. Jacob Zuma assumed the South African presidency in 2009, having earlier taken over mediation efforts from Mandela in Burundi in 2002, assisted by Dar es Salaam. With Tanzania and Malawi, South Africa also led a 3,000-strong SADC intervention force into the eastern Congo in July 2013 – alongside a 20,000-strong UN peacekeeping force – which defeated M23 rebels four months later. While Mbeki forged a strategic partnership with Nigeria, Zuma has forged one with Angola which has increased South Africa’s influence within SADC.
Many African governments and people have, however, expressed unease about what they perceive to be South Africa’s protectionist trade and xenophobic immigration policies. There continues to be serious anger across Southern Africa at what is seen as South Africa’s use of its economic muscle to block other countries’ industrialization efforts. Namibia’s cement industry and Botswana’s car assembly plant have been cited as examples. Other neighbours have accused South Africa’s leaders of ingratitude after three decades of support for the ANC at enormous cost to their countries. Many Africans also complain about the aggressive drive by South Africa’s mostly white-dominated corporations in search of new markets north of the Limpopo. South Africa Inc. has established interests in mining, banking, retail, communications, arms and insurance, often with the active support of host governments. Local resentment has swelled in places like Tanzania, Kenya, and Nigeria.