Image: Jonathan Cooper (Unsplash)

COVID-19 has plunged the world into an unprecedented health and socioeconomic crisis. At the same time, it has captured the attention of scholars and leaders alike, due to the consequential, dramatic and emotionally charged nature of crises which often reveal frailties and vulnerabilities in policies and decision-making units. In particular, this article concerns itself with the lens which COVID-19 has provided, a lens which has exposed both the successes and shortcomings of South Africa’s foreign policy. Applying this lens allows for an appraisal of one of the core tenets of South Africa’s foreign policy, namely: South-South solidarity.  In the past, South Africa (SA) has frequently faced criticism for its highly aspirational and dubiously idealistic foreign policy; however, COVID-19 has also hinted at the successes of South Africa’s engagement with South-South solidarity in praxis. As such, this article sets out to discuss two things: firstly, the manner in which South Africa’s engagement with Cuba, India and the African Union (AU) reflects its successes in South-South solidarity; and secondly the constraints which despite its relative successes, nonetheless impinge on any further more ‘meaningful’ successes. 

South-South solidarity

South-South solidarity refers to the promotion of solutions via the exchange of skills, resources and technical expertise between countries of the South. Complementary to the North-South dimension, South-South cooperation aims at promoting equality amongst peoples. Informed by the 1955 Bandung Conference, South-South solidarity has both historically and contemporarily played a central role in South Africa’s foreign policy. As imparted in the 2011 White Paper, “South Africa therefore accords central importance to [its] immediate African neighborhood and continent; working with countries of the South to address shared challenges of underdevelopment; promoting global equity and social justice”. The centrality of South-South solidarity in South Africa’s foreign policy has been illustrated by South Africa’s engagements with Cuba, India and the AU during the COVID-19 pandemic.

South-South solidarity: Cuba, India and the AU

The quintessence of South Africa’s success with South-South solidarity during the pandemic is its bilateral relations with Cuba. The arrival of a 216-member Cuban medical assistance brigade signified the exchange of skills, resources, and technical expertise between Cuba and SA in an attempt to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Cuban doctors, health technologists and epidemiologists were deployed to various parts of the country, assisting SA in the fight against COVID-19. More so, despite the shortage of medical supplies in SA at the time, in an act of diplomacy honouring its longstanding relations with Cuba, the South African government sent back a plane full of medical supplies to Cuba. This bilateral relation is one example demonstrating that in moments of crisis, South-South solidarity can be utilised as an effective means to overcome obstacles. Similarly, so, South Africa’s engagement with India further hints at the operationalisation of South-South solidarity.

SA and India have called on the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily suspend intellectual property (IP) rights, which if successful, would ensure that drugmakers in poorer countries can produce effective vaccines sooner. The proposal was initially opposed by wealthy nations such as the United States (US), Britain and the European Union (EU), who argued that pharmaceutical companies would be robbed of the incentive to make monumental investments in research and development. This sentiment expressed by wealthy nations clearly contrasts the principle of Batho Pele (putting people first) which is a central feature of South Africa’s foreign policy. SA has opposed the exploitative humanism emanating from the West’s ‘vaccine nationalism’ by utilising South-South solidarity to challenge this inequality. Essentially, the actions of India and SA provide a further demonstration of how South-South solidarity has been operationalised to promote global equality and social justice. 

A final demonstration of the successes of South-South solidarity has been South Africa’s role (as the chair of the AU) in coordinating a continental effort with the African Centre for Disease Control (ACDC), the WHO and the AU Commission. The establishment of a COVID-19 Response Fund, regional task forces and the African Task Force for Coronavirus all contributed to increasing the continent’s readiness and capacity in the fight against the spread of the virus. These efforts testify to the success of South-South solidarity and have, perhaps, pointed to the benchmark of South-South solidarity against which South Africa’s leadership. However optimistic the above-mentioned examples are, this article in an attempt to provide a balanced overview and not to ‘jump the gun’, points to some of the constraints which nonetheless impinge on South Africa’s ability to advance the successes of the South-South solidarity mentioned above.

Constraints and vulnerabilities 

South Africa’s engagement with other countries during the COVID-19 pandemic has affirmed the fact that “under unstressed conditions nations appear autonomous, but crisis quickly highlights the extent of international financial interdependence”. This point alludes to one of the structural constraints which hamper South Africa’s ability to use South-South solidarity more effectively, namely its economy. This is to say, that although SA has shown large degrees of success in operationalising South-South solidarity (as discussed above) it nonetheless faces structural constraints which point out its distinct vulnerabilities, especially in terms of its largely stagnant economy. 

Apart from the plethora of palpable domestic constraints such as poverty, unemployment, corruption and xenophobia (to name a few), SA faces the structural constraints which severely limits its agency. A case in point is the price that SA has had to pay for the COVID-19 vaccine. SA has had to pay almost 2.5 times more for the vaccine than other European countries since it had not initially invested in the vaccine research and development like other high-income countries had. Although South Africa’s failure to secure a sufficient supply of the vaccine has been blamed on its haphazard approach, it must also be noted that SA, as a developing country, does not have the same ability to invest in vaccine research as other wealthy high-income countries which immediately points out uneven playing fields. 

The global economy consists of profound wealth disparities caused in part by historical, structural inequalities. From the perspective of dependency theories, South Africa’s inability to better challenge the current vaccine distribution inequality stems from the fact that SA finds itself constrained in a paradigm of economic dependency. This dependency becomes more evident in moments of crisis and as such it must be questioned whether South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s aim to “forge a new economy in a new global reality” is mere rhetoric and reflects an unfeasible goal?.

Lastly, the extent to which South Africa’s South-South solidarity is truly able to bring about change at a meaningful level has further been limited by the role that new transnational actors play. Pharmaceutical companies, wielding significant political influence, have opposed the IP waiver proposed by India and SA. As such, despite this attempt of South-South solidarity to oppose the current inequalities as manifested in ‘vaccine nationalism’, the glaring systemic global inequality has rendered this attempt nugatory. Wealthy countries have bought more than half of the confirmed vaccine doses leaving the developing world behind. SA has been left at the mercy of laissez-faire economic principles, whereby the decisions on who gets the vaccine has been largely left to big pharmaceutical companies. 

Undoubtedly, South-South solidarity has played a central role in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. SA has demonstrated the successes of South-South solidarity in promoting solutions amongst countries in the South. It has fallen short is in transcending the structural confines of the deeply entrenched paradigms of dependencies. As such, an appraisal of South Africa’s utilisation of South-South solidarity concludes that whilst SA is using this solidarity to treat the symptoms of a disease, it has failed in using solidarity to eradicate the underlying causes. The question should thus not be whether SA uses South-South solidarity, but rather the extent to which South-South solidarity can be used to transform the global system of governance into a just and equitable global order.

Daniela is a 3rd year of BPolSci International Relations at the University of Pretoria. Daniela hopes to pursue her honours in 2022. Her passions are in the fields of foreign policy and philosophy. 

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