Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
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As we prepare for the new era, having ousted the man who ousted former president Thabo Mbeki, before he could make his 10-year anniversary, the emerging consensus is that – never mind South Africa’s declining global competitiveness – the country’s foreign policy is in the doldrums.
It will require a deliberate and systematic approach by our leaders to ameliorate this unflattering state of affairs.
According to the latest World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, the world economy is showing encouraging signs of recovery since the 2008 global financial meltdown. Gross domestic product growth accelerated to 3.5% in 2017.
Despite this positive development, South Africa’s global competitiveness dropped 16 places to 61st spot, as our economy fell from a growth rate of 3.2% into a technical recession in the corresponding period.
It is universally expected that the economy will improve under President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The economic recovery and growth depend largely on which economic and foreign policy choices Ramaphosa implements.
During his tenure, president Nelson Mandela was clear about the country’s foreign policy position: independence and coherence.
Notwithstanding his global stature, which would have influenced how South Africa was regarded, Mandela’s administration was able to establish political and economic treaties with others as equals.
US president Bill Clinton learnt not to tamper with South Africa’s foreign policy choices after trying to dissuade Mandela from warm relations with Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba.
It was thus not a coincidence when South Africa was invited to join, and still remains the only African country with membership of, the powerful G20 nations.
Mandela’s successor, Mbeki, sought to reverse cynicism about Africa’s ability to progress without the West’s tutelage or meddling.
Mbeki’s signature foreign policy thrust placed Africa at its centre and helped elevate the continent’s foreign policy agenda. The New Partnership for African Development (Nepad); transforming a lethargic Organisation for African Unity; spearheading the African renaissance; and re-establishing Africa’s pre-eminence in ancient knowledge systems and heritage, especially Timbuktu and Mapungubwe, were hallmarks of Mbeki’s foreign policy in Africa.
Jacob Zuma, Mbeki’s successor-in-title, eviscerated South Africa’s economic and foreign policy standing.
The last decade saw new fault lines emerging in the global economic and political order. This seems to have presented a golden opportunity for venal, constitutional delinquent Zuma to realign South Africa’s foreign policy towards Russia and China with like-minded characters.
As Russia and China inexorably entrenched their status as Africa’s ascendant powers, having outmanoeuvred the West across the continent, South Africa’s foreign policy agenda impotence crystalised.
Whereas Mandela could instruct a superpower to “go jump”, under Zuma South Africa was reduced to China’s lapdog.
China twice succeeded in demanding Zuma’s administration deny Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama entry into South Africa. This was a clear message that South Africa had subordinated its foreign policy agenda to the whims of its new best friends, Russia and China.
The Dalai Lama fracas prompted an evidently disheartened Archbishop Desmond Tutu to exclaim: “Hey Mr Zuma, you and your government don’t represent me. You represent your own interests.”
International trade and economics suffered under Zuma. Historically favourable trade relationships with the US through the African Growth and Opportunity Act, and with the Eurozone, were sullied under his rule.
It was on the continent where South Africa, once regarded as a paragon of human rights, disappointed the most. On the human rights abuses perpetrated in countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan and Uganda, South Africa’s silence grew even louder.
Perversion of democratic processes in the DRC didn’t raise Zuma’s eyebrows, as mining concessions granted to his nephew, Khulubuse Zuma, seemed to trump South Africa’s interests.
Shielding fugitive Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir from the International Criminal Court (ICC) and South Africa’s subsequent application for withdrawal from the ICC’s Rome Statute, confirmed our country’s descent into a human rights abuse apologist – a far cry from Mandela and Mbeki’s halcyon eras.
South Africa’s membership of the Brazil, Russia, India, China (Brics) group of emerging economies, once billed a watershed moment, turned out to be an unabashed disservice to our sovereignty. For far too long, South Africa’s foreign policy and international trade vacillated as Zuma mollified Brics and an incoherent, impotent African Union.
In the process, South Africa paid incalculable economic and political costs as Russia and China turned a blind eye to apparent state-sanctioned bilateral trade-based malfeasance.
It is crucial for South Africa to renegotiate its participation in Brics and, at a minimum, demand improved trade terms. Divestiture from Brics’ New Development Bank is an economic imperative for South Africa.
It is common cause that most infrastructure projects funded through the bank will likely benefit Russia and China. This to the almost total exclusion of Brics’ junior partner, South Africa.
Clearly public expectations of Ramaphosa, and his responsibilities, extend beyond the confines of his party and the physical borders of South Africa.
With Africa projected to drive the next wave of global economic growth, it would be opportune to, perhaps, revisit Nepad and greater economic integration of the Southern African Development Community zone.
Notwithstanding the need to drive increased trade within Africa and the elevation of Africa’s agenda globally, it is crucial that South Africa places its foreign policy and economic interests above everyone else’s. Surely Mbeki would be disposed to assist Ramaphosa in this regard.
As Ramaphosa attempts to reset a beleaguered ANC and South Africa’s fortunes, it is imperative that deliberate and bold steps be taken to recalibrate our foreign policy agenda.
With Zuma finally history, Ramaphosa’s ascendancy to the highest office in the land paves the way for him to reinvigorate South Africa’s economic and foreign policy fortunes with urgency.
Precise, deliberate actions are demanded of Ramaphosa if he is to help reverse our declining global competitiveness, reinvigorate the ailing economy and boost our flaccid foreign policy agenda.
The question is, how long will it take for South Africa to rise again and assume its rightful place among nations?
Khaas is chairman of Corporate SA, a strategic advisory and consultancy firm.
Follow him on Twitter @tebogokhaas
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