Guest Column

Al-Bashir cements SA’s shift away from West

2015-06-18 12:43

Daniel Silke

Most South Africans had barely heard about Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir until this week. Few care about Sudan’s murky history and events surrounding war crimes and genocide in Darfur more than a decade ago. Whilst Palestine might resonate with a slightly larger domestic audience, South Africans really don’t place Sudan anywhere near their list of daily concerns.

With this in mind, the South African government’s ill-conceived and downright tragic actions in wilfully ignoring its own judicial authorities by allowing al-Bashir to leave the country play little in the domestic political space.

More importantly, they represent another example of a foreign policy pivot away from the West towards their BRICS partners and – more importantly - the evolving relationship with Russia and China.

The BRICS have largely lost their collective clout in recent years. Faltering GDP in Brazil and Russia has reduced their economic significance. China too is showing signs of economic lethargy as its own growth rates start to slow. Only India shows green shoots of progress as its new leadership attempts to court the private sector in a reversal of earlier policies.

But economics aside, it’s the shifting geo-political sands of the world that are important here. Russia’s recent annexation of the Crimea and her continued involvement in the Ukraine highlight a super-power that is still unhappy with the post-1999 new world order – an order in which the fall of the Berlin Wall was replaced with a perceived Western hegemon in Europe.

Similarly, China is flexing her military muscles. Increased spending on defence has gone hand in hand with the provocative man-made creation of islands in the South China Sea expected to house extensive military installations.

Unlike Russia, China does not have the imperative to re-create any grand Cold-War status, but her own spectacular economic growth has left Beijing feeling a distinct need to raise the political power bar in global terms. Both countries have recently nurtured a rising tide of state-sponsored Nationalism for short-term political ends.

In both Russia and China’s case, two critical nations (geo-politically and militarily) have forged an unintended yet psychologically significant Alliance - partially on economic co-operation - but more so on countering the West wherever possible.

It is this alternative view of the world that has often been popular with African leaders who themselves have chosen to smooth the way for China’s entry into the continent. Indeed, it was China’s growth that played such a significant role as a catalyst for the African renaissance – achieved largely by the re-alignment of the broader continent to the East.

And, it plays well into current ANC thinking. A prevailing view that “we don’t really need the West, we have friends in China and Russia” seems to be the current mantra.

Given China’s apparent deep pockets for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and the close personal relationship forged between Presidents Zuma and Putin (possibly over massive nuclear co-operation), South Africa is rapidly moving away from Western orbit.

With this in mind, the Constitution is relegated to a position of lesser importance. Accountability is reduced to rhetoric. The judiciary becomes sidelined. The press becomes a target for control. Ultimately, autocratic tendencies combined with political machinations reduce key state institutions to mere shadows of what they should be.

This might play poorly in London, Berlin or Washington, but in Moscow or Beijing, its business as usual.

Neither Russia nor China views these actions as negative. Their own domestic political systems (and foreign policy regimes) are fraught with similar tendencies. And, a host of other nations will similarly hang onto these undemocratic coat-tails that perpetuate power for ruling elites rather than diffuse it.

So, South Africa’s chattering classes, liberals & constitutionalists will rightly bemoan the perilous precedents that have been created these last few days. Government though will shrug it all off – as will their allies in the emerging new world order.

There may well be a broader threat to real democracy globally than just worrying about South Africa. New geo-political hegemons are appearing that will test the rule of law everywhere. There can be no excuse that we haven’t seen the warning lights.

- Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

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