Geopolitical Watch

Time for South Africa to let economic interests override ideology

Interests rather than friendship should rule
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The nature of relations between nations has shifted dramatically over recent decades. Is South Africa’s diplomatic focus taking sufficient note of this reality?

Since the end of the Cold War the importance of blocks of nations acting in concert with one another on the global geopolitical front has diminished, and dividing lines have become a lot less rigid.

This trend was strengthened considerably by the financial and economic crisis of 2008/2009. Economic security concerns became more pressing than geographical security threats.

That does not mean that the world has become more peaceful. On the contrary. Since the attacks in the US on 11 September 2001 and the development of the Islamic State, which can be traced back to 1999, but became prominent during the first decade of this century, a world war of a different kind has been raging.

At the same time, on the back of what is sometimes called the “internet of things” and new communication technology, globalisation has dramatically sped up the impact of developments in one part of the world on the rest of it. It also poses new security risks and defence challenges.

It is an extremely complicated and multifaceted environment which calls for fleet-footed leadership from governments, business sectors and an increasing number of multinational corporations.

Friends or allies?

Against this background it is important to take note of an assessment by Charles Simpkins, senior researcher at the Helen Suzman Foundation. In an article last week, he wrote: “We are now in a diplomatic world akin to the nineteenth century, where countries have permanent interests, but not permanent friends. In the context of China-South African relations, fraternal greetings between the communist parties in the two countries may be part of diplomatic politesse, but they count for nothing in relation to economic interests.”

Simpkins was assessing the turbulence of late in the Chinese financial system and its impact on global economic stability, with special focus on South Africa.

In his concluding remarks he noted that developments in the South African political economy have warning lights on its “dashboard lighting up – creating a mess which is not in Chinese interest.

“They will not bail such a configuration out, either through the BRICS bank, or in any other way. Instead, they will join a growing international movement in support of South Africa policy reform. To suppose otherwise will mean joining the tradition of the Melanesian cargo cult of the late nineteenth century, with as little prospect of success.” (Cargo cults were based on a ‘myth-dream’ of expectations of help from the ancestors to make an abundance of goods available.) 

Signals from the ANC

Against this background it is hoped that some of the readings by commentators of the governing ANC’s just-published discussion paper on the subject of international relations are erroneous over-simplifications.

Most commentators have concluded that South Africa has turned its back on the West and is hitching its international relations wagon firmly to that of, in particular, China and Russia.

As argued elsewhere, what should set off warning lights, is the following statement in the dfiscussion document: “China economic development trajectory [sic] remains a leading example of the triumph of humanity over adversity. The exemplary role of the collective leadership of the Communist Party of China in this regard should be a guiding lodestar of our own struggle.”

By the time of writing the outcome was not yet known, but it is to be hoped that the reality of “no friends, just interests” was kept in mind by government representatives this last Friday when they met with labour and business delegates in a bid to stem the imminent massive job losses faced by the steel sector because of the dumping of cheap Chinese steel on the South African market.

By the same token it is hoped they will keep this rule in mind while foot-dragging is putting South Africa’s continued participation in the AGOA trade arrangement between the US and Africa in danger.

These are but two examples of where pragmatism should rule supreme over ideological preferences at a time when all indications are that the global economy, and especially emerging economies like our own, is facing an extended run of volatility.

by Steve Whiteman

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