SA and France’s relations are improving

2013-10-16 00:00

THE French president, Francois Hollande, is on a state visit to Tshwane at the invitation of President Jacob Zuma, after his own visit to France in 2011. South Africa’s relations with France have grown since 1994, but have not been without some problems. At times, relations have been very bad.

The difficult political relations have to do with deep structural issues relating to the fact that France is a former colonial power that has maintained an imperial role in Africa, what it calls Françafrique. The country has intervened many times to change governments and to prop up dictators it liked to protect its business interests. South Africa zealously opposes imperial designs and has often seen some as French-inspired. Since 1994, the two countries have sought to discuss these difficulties with little success.

In spite of difficult political relations, trade and investment co-operation between the two countries is strong and has grown steadily since 1994. The period between 2000 and 2008 was particularly positive on this front, with trade volumes increasing from a little over R11 billion to just over R32 billion in value. The number of French companies investing in South Africa increased from under 90 to over 200. These companies now account for the employment of close to 30 000 people in South Africa. Despite the slump in trade from 2009 due to the crisis facing global capitalism, economic relations with France have been among South Africa’s most buoyant.

The quantum of trade has also diversified over the past decade, with growing investment in areas such as tourism, energy, maritime, science and technology, and the automobile sectors of the economy. Of course, the growing interface between the French Development Agency and the Development Bank of Southern Africa is also indicative of the growing element of development co-operation between the two countries building their partnership in support for greater access to development finance in Southern Africa.

Cultural co-operation in areas of research development, the performing arts, non-governmental organisational support and so forth, has also remained strong through difficult periods in the past, especially the tensions during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. The culture seasons, by which each country celebrates the cultural heritage of the other, have had a positive effect on growing political relations.

The long history of contact with French citizens since the first group of Huguenots landed in the modern-day Western Cape in the 17th century and helped build a thriving wine industry should have been the basis for stronger social bonds, but Huguenots assimilated into the Afrikaner community when it emerged. Work on the preservation and strengthening of the Huguenot identity and culture as part of South Africa is growing, especially under the auspices of the Huguenot Society of South Africa. This is an opportunity to strengthen social relations, tourism and cultural exchange.

Tensions over France’s role in Africa and South Africa’s involvement in areas of Africa that France considers its domain rose in the past decade. This related to conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, leading to the removal of former president Laurent Gbagbo from power. France pushed politically and militarily for a regime change, while South Africa pushed for a negotiated settlement of disputes.

Tensions over the handling of the shooting of protesters by the forces under Muammar Gaddafi in Libya were temporarily overcome when South Africa voted with France, the UK and the United States on a UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorising the establishment of a no-fly zone to prevent further shootings. However, when France led a coalition that brought Nato into the fold to carry out a regime change in Libya and enable the assassination of Gaddafi in cold blood before international TV cameras, tensions grew again. South Africa favoured a negotiated settlement again.

The establishment in 2011 of a high-level South Africa-France Forum for Political Dialogue created a platform for annual and continuous discussions between the two countries. This has helped increase opportunities for stronger political relations. In this context, the French intervention in Mali and its role in the Madagascar peace process was preceded by consultation with Tshwane. Hollande announced that from this point on, France will only intervene in Africa at Africa’s invitation.

The state visit has enabled the two governments to strengthen this culture of co-ordination and consultation. France’s support for South Africa’s membership of the Security Council on a permanent basis is not a small undertaking as it recognises that the structure of global power has got to change. Of course, France has declined as a global power over the years and has no option but to strike compromises that ensure that it does not lose even more when changes finally happen.

The political relations will remain subject to management as deep-seated mistrust remains and different agendas for the world persist. But economic and social relations will grow steadily and create conditions for a closer working relationship between the two countries.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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