I have recently been doing some research on the concept of hegemony and the various theoretical models used in political science to analyse this concept. Without boring readers with the various academic arguments and their ideological underpinnings, I have been looking at the role of South Africa in the Southern African region and the foreign policy adopted by successive South African governments towards the region. The assumption being that South Africa is the regional hegemon in Southern Africa.

What is striking is that in some respects (not all) South Africa’s role as the Southern African regional hegemon mirrors the role of Germany, as the European hegemon. In making this comparison it is important to look at the broad histories and trends of South African (from 1910 onwards) and German (from 1870 onwards) hegemony and focus on specific similarities, bearing in mind that there will always be differences.

Broadly speaking there are three broad parallels (in my opinion) between South African and German hegemony:

i Both countries sought to create spheres of influence in their respective regions using negotiation first. In the case of Germany, this was arguably a trend up until the start of the First World War (as evidenced by the conclusion of the Triple Alliance). In the case of South Africa, the governments of Botha and Smuts sought to draw neighbouring states into the Union of South Africa. In the case of Southern Rhodesia though, voters rejected the proposal in a referendum held in 1922. However, the Southern African Customs Union (or “Sacu”), the oldest customs union in the world, was another effort by South Africa to exert hegemonic influence in the Southern African region through negotiation.

ii Both countries then resorted to armed force as a means to exert their regional hegemonic influence. In the case of Germany, Hitler’s policy of lebensraum sought to annex as many areas around Germany into Germany proper (through force) and turn the remaining states into client states of Germany. This policy led to the destabilisation of the whole of Europe and, as we know, would later engulf the whole world. In the case of South Africa, once successive colonial governments started collapsing from about 1975 onwards as a result of pressure from Western powers to decolonise (think Angola, Mozambique and Rhodesia), South African governments sought to destabilise the Southern African region through the policy of “Total Onslaught”. South Africa also sought to create client states while enforcing “Total Onslaught”. South Africa hoped to achieve this through the creation of the “Constellation of Southern African States” around 1980, which would have included the homelands and South Africa’s neighbours (had South Africa had her way). Apartheid, like the Third Reich, would also be a force that would come to dominate the world’s attention.

iii Both countries, as a result of their economic might, have subsequently been able to carve out regional organisations in their own image and both are viewed with some suspicion by their regional partners due to their economic and political clout. While France may have been the dominant European hegemon after the Second World War in Western Europe, it has been interesting to note the gradual shift in hegemonic power back towards Germany post German reunification in 1990. Germany could be considered the European hegemon as a result of its economic muscle and important geographical location. In the case of South Africa, the Southern African Development Community’s structures have been influenced by South Africa since South Africa joined the regional grouping in 1994. South Africa, like Germany, also wields considerable economic clout over its neighbours and also occupies an important geographical location relative to its neighbours. Indeed, Southern African states are dependent on South Africa’s port infrastructure to reach the world for trading purposes. However, one interesting difference worth noting is that while EU member states are required to be liberal democracies before being admitted to the EU club, this is not the case with SADC where autocracies and democracies mingle together quite freely, which raises other important considerations for South African trade policy.

I accept the fact that these are broad trends and the two countries differ in very many other respects. However, from the perspective of hegemonic theory, these are three trends that, in my opinion, cannot be ignored. The question that needs to be answered is what lessons can South Africa learn from Germany’s experience (post 1990 reunification)?

This is something that I admittedly, still need to think about. But here are some initial thoughts. What is interesting to see is the shift in Jacob Zuma’s approach to foreign policy. Arguably at the outset of his presidency, Zuma’s attention was dominated by domestic concerns. Foreign policy did not appear to register on his personal radar in any significant manner. However, he appears to be striding the international stage more frequently these days. Like Germany, South Africa is also seeking to be taken seriously on the international stage, by playing an important a role as possible. To wit, South Africa seeking to become a member of the BRIC club. Whether we belong there or not is a different story though, in my opinion. In the case of Germany, the German military is playing an important role in Nato’s operations in Afghanistan.

I am sure there are more lessons that we can learn from the Germans. I would argue though, that South Africa cannot continue focusing primarily on the global stage and ignore its backyard, if it is to remain the Southern African hegemon.


  • Warren has been specialising in information technology and intellectual property law for the past eight years and has become rather good at it during this time. His experiences have involved some interesting journeys along the information superhighway, including dealing with pirates in one form or another, mostly software though. Warren also has an MA in political studies and has been known to comment on matters including politics, economics, and international relations. Why? Because he can. The legal bit: any thoughts expressed on this blog are purely his own and can in no way be blamed on his parents, siblings or other immediate or extended family.


Warren Weertman

Warren has been specialising in information technology and intellectual property law for the past eight years and has become rather good at it during this time. His experiences have involved some interesting...

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