Germany′s brittle but critical relationship with S. Africa | Africa | DW | 26.12.2016
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Foreign relations

Germany's brittle but critical relationship with S. Africa

Germany and South Africa were once close allies. But now topics like human rights, the International Criminal Court and trade are exposing the differences between the governments.

South Africa has long been a pioneer of democracy and human rights in Africa. But under President Jacob Zuma, South Africa's policy has changed. The head of state has been implicated in numerous corruption scandals. Pressure on journalists is growing and tensions in the country are increasing.

"The Zuma government is pursuing an anti-Western course. It would rather orientate itself to China's model of authoritarian capitalism," Kappel told DW.

And there have been consequences for foreign policy. The Zuma government has announced its intentions to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Despite the arrest warrant from the Hague, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited South Africa in 2015. A South African court tried to detain him but the government simply ignored the verdict and Bashir flew home unmolested.

Willy Brandt Nelson Mandela (imago/Sven Simon)

The former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela meeting the former Chancellor of West Germany Willy Brandt in 1990. Both are now deceased.

Kuseni Dlamini, a board member of the South African Think Tank SAIIA thinks that had South Africa detained Bashir, the country would have been isolated from other African countries.

"If South Africa had detained al-Bashir, it would have been a disaster from a foreign policy perspective," he said.                

Germany does not like this situation at all. But there is no open criticism. It was "regrettable" that the support for the International Criminal Court diminished, said Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the meeting with his South African counterpart Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in October.

"South Africa is an important partner from the German perspective and efforts are being made to ensure that South Africa does not go further into an anti-Western stance," said Kappel.

Beijing versus Berlin

Even when it comes to economic cooperation, the situation is not as it once was. South Africa is still Germany's most important trade partner in Africa. The volume of trade between the two countries amounted to more than 12 billion euros in 2014.

The South African government did announce an agreement to protect German investments in 2013. And while officially South Africa continues to promote German companies, economic relations with countries like China, India and Russia have long since become the priority.

According to Dlamini, this is very normal given the size of the economies of India and China.

"We have to accept that [multilateral] institutions and the global debate surrounding them is fluid as it the global balance of these forces," he said. But Dlamini still thinks that there are topics which both countries could work together on, namely climate change, poverty eradication and reforming the United Nations.

Kappel stressed that Germany must not pull back from its relationship." South Africa is still the biggest economic power on the continent and Germany needs to continue to interact with it," he said. 

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