Trading ideas

2009-10-06 00:00

WE analysts attend many meetings where we debate things. We enjoy continuous dialogue about all-important social matters. Some call these meetings talk shops. It is as if the term “talk shop” is a swear word for some critics, who suggest that these meetings are of no use because participants seldom translate what they talk about into action. I, of course, disagree­.

I am of the view that there are people who are employed and born to discuss and debate issues. This is erroneously thought to be the work of parliamentarians and councillors only. We analysts and academics do a lot of writing and talking about issues that we too seldom translate into action. It’s not our task to do so. There is an even larger number of people who do not talk but only act. They are technocrats, who only want to see action or what the government calls “delivery”. The world would be such a bore if we only had the latter. I would even argue that we would make a lot more mistakes, strategic and tactical, if there weren’t debates, especially when it comes to societal issues.

Perhaps “talk shop” means a platform from which the doers of great things get the ideas that they implement. I like this understanding of the term because it suggests that the meetings I attend so passionately are a form of a market-place of ideas where doers shop around for new knowledge and ideas. Like a market, these meetings create space for ideas to be traded for consumption elsewhere in society. The idea traders should not be blamed when buyers fail to translate ideas into material­ benefits.

In the past two weeks alone, I have come across a wide array of ideas and knowledge in the structured dialogues that I attended. First in the list was a seminar at the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (Accord), a well-known peace-making NGO, on the plight of the plethora of peace agreements that we have witnessed in Africa over the past decade. The interaction suggested that as a continent we have mastered the art of making peace accords, which often lead to the end of atrocious wars and conflicts and, in many cases, stability and democratisation. The challenge is now to sharpen our capacity to maintain these agreements and drive an effective process of post-conflict development and reconstruction­.

The second meeting was a seminar on Africa-Australia relations held at the Institute for Global Dialogue, my employer. It suggested that political change in South Africa has actually added energy to our international relations. The Jacob Zuma administration is seriously focused on building relations with strategic partners around the world. It is set to use its advantage of historical relations with northern countries to cement its position as a bridge-builder and middle-ground player in international relations. Australians see in the new South Africa a key partner for their engagement with Africa. But South Africa needs to be very clear about what it wants from these relationships.

I ended the week by attending an interesting dialogue on the role and effect of African expatriate communities on Africa and South Africa’s development. The meeting discussed how African emigrants in the West, Asia and within Africa add economic and political value. To substantiate this, Brij Maharaj demonstrated the positive and negative implications of the so-called brain drain, including the repatriation of strategic knowledge and expertise. Dr Nomfundo Ngwenya, for instance, argued that expatriates establish networks of economic and developmental value to states in Africa. On this basis, they contribute to cash transfers, business development and a productive economy. Others showed how feminisation of migration benefits families and communities in Africa, while economic migrants have become serious economic actors in the global economy. It made me realise that African emigrants in economic centres of the world are a crucial asset for South Africa and Africa’s economic relations. They are professionals, traders, entrepreneurs, networkers and patriots who could be used to build mutually beneficial relations with strong economies in the world.

All three matters triggered a train of thought in my mind about the extent to which, as a country, we have sufficiently positioned ourselves to take advantage of opportunities that accrue from tectonic shifts in the global environment. Part of the challenge is the extent to which the “delivery” people choose ideas for practical application in government, business and action-oriented civil society. Their representatives always attend meetings of this nature and take copious notes. But I wonder if they act on the ideas acquired.

This includes our limited focus on the economic and political value of supporting countries coming out of conflict. We are heavily involved in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan, of course, but the extent to which we link that to economic benefits for both South Africa and beneficiary countries is suspect.

We do not give sufficient attention to how we brand and market ourselves as a country. Of course, the flurry of activities by South African Tourism (Satour) and similar institutions is important, but it is of limited impact in cementing sound economic relations with countries that matter to us.

There must be a coherent effort by the entire government, its agencies, business and civil society to project and protect South African­ness. The new government is open to engagement and this makes the development of such a concerted enterprise all the more probable in the coming years. Such an effort would seek to exploit the advantages inherent in having communities of South Africans in major economic centres in the West, Asia and Africa.

In this context, the restructured intelligence services and their new heads would do us good if they use their expertise to seek out opportunities for making South Africa a better country, including the potential role of expatriates, civil society formations and business corporations abroad, be it in peace diplomacy or economic diplomacy­.

• Siphamandla Zondi is dir­ector: southern Africa at the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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