The nation has close ties with both emerging and developed powers

South Africa’s ascent as a major diplomatic and economic player within Africa and on the global stage over the past two decades has been swift. In December 1994, less than a year after winning South Africa’s first democratic election in a landslide, the African National Congress (ANC) released a document outlining the party’s perspective on foreign policy. “South Africa is both a trading and maritime nation; our international relations should actively seek to accentuate the significance of these by promoting the economic interests of all our people.” The objectives outlined in this document – namely to promote economic growth, stability and development both at home and abroad – have underpinned the nation’s relations with the rest of the world over the past 20 years.

South Africa has eked out an impressive profile on the diplomatic stage. Along with Brazil, Russia, India and China, the nation is a member of the BRICS economic bloc of large, rapidly growing economies. South Africa is the sole African country to participate in the G20 conference, an annual meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors who together control economies that make up 85% of global GDP.

Finally, the nation is a key member of a variety of African coalitions and formal entities, including the African Union’s (AU) ongoing New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), among others.

Policy Framework

South Africa’s foreign policy is managed by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRC), which works alongside a variety of government entities – including, among others, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the current administration – to develop and implement strategies and new initiatives.

At the time of writing in late 2014 the DIRC oversaw the operations of an embassy, high commission, consulate or another type of official representative office in more than 120 countries around the world.

Under the DIRC’s Strategic Plan for the period 2013-18, which follows on a series of three- and four-year plans, the country plans to focus on a handful of highlevel foreign policy objectives. Chief among these is the enhancement of joint sustainable development policies within Africa, both by strengthening integration within the SADC bloc of countries – which is made up of 15 southern African states – and by boosting relations between SADC and other African economic and diplomatic blocs, not to mention NEPAD and the AU. Additionally, under the strategic plan the DIRC plans to focus on strengthening South-South relations, both on a multilateral and bilateral basis; boosting cooperation and trade with northern economic blocs, including the EU, which is the world’s largest trading bloc and South Africa’s largest economic partner; and expanding the country’s profile in global governance organisations.


Since joining the BRICS bloc in December 2010, South Africa has played a key role in the group’s ascent. According to data from DTI, intra-BRICS trade increased 11-fold during the period 2002-12, from $28bn to $310bn, and this figure is expected to top $500bn by 2015. Similarly, in 2012 intra-BRICS trade accounted for 20% of total BRICS trade, up from 13% in 2008. Trade between South Africa and BRICS member states increased rapidly in 2011, after declining in the wake of the international economic downturn. Bilateral trade between China and South Africa grew by 32% in 2011, for example, while trade between South Africa and India grew by 25% and trade with Brazil grew by 20%. Exports account for a majority of these increases. Minerals and manufactured products make up the majority of South Africa’s exports, while the country’s imports consist largely of manufactured goods, including vehicles and vehicle parts, petroleum products and electronics. China has proven a particularly important source for South African exports. Excluding gold, China accounted for 11.8% of total exports in 2013 (see Economy chapter).

The increase in trade has been a boon for South Africa’s manufacturing segment, which, despite the new activity, has been shedding jobs in recent years. South Africa has continued to run a trade deficit with BRICS-bloc nations since it became a member of the group. In 2008 the nation’s trade deficit with the then-BRIC member states was $6bn. This figure dropped to $3.3bn in 2009, $2.8bn in 2010 and $2.4bn in 2011, before rising again to $4.7bn in 2012. Over the course of 2011 and 2012 South Africa’s exports to BRICS countries rose by 13%, while imports from bloc member states grew by 25%.

The fifth BRICS summit – organised on the theme “BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Development, Integration and Industrialisation” – was held in Durban in late March 2013. The summit resulted in a handful of joint initiatives put forward by South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma and his fellow BRICS heads of state, culminating in the eThekwini (Durban) Declaration and Action Plan, which was adopted at the end of the summit. Broadly speaking, this document endorsed the idea that developing countries require more support from the developed world, not to mention improved representation in multinational financial, diplomatic and development entities, such as the UN, the World Bank and the IMF. More concretely, the summit resulted in a new development bank, with an initial capital of $100bn, which will focus on financing projects in member states.

Focus On Africa

However, a number of South Africa’s major diplomatic and trade efforts focus on strengthening ties closer to home.

The SADC was founded in 1980 by a coalition of southern African states, with the goal of reducing their economic reliance on apartheid South Africa. The organisation was reorganised and formalised in the early 1990s, at which point South Africa became a member. Today the SADC consists of 15 member states, namely Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, the United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The five most-southern of these nations – South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland – together make up the SACU, which has been in existence in various configurations since early in the 20th century.

Both the SADC and the SACU broadly aim to boost economic integration within the regions, with the establishment of an SADC Free Trade Area (FTA), which could eventually be linked up with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, known as COMESA, and the East African Community to form a continent-spanning African FTA, a key objective.

South Africa played an instrumental role in founding NEPAD, which was set up as an AU-affiliated programme in 2001, largely under the leadership of the then-president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki. The initiative was developed as a framework through which to boost cooperation among AU countries in the areas of agriculture and food security, climate change, resource management, infrastructure integration, human development, corporate governance and a handful of other issues. The NEPAD secretariat is located in Midrand, near Johannesburg.


South Africa is the EU’s single largest African trading partner. In 2013 EU countries imported €15.5bn in goods and €4.6bn in services from South Africa. EU exports to South Africa in the same year reached €24.5bn in goods and €7.8bn in services, according to data from the European Commission (EC). The EU is also South Africa’s most important development partner by a substantial degree, providing around 70% of the country’s external assistance financing in recent years, according to EC data. While South Africa’s ties with many EU nations – particularly the Netherlands and the UK – go back centuries, the relationship was refreshed in 1999, when the two entities signed a Trade, Development and Cooperation Agreement, followed in 2007 by the establishment of a Strategic Partnership. Work on a South Africa-EU FTA has been under way since 1999.


Over the course of the decade and a half since China and South Africa established full diplomatic relations in 1998, trade between the two countries has flourished. China has been South Africa’s single largest trading partner since the late 2000s, and in 2012 China was South Africa’s top trading partner by a factor of nearly two (excluding the EU), according to data from the IMF. Relations between the two countries are not reliant solely on trade. A handful of Chinese leaders have visited South Africa in recent years, including Xi Jinping, the current president, and his predecessor Hu Jintao. Similarly, in the past half decade President Zuma has twice led South African delegations to Beijing. On his first state visit to China in August 2010, President Zuma signed a bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership with President Hu, his Chinese counterpart at the time, under which the two countries agreed to cooperate more closely across a wide range of diplomatic and economic areas.

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