In a highly strategic move, President Jacob Zuma paid a high-profile state visit to Angola, the first since his inauguration as South Africa's head of state, with the aim of securing economic and political cooperation with Africa's second largest oil exporter and an emerging diplomatic heavyweight. This visit was significant for two reasons: it was a revival of a historical alliance that had since 1994 deteriorated into mutual antagonism and an opportunity to bring together two important hegemons in Sub-Saharan Africa. Zuma's delegation walked away with a joint project between oil-giant Sonangol and PetroSA; memorandums of understanding on diverse sectors (trade, air services, diplomatic relations etc.) and guarantees of reconstruction contracts in low-income housing, telecommunications, roads and dams. However, engaging Luanda economically is always a political affair and apart from the highly beneficial economic deals, what remains to be determined are the political trade-offs that Pretoria had to make.
Angola is a highly complex country to engage diplomatically. It does not succumb to external pressures, given that it is not a major recipient of foreign aid and has the diplomatic clout of its mineral wealth. It does not react well to impositions of any sort and its pragmatism allows it to engage with divergent global powers, even those like the US and China that had previously supported the ruling party's arch -enemy UNITA. The tendency to operate in isolation is also a characteristic of its ‘exceptionalism' where Luanda prefers to take a ‘statist' approach rather than a multi-lateral consensual approach. Furthermore, the need to be ‘a big fish in a small pond', to determine the rules of engagement, in having impenetrable influence in certain capitals, and not placing itself in a position of weakness politically, economically or militarily, are additional elements of Luanda's petro-capitalist power. All these will prove significant challenges to Pretoria.
Given the diverse investment opportunities, the great reconstruction needs of Angola and the wealth of resources (oil, diamonds, arable land, natural water) any economic venture into the country is attractive, however difficult doing business with Luanda may be. Impediments include bureaucratic hurdles, lack of transparency, corruption and patronalism, different legal frameworks, an incomprehensible financial system, language, and political culture. However, the potential for complementarity between the two is significant and desirable by ensuring prosperity through combining the strengths of each economy, while promoting regional integration. One area where SA companies could venture into, which would also promote regional trade, are trans-national links like roads and railway systems.
Another area where both South Africa and Angola could cooperate regionally and continentally is in the area of peace and security. Luanda currently boasts the best-resourced battle -trained armed forces in the region that, together with the airlift capacity of Angola, could provide precious military assistance in peacekeeping missions. This area of cooperation could also become the greatest point of contention, with both Luanda and Pretoria taking two very distinct diplomatic and political strategies to conflict mediation, as seen in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Luanda has tended to prioritize relations with Harare and Kinshasa on a narrow basis, by offering military assistance and troops, while remaining uncommitted to political solutions. It is worth noting that several peace negotiation rounds and agreements in Angola failed to bring a political settlement to one of Africa's deadliest conflicts and that it was only through Dos Santos' openly-belligerent tactics that "peace through war" was achieved in 2002, with Savimbi's death. One of the contributing factors to the frosty relations between Luanda and Pretoria for the last 15 years was the fact that South Africa pushed for consensus and political accommodation between dos Santos and the late Unita leader Jonas Savimbi, rather than showing "loyalty" to the ruling MPLA as an old ally fighting ‘imperialism'.
One area South Africa will need to approach with caution is the proximity with regimes that are autocratic, unaccountable and corrupt, while carefully balancing the costs of engaging with a reformed autocracy like Angola, where democratic processes are all but emblematic. Pretoria will also need to consider the impact that prioritizing a policy that considers economic imperatives over ethical responsibilities could have on its international image and what message this is sending out to other undemocratic regimes on the continent. Giving greater legitimacy to a country like Angola where elections and legislation are ornamental and part of the trappings of democracy without the substance, will establish a dangerous precedent. With the rise of hybrid regimes throughout the continent, where they are neither autocracies nor democracies but somewhere in between, it will be easier to follow the policy of "not visiting dictatorships". Furthermore, South-South cooperation, in particular with initiatives like IBSA (heralding cooperation between India, Brazil and South Africa) and strengthening ties with China, has already begun to take precedence over ties with the West and the conditionalities on democratization dropped.
In what could turn out to be a brilliant strategic move for the Zuma Administration, or a cursed blessing that will cause Pretoria greater long-term difficulties, renewed South Africa-Angola relations have the propensity of providing a new era for the Southern Africa region with two regional powers cooperating diplomatically and promoting regional trade. However, Angola will only commit to a regional initiative, be it in economic or peace and security spheres, if it can play a leading role and not live in Pretoria's shadow, in the tradition of engaging on the basis of dominance rather than equality. Whatever the challenges in reviving this relationship may be, both Pretoria and Luanda have more to benefit than lose from a strategic rapprochement.
Written by: Paula Roque, senior researcher, African Security Analysis Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria)