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From BRIC to BRICS

A notable new set of international relations that is bound to continue to shape South African foreign policy is its membership of the BRICS group of emerging nations. If the country is to pair its human rights-oriented approach to foreign policy with a greater emphasis on economic diplomacy in Africa, it might bring it in subtle confrontation with its BRICS partner China. China, who has been engaging in a strong push into Africa in recent years, backed up by its own media initiatives as a form of soft power (Zhao, 2013; Wasserman, 2016), has often been criticized for its lack of concern for press freedom, human rights and labour rights (Hairong and Sautman, 2009; French, 2014).

Moving away from such political concerns, the South African diplomatic strategy is foregrounding economic diplomacy (Bendile, 2018: 1). There is a long history of South African business activities outside the country’s borders. The country has closer economic ties with the West than with any other region in Africa.The European Union is South Africa’s biggest regional trade partner, while in terms of country-to-country trade, China is biggest trading partner. A review panel was established by the Minister of International Relations and Co-operation to recommend how South Africa may want to create a space for economic growth in the rest of Africa. However, this focus might bring further complications, given criticism of South African businesses on the continent as having a neo-colonialist approach (Louw-Vaudran, 2016: 11).

South African businesses grew alongside colonization of the continent, and are therefore often viewed as having benefitted from exploitative cheap labour systems and extraction of profit back to South Africa. The financing and regulatory mechanisms in South Africa have allowed the country’s companies to expand into the rest of the continent, particularly in the southern African region. When international trade sanctions imposed on South Africa during apartheid started to be removed in the 1990s, South African capitalism moved northwards with speed, being perceived by many as taking a mercantilist approach in Africa (Alden and Soko, 2005), which is not good for South Africa’s soft power. South Africa controls about 60 per cent of the sub-regional economy and many fear that institutions such as the SADC could be used as instruments by a black-led government to fulfil the historical aims of South African white leaders and big businesses of incorporating neighbouring vassals into a South African-dominated ‘constellation’ of states (Adebajo, 2017: 36).

A further factor that has contributed to the decline of South Africa’s soft power on the continent has been the xenophobic attitudes displayed by South Africans against their fellow Africans. Within South Africa, these attitudes have often manifested in outbreaks of severe violence meted out against other African nationals residing in South Africa. These xenophobic attacks were widely condemned inside the country and received much media coverage, although such coverage often focused on the eruption of violent events themselves rather than in-depth coverage of the underlying issues or advance warnings of tensions (Wasserman, Bosch and Chuma, 2018).

These attacks have also contributed to the erosion of South Africa’s image on the continent. As Louw-Vaudrian (2016: 22) explains, many African states actively supported the anti-apartheid struggle and provided refuge to activists exiled from apartheid South Africa.They find it disappointing that post-apartheid South Africa displays such xenophobic attitudes and does not do more to reciprocate for the support it received during the years of liberation struggle. It is against the above historical background of perceptions of South Africa as an extension of Western colonialism, the brief optimism about South Africa’s moral leadership on the continent in the immediate post-apartheid years and the subsequent erosion of South Africa’s soft power as a result of its perceived role as regional economic and political hegemon, that the media’s potential role as purveyor of South African soft power on the continent has to be evaluated.

 
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