Home|[in] focus|South Africa in the World 2023: Quo Vadis?South Africa’s inescapable leadership role on the international stage
Categories: [in] focus

by Priyal Singh


Categories: [in] focus

by Priyal Singh


While there was no major strategic pivot, review, or reorientation of the country’s foreign policy, this year clearly highlighted that (by virtue of its unique position in the international system) Pretoria has an inescapable regional and global leadership role that it must assume. And 2023 will be remembered as a particularly significant year for South Africa’s international relations. Despite its domestic economic and political challenges, South Africa’s struggle history, democratic credentials, progressive constitution, and its continental influence and middle power status, compels the international community to pay attention to Pretoria’s positioning on prevailing global geopolitical contestations.

Accordingly, there are clear expectations by Pretoria’s international partners for it to assume a more active, visible and assertive leadership role. This was especially clear in 2023 which may come to be seen as a watershed moment that underscored the need for Pretoria to strategically leverage this international position, in order to more concretely advance its own specific interests tied to its domestic developmental agenda.

In order to achieve this, the country’s foreign policy establishment must confront hard lessons learned during the course of this year, particularly as these relate to how government officials can:

  • Best sustain and strengthen relations with international partners across prevailing geopolitical divides.
  • Effectively reconcile the international policy positions of the ruling African National Congress (and other major domestic political actors and constituencies) with South Africa’s official foreign policy.
  • Manage the trade-off between the credibility attached to institutionalised responses to conflict and crises (particularly across the African continent), versus the perceived effectiveness attached to more unilateral actions and direct policymaking.
  • Better substantiate South Africa’s commitment to often misunderstood ideas and concepts amongst different global partners, including: active non-alignment, progressive internationalism, and the country’s specific conception of what an emergent multipolar world order should look like.

These broad themes emerged over the course of a particularly busy and frenetic diplomatic calendar.

Officials from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) went into the new year still grappling with the fallout amongst global powers in 2022 following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Contestations and divisions between countries in the global north and south were especially acute in multilateral institutions like the UN General Assembly, in which countries like South Africa struggled to find common ground in forging a common global response to the crisis.

Pretoria’s efforts at substantiating its non-alignment and navigating these prevailing geopolitical divides came to a head in late February with its hosting of the MOSI II trilateral naval exercise with its Russian and Chinese counterparts, on the 1-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This exercise cast a harsh light over the country’s efforts to sustain and strengthen relations with its Western partners, and particularly Washington which viewed the exercise as a provocation and cause for a review of bilateral relations with Pretoria.

Relations with the US reached a new low in May following accusations levelled against the South African government by US Ambassador, Reuben Brigety, that Pretoria had provided arms and ammunition to Moscow in December 2022. The developments that followed (which included a demarche, the establishment of an independent panel of inquiry, and no further public presentation of evidence by the US government) did little to change perceptions around the fraught relationship between the US and South Africa. However, the recent conclusion of the 20th African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Forum in Johannesburg, resulting in calls for the extension of the agreement beyond 2025, certainly pointed to important work done to salvage these relations. This was especially notable in light of earlier speculation that the location of the meeting may be reconsidered given the deterioration in US-South Africa bilateral relations over the course of 2023.

South Africa’s diplomatic efforts to respond to the Russia-Ukraine conflict came to a head in June, with the country unofficially leading an African Peace Mission to Kyiv and Moscow. Overall, the mission was a clear success for Pretoria in showcasing its commitment and capability to play a direct and leading role toward a peaceful outcome of the conflict; while further reframing the optics surrounding African states as being only interested in the material impact of the ongoing war. The mission established the basis for ongoing dialogue, which is certainly needed as an alternative to continued military escalation.

August was another high point for South African diplomacy in 2023 following the successful hosting of the 15th BRICS Summit in Johannesburg. This was arguably the most anticipated and closely monitored meeting of the diplomatic club since its inauguration, given the significance of the group’s expansion that took place at this year’s Summit. Consequently, the meeting will be remembered as a critical juncture in the evolution toward a more multipolar order, and South Africa will certainly be remembered as a leading actor that directed and facilitated this change. Beyond this, the Summit was also a key site in determining South Africa’s commitment to its international treaty obligations as this concerned the eventual non-attendance of the Russian President – following bilateral negotiations between Moscow and Pretoria.

Following the BRICS Summit, South Africa participated in the 18th G20 Summit in New Delhi in early September. The Summit was particularly noteworthy for the admission of the African Union (AU) as a new permanent member. Consequently, Pretoria now sits alone as the only African state representative alongside the AU in the world’s preeminent diplomatic club, bringing countries from the global south and global north together to determine the trajectory and nature of the global economic architecture. This is again another significant milestone in the evolution of a vital global forum which will determine the contours a new emergent international order, and one in which Pretoria sits comfortably at the table amongst leading world powers.

These engagements are vital for South Africa given the country’s clear grievances with the current nature and structure of the global institutional order and its persistent calls for reform. These were echoed by the South African President later in September at the general debate of the 78th session of the UN General Assembly, in which special attention was paid to Africa’s collective interests on the world stage. This pressing need for global multilateral reform was again on full display in October following the UN Security Council’s failures to decisively act toward the cessation of hostilities between Hamas and Israel. This spurred into motion another UN General Assembly Resolution as part of its 10th emergency special session on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been ongoing since 1997. Subsequently, Resolution ES-10/21 on the ‘Protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations’ was adopted on 27 October 2023, which was sponsored by South Africa. Pretoria has since taken further diplomatic measures that point to a clear and likely downgrading of bilateral relations with Israel in light of the ongoing conflict.

Throughout these engagements in 2023, South Africa’s international relations have certainly been bolstered in many respects. The country’s stock on the world stage has risen, and many international actors pay much greater attention to the rhetoric, actions, and positioning of Pretoria on a range of issues that impact on the trajectory and nature of global order. There are, however, glaring ongoing challenges specifically as these relate to the coherence of South African foreign policy across different arms of government, and across the broader political spectrum.

Moving forward, South African foreign policy stakeholders will need to account for the reality that the country has an inescapable leadership role to play on the international stage, and that this must be far more strategically leveraged in the pursuit of national interests tied to both the country’s global aspirations as well as its domestic developmental agenda. This year clearly highlighted the most pressing and difficult questions that South African foreign policy must respond to over the coming years.


Priyal Singh is a Senior Researcher: Africa in the World, Institute for Security Studies based in Pretoria. Mr Singh’s views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.

Mr Singh formed part of the opening panel at the IGD’s flagship dialogue South Africa in the World. If you missed it, catch this years dialogue “South Africa in the World 2023: Quo Vadis?” on our YouTube channel.

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