Europeans in South Africa

2013-07-18 07:02

Leaders of the European Union are in South Africa for the SA-EU Summit at the time when relations are strong economically and somewhat work-in-progress politically. They remain arguably the most important pillar of the SA's search for stable relations with the global north, the old centres of global power in Europe and North America.

They are not only a source of significant foreign direct investment, which in turn contributes to economic growth and job creation, but they also give the country the possibility of having a balance in its international economic relations between its relations the old industrialised countries and relations with the fast emerging economies of the south.

Their ultimate value will be in deepening mutual political understanding especially about global reform and Africa's place in such.

However, the South Africa-EU Summit this week is an opportunity to ensure that this balance is on the basis of more equitable trade and investment relations and that the quality of the political dialogue is such that it can contribute towards the meeting of minds about the need for real change in the manner in which the global economy and politics are managed.

The formal relations negotiated with the first democratic government in South Africa, culminated in the signing in 1999 of the Trade, Development and Cooperation Act (TDCA), a comprehensive agreement for boosting trade, investment, and development cooperation between the two parties. This laid the basis for a steady rise in trade and investment, and a significant EU investment in development assistance mainly to SA civil society and sub-national governments.

The need to deepen and widen relations led to the agreement on a Strategic Partnership in 2007 through which the parties expressed their agreement on underlying values and principles like democracy, good governance, global multilateralism, peaceful resolution of conflicts, fairness and justice. The partnership hopes for deeper economic and political relations evidenced by rising trade, on the one hand, and, greater convergence of thinking and action on the political front. This latter included finding ways to strengthen the Africa-EU partnership.

On this basis, the parties agreed to hold high-level dialogue on an annual basis both at ministerial and head of state and government levels. This dialogue has been diversified and deepened with the establishment over the past two years of sectoral sub-committees and special forums such as the human rights dialogue forum launched in May 2013. The sub-committees of peace and security, maritime security, and development cooperation are said to have made significant progress in the given time.

This dialogue includes cooperation between the two parties regarding solutions to Africa's challenges of poverty, disease, conflict and instability, thus affirming the need for the EU to cooperate with African powers in assisting Africa find its own solutions to its problems.

While South Africa's regional power status can lead to worries from smaller African countries, envy from other African regional powers and scorn from critics, it benefits immensely from the recognition by others of the country's ability to champion pan-African programmes like peace diplomacy and post-conflict reconstruction, infrastructure development and regional integration. Regional power status is, therefore, both an artifact of hard power currency and an outcome of recognition as such by others inside or outside the region. The country's commitment to pan-African unity and development, and how it advances this in its global diplomacy, also adds to its regional status, in spite of its aversion to being called a leading state or regional hegemon.

While differences over interpretation and application of values enshrined in the partnership, especially on major international developments, remain, the Makgobakgoba dialogue, as it is known, has helped the two parties talk things through rather than shout at each other. There are indications that they are finding each other on some important issues, at least agreeing to disagree in a number of cases. The fact that the EU is lining behind SA, SADC and the AU on a number of African issues including Zimbabwe, Madagascar and the DRC is indicative of this growing maturity of political relations.

Dialogue on trade and development cooperation can become difficult, showing the soft underbelly of the relations. On trade, the real problem is power asymmetry, which manifests in unequal trade between the two with the EU enjoying a huge advantage in higher volumes exports to SA. This is to do with the structure of global economic power in which the EU is part of the centre and SA of the periphery. In many ways, the world economic relations are yet to be decolonised as they remain trapped in Africans exploring primary commodities and Europeans manufactured goods and services. SA imports from the EU grew from R171 billion in 2009; going up to R185 billion in 2010, to R214 billion in 2011 and R241 billion in 2012. Exports have actually fallen from R186 billion in 2008 to about R140 billion in 2012. This is assisted by trade-distorting heavy subsidies that European farmers and producers receive, enabling their exports to undercut domestic products in Africa. The EU protectionism is such that SA might loose even more trade access if the EU bans citrus fruits over black spots that these fruits have their skins.

On development cooperation front, the sticking issue is how the EU handles its decision to reduce the volume of development aid to South Africa, believing that being a relatively sophisticated economy it required less aid than it receives. The challenge here is the EU deciding on its own to redefine the developmental relations in a manner that is suggests neo-imperial orientation. The parties are talking about this and the last ministerial dialogue indicated that the parties were ready to strike a balance between reduction of aid and maintaining support to areas that still need assistance such as poorer areas, skills development, technology and innovation and so forth.

So, the SA-EU Summit is an opportunity for the two parties to deepen political and economic relations by discussing frankly issues of concern around the asymmetry of power between them, learning how to relate as partners rather than power-dependency, and exploring further concrete action in areas where convergence of interests has been achieved.

It may be unrealistic to expect the partnership to alter the structure of power relations as this is tied to the current world order. Yet the partnership is a useful platform to shift the dialogue from vertical to horizontal conversations on the basis of mutual respect and interdependence. This is so provided it focuses stronger on how the two could work better to ensure that the Africa-EU partnership is salvaged from stagnation by thinking again what does it mean to partners when there is a long history of master-bondsman between Europeans and Africans.

How do Europeans learn to treat Africans as equals and how do Africans stop seeing Europe as a saviour and source of unending charity? SA's regional leadership status is tested when the country has to use its special bilateral relations with major powers to stake Africa's interests.

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