Can South Africa Score that Permanant Security Council Seat?

As of January 1, 2012, South Africa has the helm of the United Nations Security Council, holding the body’s rotating Presidency for the month. So far, the Security Council has yet to post its provisional agenda for the month, which lays out where the President sees the Council’s discussion leading, as well as key briefings, reports, and previously scheduled votes. Once it is posted, we will see the course South Africa intends to chart over the next thirty days in its last big shot to prove that it has the necessary clout and gravitas to continue its quest for a permanent seat at the table.

The fact that the Republic of South Africa is even sitting on the Council at the moment shows its continuing regional draw. South Africa’s first term ever was 2007-2008, not overly long ago. That term, while much-lauded at the outset considering South Africa’s former pariah status, was plagued with several controversial choices in policy. South Africa chose during those two years to push heavily for democratization of the decision-making process of the United Nations, moving strong action away from the Security Council towards more democratic institutions such as the General Assembly and IAEA. This push, particularly South Africa’s alignment with Russia and China in voting against resolutions condemning human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and Myanmar, was not well received by the Western powers.

Those shows against the West’s preferred role for the Security Council’s role did not buy it any friends or support in its goal of a permanent seat on the Council, while also managing to marginalize its role as a protector of the small and middle powers. The calculus over which African state most deserves the a permanent seat has gone back and forth over the years, with three steady candidates names continuously emerging: Nigeria, Egypt, and South Africa. Each has a case for why they would best represent Africa on the Council and each has their own drawbacks. None so far have received backing for their quest as Brazil, India, and Japan have from current members of the P-5. South Africa’s Presidency in January is a chance to show the strong role it can play on the world stage.

That role is somewhat in question as South Africa’s track record for leadership in 2011 is less than ideal in showcasing its ability to add to international peace and security. Early in the year, its position on the electoral crisis in Cote d’Ivoire left many observers baffled, as it shifted from considering support of Gbagbo, to backing a negotiated settlement, to joining with the African Union in support of Ouattarra. Its role in Libya was no more supportive of its claim; after voting in favor of Resolution 1973, which approved the use of force to protect civilians in Libya, South Africa quickly backed away from its support of the NATO mission.

South Africa then was the sole voice holding out on unfreezing funds to the Libyan rebels to be used for humanitarian purposes, before ultimately being persuaded to reverse its position. As the Arab Spring marched on, South Africa joined in the chorus of voices arguing against further intervention or strong condemnation, particularly in Syria. In 2011, South Africa clearly treasured its role as a member of the BRICS bloc, along with Brazil, India, Russia and China, over seeking to align itself with the West, fitting well with President Jacob Zuma’s contrarian nature.

While its initial vote for Resolution 1973 was briefly considered a bid for US support in a seat, its rapid reversal indicates otherwise. In short, the issues that the current President highlights or chooses to play down may well reflect upon its future candidacy for permanency and whom it may seek patronage of in its bid. Issues of potential draw for South Africa include a host of conflicts, actual and potential, on the African continent. For example, South Africa may yet choose to bring before the Council a new debate on Zimbabwe. The West would gladly welcome a renewed focus on the abuses of President Mugabe and his determination to remain in power over the bodies of his opposition. Whether this would actually come to pass is up for debate.

South Africa should bring the matter before the Council, not as a show of fealty towards Europe, but as a show of its own strength and resolve. The position that Africa alone can solve Africa’s problems is an impressive one, but one that needs to be flexible in the face of the strength that can come with uniting behind world opinion. South Africa bringing Zimbabwe to the world stage would not be a show of weakness, but a declaration that its neighbors cannot continue to ignore South Africa’s initiatives for peace, less it use its standing to bring down the weight of the world upon them.

President Mugabe has managed to go unsanctioned by the Security Council despite blatant human rights abuses, highlighting South Africa’s “awkward teenage years” as noted by Eve Fairbanks in Foreign Policy. Actually taking the steps needed to bring about an end to his repression would be revitalization of Mandela’s policy in favor of human rights worldwide. Such a move would not go unnoticed by the United States, France, and particularly the United Kingdom which has long led the charge against Mugabe.

This issue, or strong leadership on the burgeoning crisis in South Sudan, would reflect on South Africa’s desire to hold a permanent seat at Council by displaying a desire to engage with the Council. Despite its rapid return to a seat around the Horseshoe table, the regional rotation method practiced by the African bloc in the General Assembly in no way guarantees that South Africa will be returning anytime soon or reflects international support. It most certainly won’t be in a position to wield the gavel as President again during its current term and should make use of President Zuma’s presiding over the Council debate January 12th. This may well be South Africa’s last big chance for many years to prove that it has what it takes to keep and hold for continuity a seat in the Council’s chambers. Simply sleepwalking through the month of January isn’t an option; if South Africa really wants to earn its permanent seat, its time is now.