Former president Jacob Zuma was seen by many in Africa as a great leveller. This was not because of any attempt to address inequality among his people but because he aligned SA to the broader African experience of governance. His behaviour, together with that of his ministers and friends, removed any sense that SA is exceptional in Africa, a perception that used to be held by many in the international community but also by South Africans themselves.

Zuma can take responsibility for finally putting that issue to rest.

As SA’s media uncovered the excesses and murky strategies of the Zuma administration, revealing new dirt almost daily, many Africans expressed concern about SA’s trajectory. This was not because their own governments were better, but because they weren’t. They have lived with the continued erosion of value in their institutions, lifestyles, governance and other key areas of life. African countries from west to east have shown at times in their history how easily the rot at the top eats its way down, undermining moral and ethical propriety at all levels of society.

Nigerians maintain that SA is a beginner in the corruption stakes – their leaders and military dictators have siphoned billions from the fiscus for decades. Their lesson has been that self-interested leadership breeds endemic corruption. The longer rotten government is in place, the more moral laxity pervades the social fabric of the nation. It is hard to turn this around.

State capture is also not new to this continent and elsewhere. Most African countries have experienced some form of capture by ruling elites and sometimes a ruling family. The continent is littered with dynasties.

While Angola and Zimbabwe’s first families appear to have been consigned to the dustbin of history, there remain others in Gabon, Togo and Equatorial Guinea.

They have their own Guptas.

Although Zuma was fond of state visits, both inside and outside Africa, commentators questioned the quality of the outcomes and of the business delegations that accompanied him. For example, while a large number of SA’s biggest corporations have investments in Nigeria, it was a little-known individual close to Zuma and the ANC who spoke on behalf of South African business at a well-attended forum during Zuma’s 2016 state visit to Abuja, Nigeria, raising more than a few eyebrows. Then there was Zuma’s controversial visit to one of Nigeria’s 36 states in 2017 to attend the unveiling of a large bronze statue of himself, an act inexplicably described as one that would help to strengthen socioeconomic relations between SA and Nigeria.

It was an exercise in moral bankruptcy — the honouring governor spent about R14m on the statue while failing to pay salaries to state workers for months.

The former president’s foreign priorities in Africa were often less about SA Inc and more about Zuma Inc, particularly in commodity-rich states such as Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

SA’s membership of the Brics grouping since 2011, although scoffed at by many critics, was an important milestone in Zuma’s presidency. His moral laxity and greed, however, overflowed into relationships with key players in the bloc — China and Russia — undermining the broader benefits of Brics membership.

With the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as president, SA is hopefully back from the brink with a chance to re-establish a reputation as a capable state and a pivotal player in Africa’s development. As many have noted on social media, the dramatic events of the past few weeks signal the resilience of SA’s institutions, its media and civil society. This is not something enjoyed much in Africa.

A new administration presents an opportunity to revitalise SA’s foreign policy and regenerate important bilateral, continental and international relationships. The successful outing to the World Economic Forum in Davos highlighted the residual goodwill towards and confidence in SA. Ramaphosa tried to repair the country’s reputation and build bridges with African and international leaders.

Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK


The new president is no stranger to African politics outside SA. For example, he represented SA as a mediator in the Burundi peace process; in 2014, he led the Southern African Development Community delegation to Lesotho to tackle that country’s political crisis, and he has acted as SA’s special envoy to South Sudan.

In 2016 Ramaphosa led an ANC delegation to Zimbabwe to attend Zanu-PF’s annual jamboree, where he partied with then president Robert Mugabe, calling for closer co-operation between Africa’s liberation movements. He knows how to play the game.

So, while he is clearing out the Zuma Cabinet, the president might also want to think about how to develop a more strategic approach to SA’s diplomacy and those entrusted to drive it.

Since assuming the presidency, he has been quiet on the foreign affairs front. Understandably. The significant national challenges require all hands on deck.

But SA’s fortunes are inextricably linked to its hinterland. Despite the fact that the ANC has frequently said that Africa is at the centre of its foreign policy priorities, the country has battled to set the right tone on the continent.

Mistrust of SA’s continental ambitions runs deep in Africa and needs a clear strategy to address it. Given that SA’s corporate expansion lies at the heart of this mistrust, Ramaphosa, as a successful businessman, needs to play this card carefully.

The country’s efforts towards economic diplomacy have been weak, undermined by the generally poor relationship between big business and the government and lack of a coherent strategy to use foreign engagement to build economic advantage back home. The market share of South African companies in other African markets is declining as a result of the arrival of many new competitors from elsewhere, many of which have well-established diplomatic strategies for the continent.

SA has the opportunity to use its relative economic heft to play a stronger developmental role in Africa by leveraging the strengths of its business sector and its financial agencies. SA’s strategy for the rest of Africa cannot start at the border. It faces significant challenges at home in this regard. The issue of migrants and persistent attacks on Africans living in SA have not been tackled decisively and have scarred the country’s image on the continent. The perception is that SA is not welcoming to Africans.

The high number of illegal immigrants in SA is not just down to the country’s relative wealth but speaks to how bribery characterised the Zuma years.

Shaping policies that are simultaneously able to deliver benefits to SA, that enable it to adapt to a rapidly changing global environment and that build robust bilateral relations across the continent and further afield will demand strategic vision and delicate diplomacy.

It is a tough, but necessary, job.

• Games is CEO of business advisory Africa @ Work.