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Southern Africa: A Sputtering Powerhouse

7 MINS READMar 7, 2017 | 08:30 GMT
Most of southern Africa's power comes from its abundant natural resources, hospitable climate and fertile soil.
Most of southern Africa's power comes from its abundant natural resources, hospitable climate and fertile soil.
(GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Despite the position of strength it has carved out since the mid-1900s, southern Africa will have to overcome significant hurdles in infrastructure development to maintain its standing in the years ahead.
  • But for all of the mineral wealth southern Africa has to offer, its states will continue to rely heavily on foreign financing to spur large infrastructure projects forward.
  • Though the region's states have been able to defend their influence over portions of central Africa, they will have difficulty projecting their power beyond it.

Over the past half-century or so, South Africa has earned the reputation as the economic powerhouse of Africa. While most of the continent has struggled to develop effective institutions and competitive industries, South Africa's unique geographic and historical advantages have enabled its economy to outshine the rest. Along with a handful of its neighbors that boast similar advantages, South Africa has leveraged its economic success to expand its reach north, gaining influence over large swaths of the continent. Today, geography continues to underpin South Africa's strength — as well as its ambitions — but it still faces multiple challenges.

A Natural Advantage

Most of southern Africa's might comes from its abundant natural resources, temperate climate and fertile soil. But it wasn't until the end of the 19th century that those characteristics began to substantially shape the region's economic activity. Unlike other parts of Africa, which saw the rise of precolonial empires built on trade or salt or gold mining, southern Africa didn't begin to truly tap its resources until European traders arrived on its shores in 1652 to establish Cape Colony, one of the first European settlements in the region. Farmers in the settlement, near the Cape of Good Hope and populated by the Dutch East India Co., began planting the region's unexploited lands. Though it remained confined to South Africa's coast for many years, the settlement served as a crucial stopover for Dutch traders looking to restock supplies as they traveled between the Netherlands and its East Asian territories.

At the dawn of the 19th century, the farmers of Cape Colony began to venture farther inland. Hoping to escape the restrictive governance of the British Empire, which had seized the settlement in 1806, the descendants of the town's original Dutch settlers sought refuge from their oppressive colonial rulers. And behind South Africa's great escarpment, on an elevated plateau, they found it in the Orange River basin, one of the many river basins dotting southern Africa. It, along with the Limpopo, Okavango and Zambezi basins, have become the engine of the region's economy. For a time they even propelled Rhodesia, or modern-day Zimbabwe, to regional prominence as an agricultural power, though drought and difficulty modernizing have stymied its success.

Of course, agriculture isn't the only source of southern Africa's economic strength. The discovery of diamonds and gold in the late 19th century fueled the rise of the extractive industries that have underpinned the region's growth ever since. Combined with the availability of arable land, these natural resources gave southern Africa the means not only to sustain its growing population (supplemented by an influx of European migrants) but also to project power northward. In fact, in its heyday, after gaining independence and transforming into a republic in 1961, South Africa even conducted military operations in lands as distant as Angola and Zambia.

Vying for the Center

Though South Africa's apartheid policies led to its isolation from the international community during the second half of the 20th century, the country continued to wield its geography and natural resources to its advantage. Teaming with like-minded apartheid governments in Rhodesia, Angola, Mozambique and South West Africa (today's Namibia) — a group known to some as "white Africa" — South Africa gradually gathered power. Eventually, however, the informal bloc succumbed to decolonization, independence movements and anti-apartheid groups. Its military and economic clout began to deteriorate, and now rampant unemployment, overreliance on extractive industries and the slow dilapidation of regional infrastructure are putting considerable pressure on southern African governments — particularly South Africa's.

Even so, this has not stopped countries in the region from combining forces to play politics on a continental scale. One of the southern African states' greatest imperatives is to gain control over resource-rich central Africa, especially the regions of Katanga and Eastern Congo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But they are not the only countries eying the natural wealth of these territories; East African states have mounted their own efforts to extend their reach into the continent's center.

Given this long-standing contest, it's no surprise that many of the recent conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have quickly attracted the attention of its African neighbors. Rwanda and Uganda, for instance, have worked to establish a zone of influence in the Congo's east by backing local rebel groups. Meanwhile, southern African countries have been quick to send troops to help Kinshasa in its fight against the rebels. In 2008, Tutsi fighters belonging to the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) were met by a multinational force comprising Angolan, Namibian and Zimbabwean troops that was able to secure eastern Congo and halt the spread of East Africa's influence.

For the most part, southern Africa has managed to protect the Congo from the ambitions of its East African peers.

When the CNDP's heirs later returned as a group known as M23, they again turned to their East African patrons for help. And once again, it was southern Africa that moved to crush the rebellion. When the United Nations issued a mandate for an offensive operation in eastern Congo in 2013, South African, Malawian and Tanzanian troops made up the intervention force that eventually drove the M23 rebels across the Congolese border and into Uganda. (Though Tanzania is often associated with the East African bloc, its intense competition with Uganda and Kenya has at times prompted it to lend support to southern Africa against its East African competitors.) 

Keeping the Lead

For the most part, southern Africa has managed to protect the Congo from the ambitions of its East African peers. But the region's attempts to reach beyond its own borders haven't been quite as successful. In 2006, Central African Republic President Francois Bozize asked South Africa to help him reduce his country's overwhelming dependence on its former colonial ruler, France. The two nations signed a defense pact the following year, and South Africa sent a close protection team to Bangui to train a local guard to secure the president. Then, when a rebellion threatened Bozize's rule in 2012 and the president found himself without notable external support, South Africa seized the opportunity to solidify its sway in the Central African Republic by deploying troops to Bangui to block the rebels' advance on the capital.

By March 2013, the battle for Bangui had ended in a stinging defeat for South African forces — a sign not so much of the troops' weakness, but of the limits of South Africa's ability to flex its muscle across the continent. Though the South African government tried to send in reinforcements, including fighter aircraft, to fend off the rebellion, they were blocked by the French military. Deprived of airport access in Bangui and unable to land troops, South Africa's opportunistic gamble failed, and Bozize's government crumbled.

The setback has not stopped South Africa, or its surrounding region, from trying to defend its longtime dominance of the African continent. In addition to trying to maintain their military might, southern African states have turned to sweeping infrastructure initiatives to seal their political positions. Throughout the region, significant investments have been made in rail, road and port infrastructure as well as electricity grids in hopes of bolstering extractive industries and building up burgeoning manufacturing bases. But developing prosperity — and by extension, influence — will not be easy, particularly in the face of funding shortfalls, weak local industries, drought and persistent unemployment. And if the region cannot overcome these obstacles, it may not be able to hold onto even its modest gains for much longer.

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