Mixed success for Ramaphosa on 3-country investment drive

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President Cyril Ramaphosa meeting Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. (GCIS)
President Cyril Ramaphosa meeting Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. (GCIS)

President Cyril Ramaphosa has returned home, after a punishing visit to three countries in three days, with billions of dollars in pledges from his aggressive drive to attract investment back into the country. But it was also a hard lesson in diplomacy.

Ramaphosa visited Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Abu Dhabi in the UAE and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia proved to be the more successful of the three visits, with the two countries each pledging $10bn towards Ramaphosa's ambitious plan to attract $100bn in the next five years.

The two oil producing nations are looking to access South Africa's markets, as they try to diversify their economies which are largely dependent on oil.

Saudi Arabia gave Ramaphosa a shopping list that includes a state-of-the-art refinery and projects in renewable energy. The UAE was not as specific, but boasted about its growth in tourism. The country attracts 24 million visitors annually, despite being in a desert with treacherous weather.

However, the pressure was also on Pretoria, as there were complaints that some of the agreements signed during former president Jacob Zuma's presidency were never implemented. The Arab nations are hoping that, as a former businessman and lawyer, Ramaphosa will deliver on these promises.

It is also not clear yet what the implications of the deal with Saudi Arabia will be for South Africa's relationship with Iran. Increased oil imports from Saudi Arabia could elbow out Iran, which has longstanding ties with Pretoria. Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016 after its diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad were attacked by Iranian protesters following the execution of a prominent Shia imam by Saudi authorities.

South Africa has imported at least 20% of its oil from Iran, and officials said Saudi Arabia is looking to South Africa to assist in easing tensions. 

While the trip to the Middle East was more successful for Ramaphosa, Nigeria proved to be a difficult, casting doubt that he can fix the broken relations between the continent's two superpowers.

'Targeted attacks'

Ramaphosa has been determined to press the reset button on the tense relationship between the two countries. He had invited Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to be the first head of state to be hosted at the Union Buildings. When this did not happen, he settled on a working visit to the country.  

It is a powerful diplomatic gesture, but the fraught relations were laid bare when he was confronted with questions from investors and journalists who wanted to know what his administration was doing to end the "targeted attacks and killings of Nigerians living in South Africa".

It appears that there is a well-funded and orchestrated narrative in the country that Nigerians are under attack, despite the country's people personally contributing to the fund to fight apartheid, and as post-independence South African businesses are thriving in Nigeria.

The results of a Google search for "South Africa Nigeria" are dominated by headlines about Nigerians being "assassinated". Few of the news sites link the killings to the high crime rate in South Africa, but instead paint a picture of killings of Nigerians being "on the rise".

Nigerian officials seem to also fuel this narrative. The Senior Special Assistant to the President on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, is quoted as saying that no fewer than 117 Nigerians had been killed in South Africa between 2013 and 2018 for one flimsy reason or the other.

The figure has been disputed by Pretoria, with Police Minister Bheki Cele saying that South Africans were the majority of the victims of the high murder rate in the country.

Battle to dominate Africa

Ramaphosa was clear that there was no negative disposition or hatred towards Nigerians. But there was no mention of some Nigerians in the country accused of peddling drugs and the attack on police last October when they raided a suspected drug den in Vanderbijlpark. Pretoria is choosing diplomacy – to have access to the Nigerian market of 200 million-plus people.

Diplomats conceded that relations between Abuja and Pretoria were so bad that they were hurting South African businesses in Nigeria – accusing authorities of "sabotaging" some of them.

The worst was the MTN debacle, that was aimed at taking the telecommunications company out of business. MTN was originally fined $5bn for failing to cut off unregistered subscribers.

At the core of the tense relations is the battle to dominate Africa, with the two competing to be the continent's biggest economy.

South Africa currently does not have an ambassador to Nigeria to push back the narrative that has even bevome part of the debate in the country's parliament. A new diplomatic tiff could also be in the cards, with Abuja reluctant to sign off on the continent's free trade agreement, as it's concerned it could harm its "infant manufacturing industries".

Later this month, Ramaphosa is expected to host his Chinese counterpart ahead of the BRICS summit. It will be interesting to see how the new president comes out of that.

- Mahlase is politics editor of News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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