Africa Watch

SA’s rocky road to a permanent UN Security Council seat


South Africa is in contention for a permanent UN Security Council (UNSC) seat, but the battle for UN reform is far from over.

Reform of the UNSC is high on the agenda at the 72nd meeting of the UN’s General Assembly in New York. At stake is to make the UNSC more representative and a better reflection of the global distribution of power.

It has been a contentious issue for some time now, in- and outside of the corridors of the UN headquarters.

The call for a drastic reform is gaining momentum with UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, on record as supporting such reform to evolvement towards a better reflection of the world as it is today.

Africa has been a driving force in this regard, arguing vigorously for the right to permanent representation on an equal basis, including the right to veto. presently reserved for the existing five permanent UNSC members, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States (US).

The role of South Africa  

South Africa, with its eyes firmly set on the possible permanent African seat, has been at the forefront of the African campaign.

Africa, and South Africa in particular, is, however, not alone in having ambitions for permanent membership of the UNSC. Among other states campaigning for full, permanent membership to this exclusive club that often decides the destiny of countries and nations are: India, Japan, Brazil and Germany.

This year’s UNGA session, earmarked to debate the issue in earnest, opened during the latter half of September. President Zuma seized the opportunity to raise the issue and explain South Africa’s stance.

He lamented that Africa was not treated fairly in decision-making at the UN – referring in particular to the turmoil in Libya and the Sahel region, claiming it resulted directly from some UNSC members not heeding informed counsel from Africa and the African Union (AU).

The SA president also expressed displeasure, shared by the rest of Africa, about almost no progress ten years after a commitment by world leaders to reform the UNSC. It is unacceptable and unjustifiable that the more than Africa’s one billion people are still excluded from permanent UNSC membership when 70% of the issues dealt with concern Africa.

“A continent with a smaller population than Africa is represented on the UNSC by three countries as permanent members. The UN cannot pretend that the world has not changed since 1945. We (Africa) are no longer colonies. We are free, independent sovereign states,” he said.

Support for reform

Various other African leaders echoed these sentiments in addresses to the UNGA, including Mozambique’s Filipe Nyusi, Ethiopia’s Hailemariam Desalegn and current AU chairman, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe.

It is not only Africa that demands UNSC reform. It is almost globally driven. Other regions and countries also argue for permanent UNSC representation.

The Group of Four (G-4), Germany, Japan, India and Brazil, propose an addition six permanent seats – four going to them and two reserved for unspecified African countries.

Japan and Germany (contributing 8% to the UN’s budget, more than either Britain or France) are redoubling lobby efforts for permanent seats. India claims a permanent seat based on being the world’s biggest democracy.

The so-called Coffee Club, an alliance of Pakistan, Italy, Mexico, Argentina, South Korea and several other countries, have arguments of their own, making for a highly competitive and challenging environment in which South Africa promotes Africa’s cause.


Securing a permanent seat on the UNSC remains a cornerstone of the SA government’s foreign policy. However, the ANC-led government’s often controversial foreign policy, as illustrated by the recent Bashir incident, complicates its efforts.

What could further obfuscate matters, would be the adoption of some of the radical and contentious suggestions in a recently published discussion document for the ANC’s national general council (NGC) meeting later this month.

If the document, whose drafters included senior ANC members, reflects the general ANC view and becomes part of official government foreign policy, it is difficult to imagine that the responsibility of permanent UNSC membership would be entrusted to a country that embraces such a convoluted, simplistic and outdated view of world affairs.

One could be excused for mistaking the document as a manuscript retrieved from archives, written at the peak of the Cold War, describing the ANC as a member of the “international revolutionary movement to liberate humanity from the bondage of imperialism and neo-colonialism”.

The UNSC requires more level-headedness, honesty and responsibility from new permanent members, not more of the same.  

The influential The Economist’s verdict, reflecting the perception of many international observers and policy formulators, is disturbing. It described the document as “clueless and immoral” and says that “South Africa risks becoming a laughing-stock, not least in Africa itself.”

In an article in The Maverick Greg Mills and Malcom Furgeson concur: “South Africa’s foreign policy now threatens to be regressive by choosing ideology over content and outcome.”

Clearly not everyone agrees with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s bold statement in parliament that the ANC was implementing “the best foreign policy this country has ever had”.

Many would, or could, argue that SA’s international standing today is way below par compared to the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies, when it punched well above its weight internationally. 

With the scathing attacks heaped upon the West and the US in particular, does government truly believe it can secure Washington’s endorsement for a permanent UNSC seat?

Many commentators argue the US would rather endorse Nigeria as Africa’s representative.

Historically the two countries have maintained warm relations. That Nigeria features higher than SA on Washington’s preference list, was confirmed by President Obama’s invitation to newly elected Nigerian president Buhari to visit the US shortly after assuming power in Africa’s most populous state.

Geostrategically the US also deems Nigeria the most important country in Africa, particularly in West Africa and the strategically significant Gulf of Guinea.

Although the US has cut back dramatically on imports of Nigerian crude oil, it remains an important potential US energy supplier.

As is its right, and as member of Brics, SA indicated its preferred allies, but it should anticipate that Washington, as a consequence, might prefer Nigeria if Africa gains only one permanent UNSC seat.

Africa’s dilemma

Both South Africa and Nigeria regard themselves as the obvious choice as Africa’s permanent UNSC member.

Nigerian Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo, recently said if one country was to permanently represent Africa on the UNSC, it should be Nigeria: “We take the position based on our peacekeeping role in the United Nations, the size of our economy, and the fact that we have the largest population in the continent …” 

Pretoria will obviously disagree and so will Kenya and Egypt – both have indicated they will also throw their hats in the ring when the time comes.  

According to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, neither South Africa nor Nigeria are worthy of the position because both have betrayed the continent by voting for an UNSC resolution leading to military action against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Real challenge

The real challenge remains whether the current reform campaign in the UNGA will bear any fruit.

According to one commentator the reform efforts regarding the UNSC have become an annual ritual in New York, every time falling foul of power politics.

It is difficult to share Deputy Minister Bapela’s confidence that Russia’s support for reform will carry the day. In contrast, Russia Today reported that Moscow would only support the UNSC expansion backed by more than two-thirds of UN member states.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Gennady Gatilov, also said that the all-important right to veto should be reserved for the existing permanent members.

The US’ UN ambassador, Samantha Power, said the US is opposed to any expansion of the veto power, though it is open “in principle” to a “modest” expansion of UNSC members.

Agreement that the UNSC needs reform is almost universal. This even incudes some current permanent members. However, while the six “UN superpowers” remain reluctant to open the door too widely, proper reform remains unlikely.

And increasing permanent UNSC membership minus the veto defeats the purpose and would be experienced as an insult by Africa.

by Garth Cilliers

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