South Africa and the politics of the UN veto power seat

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, center, votes in favor of a resolution introduced by the United States during a Security Council meeting on the situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Friday, June 1, 2018 at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

On June 8 South Africa returned to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a non-permanent member when the United Nations General Assembly voted in new members for the period 2019-2020. South Africa joined the 5 veto-wielding powers, the so-called P-5 of Britain, China, France, Russia and the US, along with Côte d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea.  

This is a significant development because it portends a renewed push by the African continent for democratic-cum-representative reforms in the global governance body.

Much as the long-running calls for the reforms of the UN are wide-ranging, the African continent’s clamour for a permanent seat in the UNSC is seen as the heart of the reform agenda. The expansion of the UNSC beyond the P-5 forms the core of the reforms of the UN. South Africa has been a leading voice from the global South on this reform agenda.

Tshwane (Pretoria) seems set to leverage its new position on the UNSC to vigorously advocate for the common African positon endorsed in 2005 stating that: “Africa’s goal is to be fully represented in all the decision-making organs of the UN, particularly in the Security Council, which is the principal decision-making organ of the UN in matters relating to international peace and security.”      

Since the early 2000s, the leading African contenders for veto-power on the UNSC have been Egypt, Kenya, Libya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa. Observers of the politics of the UN reforms assess Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa as the African nations with feasible chances of permanent seats at the would-be reformed UN.      

South Africa’s comeback to the UNSC increases its chance of joining the prestigious permanent UNSC club. The frequency of presence at the UNSC for African countries is important. It serves as a bellwether for the likelihood of an African country to clinch a permanent seat on the UNSC.  The “Rainbow Nation” will be returning to the UNSC for the third time, having served on two previous periods – 2007-2008 and 2011-2012.

Thus, South Africa’s re-entry into this key global decision making body will even out with its other traditional competitor, Senegal. South Africa’s re-entry extends its lead over Kenya which has served two times. The instability in Libya knocks off the Arab Maghreb nation. South Africa’s third stint at the UNSC brings it closer to its continental hegemonic contenders, Egypt and Nigeria, which have served on the UNSC five times apiece.

In the jockeying for a permanent UNSC seat, Egypt and Nigeria may advance the argument that they have garnered greater experience having served many more times compared to South Africa. If the size of a country’s population counts, Nigeria would win hands down against Egypt and South Africa. On questions of identity, Egypt’s ambivalence between Africa and the Middle East would be a minus while the long-running espousal of African ideals square out the competition between Nigeria and South Africa. 

From the foregoing, competition of the UNSC seat narrows down to South Africa versus Nigeria, the Springbok and the Eagle. Of the two, South Africa seems the candidate to watch.

A key factor is that South Africa will be returning to the UNSC under the new leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa and foreign minister Lindiwe Sisulu. Already, there are indications that Tshwane is reconfiguring its foreign policy under the new leadership. By contrast, a quick review of Nigerian foreign policy indicates inertia while Egypt seems too consumed by internal schisms to forge a credible bid for the top seat.    

South Africa and Nigeria stand out on the continent in terms of promotion of peace, security and stability. Egypt falls back on this score.

However, Nigeria’s conflict resolution efforts have been largely confined to its West African region – Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Gambia and Sao Tome. By contrast South Africa has extended its conflict mitigation efforts beyond its Southern African region, playing crucial peace-making and peacekeeping roles at great cost in places such as the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Lesotho, Cote d’Ivoire and Sudan/South Sudan.  

South Africa’s greater involvement in African diplomacy parallels its economic and financial heft, perhaps the most important factor in the bidding contest. While South Africa has largely made its financial commitments to the UN on time, Nigeria has often been late in paying up. This speaks to the capability of South Africa to mount sufficient resources to meet its would-be permanent seat relative to Nigeria.

From a geopolitical perspective, South Africa’s membership in groupings such as the G-20 and the BRICS gives it diplomatic lobbying capital over other African competitors.  

Based on an enumeration of factors and probabilities, South Africa stands a chance to lead the charge for the reform of the UN. So be it if it ends up in the permanent UNSC member club. But will Ramaphosa’s South Africa rise to the occasion?

Dr Wekesa is a Kenyan media and geopolitics scholar based at University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa,