South Africa: Between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Diplomatic posturing between South Africa and Saudi Arabia suggests a new era in relations – but how will Iran react?

South African President Jacob Zuma [EPA]
South African President Jacob Zuma [EPA]

Developed nations tend to deal with Africa as a single entity. There have been several economic conferences between countries and Africa – eg, US-Africa Summit, China-Africa Summit, Russia-Africa Summit, etc.

But Africa is not a country; it is a continent consisting of 54 independent states with different economies, cultures and political systems. African countries are guilty of perpetuating this stereotypical treatment of the continent. Many African countries are too poor and weak to maintain standalone economic and political policies. The tendency, therefore, has been to embrace a block position when it comes to decisions on foreign and economic policies; the African Union (AU) has been utilised in this regard.

Africa’s untapped natural resources remain the main attraction to foreign investment in Africa. However, the lack of infrastructure and political instability often discourages many businesses from venturing into the continent.

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Only votes at international multilateral platforms in support of developed nations’ propositions can guarantee investments.

The most developed nation in Africa

South Africa has an attractive infrastructure and is by far the most developed nation in Africa. Consequently, South Africa has demonstrated independence in its foreign policy.

The re-emergence of Iran in the international economy and politics has presented opportunities and challenges for South Africa.  Iran has a long history with South Africa dating back to the days of the liberation struggle.

Furthermore, South African telecommunication giant MTN owns 49 percent of Irancell. MTN is also a dominant force in Nigeria. Recently, the Nigeria Communication Commission (NCC) handed it a $5.2bn fine for flouting regulations.

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The question is whether the MTN’s troubles in Nigeria are a coincidence or somehow related to MTN’s involvement in Iran. This business conflict could herald a larger conflict between the two African powerhouses.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani welcomes South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, in 2014 [AFP]
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani welcomes South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, in 2014 [AFP]

On February 22, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari embarked on a state visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Almost at the same time, on February 29, Jacob Zuma, President of the Republic of South Africa, was scheduled to travel to Iran.

South Africa snubs Iran

The choices by the two most powerful nations in Africa to visit political adversaries drew serious global attention.

If the president of South Africa fulfilled his travel engagement to Iran, this could have been by default a confirmation of their preferred alliance in the ongoing competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

However, on February 25, his plans were interrupted by an unexpected visit to South Africa by the foreign minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Jubeir. A communique from the presidency was circulated subsequently announcing that the president’s trip to Iran was rescheduled for a future date.

South Africa committed closer ties in fighting terrorism with Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. Does it mean South Africa will change its position on Syria?


On March 27, Zuma embarked on a state visit to Saudi Arabia. Several trade and investment agreements were signed between the two nations.

According to Xinhua news agency, South Africa will enhance cooperation with Saudi Arabia in fighting regional terrorist threats to domestic and regional security and stability.

In the meantime, MTN made a sudden payment of $250m in what appears to be a payment towards a fine of $3.9bn imposed by the NCC.

However, little is known about whether MTN will continue to pay the entire fine. The judge in Lagos last month gave both parties, MTN and the NCC, until March 18 to reach the settlement. It is possible that the visit to Saudi Arabia by both countries might have facilitated a deal.

How will Iran view the snub of its invitation to South Africa in favour of Saudi Arabia? Furthermore, South Africa committed closer ties in fighting terrorism with Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. Does it mean that South Africa will change its position on Syria?

Getting it right on Syria

South Africa had in the past abstained from voting on a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution on Syria, claiming it was biased in favour of the opposition and leaving many Western nations confused.

The partial withdrawal of Russia, a strong ally of South Africa, from the conflict will also affect that decision.

READ MORE: Has Zuma lost his grip on South Africa?

South Africa needs to get it right on Syria. It has already lost tremendous political credibility in the Middle East owing to its ambiguous foreign policy on Libya in 2011.


South Africa’s position on Libya invited a barrage of criticism from Africans and Arabs alike. Many in the region saw South Africa as stalling the UNSC Resolution 1973, which authorised NATO operations in Libya. Suffice to say that South Africa did ratify the resolution and later criticised its implementation.

President Jacob Zuma criticised the mission, saying: “The resolution is being abused for regime change, political assassinations, and foreign military occupation.”

The recent political and diplomatic posturing between South Africa and Saudi Arabia suggests a new era in relations between the two countries. What is still to be seen is how Iran will react and what political and economic enticements it will use to capture South African favour. 

Thembisa Fakude is a researcher at the Al Jazeera Center for Studies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.