A year of climate change and strategies

2009-12-30 00:00

THIS year presented opportunities for South Africa’s democracy to mature­. The year began with an intense political competition in the run- up to the most dramatic election period­ since the one that led to the first democratic elections in 1994.

Tensions­ had risen as early as December­ 2007 when the governing African National Congress had a highly contested elective conference, leading to the recall of the then president Thabo Mbeki and the formation of the Congress of the People out of the belly of the ANC. The young democracy’s capacity­ to hold international debates on crucial and highly contested matters was also tested.

This year, the normally dry places in KwaZulu-Natal such as Osizweni and Emangwaneni in the north, uMshwathi in the midlands and Umgababa in the south, experienced unusually wet weather. Storms wreaked havoc in places such as eMolweni, while raging seas caused untold damage on parts of the south coast.

Calamities suffered by people in the weather processes not only epitomised the difficulties of life for some in post-apartheid South Africa, but they illustrated the need for a just outcome from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that took place in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The Copenhagen conference resulted in world recognition that climate­ change poses a real threat to world development and stability. For this reason UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon described it as “a significant step forward in the global fight against climate change”.

But the conference undertakings fell short of declaring a full-scale war on climate change, marked by significant cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, especially by the main polluters, and allocation of resources for adaptation and implementation of commitments to mitigate the problem. Clearly, the climate­-change conference was wrecked by power dynamics that continue to divide world affairs between the global North (the rich) and the South (the poor countries).

South Africa pushed for a deal that provides for significant cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, committing itself to a 34% cut. It envisaged full commitment to the UN principle of common, but differentiated responsibility, forcing rich countries to commit to heavier carbon dioxide cuts and to provide substantial financial and technological support for the fight against climate­ change.

For the people of eMolweni, the vagaries­ of the weather were made worse by the financial squeeze that is blamed on the global economic crisis­. This crisis has also deepened the global divide between rich and poor nations. In this case too, rich nations­ carry a larger responsibility than others. It is the massive emission of harmful gases into the atmosphere by industries that power rich countries­’­ dominance of the world economy that scientists blame for the faster-than-usual change in climatic patterns­.

Similarly, economists blame the economic crisis on the bad management of credit and greed by financial institutions in the West, leading to the collapse­ of some of these institutions from September 2008. The crisis spread through the mechanisms of globalisation, which led to a recession in many developing economies, including South Africa.

The effect of the crisis on ordinary people has been dire. Thousands of people have lost their jobs, thereby further impoverishing already struggling households. Government borrowing has increased, while essential public expenditure has been curbed. The changes in the physical and economic­ climate condemn the vulnerable people­ of iMpendle and Bhambayi to a life of misery.

Government action is their hope. Indeed, governments have the power to make decisions collectively and individually that will help the poor to help themselves out of perpetual poverty­. Governments are morally obliged to take measures to mitigate the impact of global problems on the citizens whom they serve.

Governments possess a legal­ personality enabling them to negotiate with other governments in order to help create a conducive climate for human development by solving the world’s common problems. It is precisely for this reason that the poor will judge President Jacob Zuma’s government­ harshly if it turns out that South Africa’s efforts to get an acceptable deal at Copenhagen and other forums that have discussed the economic crisis have been grossly inadequate.

Critics will lambast South Africa for failing to do this. They will even demonstrate the choices that could have been made, from partnerships to policy positions, that were championed during the conference. Some have already­ criticised, as a sign of spinelessness, our strategy of bridge-building between rich and poor countries.

Both the opinion makers and the poor will downplay the limitations of our power in global politics. They will underestimate the constraints of our resources and capacity in our attempts to influence the global agenda. They will look too harshly at the bottom­ line and conclude that South Africa failed.

Critics have already singled out South Africa and blamed it for its involvement in producing this deal. Fellow­ analysts have decried our willingness to work with the likes of China­, India, Brazil and Ethiopia to avoid a walkout. These countries believe in a zero-sum game where it is said “better no deal than a bad deal”. But it is not clear how the villagers of KwaZwelibomvu or Hilton will be better served by the collapse of the UN conference on climate change, except to show those countries that a walk- out was radical.

These critics even consider it wise for us to go it alone simply to take a high moral ground. We are to sacrifice­ everything — future partnerships, strategic friendships and even current economic relations — at the altar of moral correctness. We are to conduct ourselves in multilateral forums­ like saviours of the world, notwithstanding our small size on the international­ stage.

We are expected by these observers to win battles even if it means that we get into a terrain where we will ultimately lose the war to the more powerful states.

This is not the typical South African stance in international relations. Our typical strategy is to find inclusive settlement of problems and conflict founded on the politics of consensus.

Even though the governing party, whose political philosophy influences government conduct, is called a disciplined movement of the left, it is in essence a broad church that thrives on delicate management of internal contradictions through constant consensus building.

Since 1994, we have positioned ourselves as a peacemaker in Africa and the Middle East, a bridge-builder in multilateral affairs and an alliance actor in other international matters. Recall our conduct during international discussions on issues such as the developments round the World Trade Organisation talks, nuclear nonproliferation, sustainable development, and so forth.

Of course, the outcomes, being a product of consensus and compromise, were imperfect. But for South Africa, the fact that most countries committed themselves to inclusive deals made these outcomes fairer and a lot more just than those that are forced by the few on many.

They were not everything that the progressives wanted or conservatives sought, but they constituted small incremental steps that were needed to complete a long and complex task of building a better world.

During 2009, we saw this penchant towards relationship building rather than going it alone, as the Zuma government­ rehabilitated relations with Angola, Brazil, the United States, France and recently, Zambia. We took great care not to cast ourselves as moral crusaders for any particular side in contestations.

The same can be said of our position during the World Trade Organisation ministerial conference in Switzerland earlier this month.

• Siphamandla Zondi works for the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.


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