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Thursday, 08 January 2015 09:56

South Africa’s Place in an Economic Global Order

Written by Alan S Alexandroff
Alan S Alexandroff presenting at SAIIA's Beyond BRICS event, December 2014. Alan S Alexandroff presenting at SAIIA's Beyond BRICS event, December 2014. Photo © SAIIA/ Willem De Lange

Without question South Africa remains a vibrant, complicated and seemingly a growing troubled land. My colleagues from the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) one of the premiere think tanks in South Africa and the University of Pretoria, particularly the Department of Political Science there brought together some of their South African colleagues with experts from a number of countries for a conference (December 4th-5th) titled “Alliances Beyond BRICS: South Africa’s Role in Global Economic Governance”. 

Hats off to both Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, President of SAIIA and Maxi Schoeman Head of Political Science at the University of Pretoria and all their colleagues for a job well done.

Planners asked the visiting scholars to prepare papers on the global economic governance policies in their respective countries. So we had papers from Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey. Our hosts posed the central question:

The BRICS alliance does not seem to have yielded any benefits for South Africa in terms of interest articulation in global economic governance beyond the rhetoric of reform and democratisation of global economic governance institutions.  BRICS does, nonetheless, serve a purpose by contributing to the reshaping of the global political economy.  However, with regard to elevating South Africa’s voice in global economic governance and framing an agenda that supports South Africa’s growth and development, the benefits are not immediately apparent.

So the visiting scholars were in fact asked to assess how each of their countries had tackled global economic governance and what lessons might South Africa therefore draw from these country studies. The choices were carefully drawn. They suggest in various ways countries that in many cases represent a next tier of countries  - a tier apart from the great powers, but recognized nonetheless – some emerging market countries and some better described as middle powers. The emerging countries, those such as Indonesia and Turkey have often been identified as possible future members of groups such as the BRICS. For those better described as having middle power characteristics, Canada and Australia in particular, these countries represent entities that operate “below” the great power level and in turn shift and shape with the great powers such as the United States, often with respect to security, or at other moments seek more autonomous status or act as “bridge” players in the economic global governance order.

While there were instances during the Conference where the country examinations seem to suggest a course of conduct for South Africa – a continuing middle power role and bridge-building efforts – the real bottom line for South Africa – a practical course of global governance conduct with reliance on multiple identities and memberships for the country.  In today’s global order, there appears to be no need to follow a single course of conduct. Other country behaviors evidenced quite varied conduct and they utilized a variety of international organizations – formal and informal. That potential behavior is aided by the growing number of informal institutions, whether, G20 or BRICS or the new MIKTA, South-South relations or even the host of Africa’s large emerging market institutions with African states – FOCAC or India-Africa.

The ground is fertile then for a multipronged multi-identity South African global economic governance foreign policy. Yet for the moment it appears that the South Africans, or at least its current government appears wedded to a singular strategy – an identification with the BRICS – but even more a tightening relationship with two of its members, first China and now Russia. As Mzukisi Qobo and Memory Dube acknowledged in their paper for this conference entitled, “South Africa’s Foreign Economic Strategies in a Changing Global System”:

The sharp turn in South Africa’s foreign policy to assume a hostile attitude towards the West occurred after Mbeki made way for President Jacob Zuma, who officially took over in 2009. He would view formations such as the BRICS as important forums on which to cast his own foreign policy legacy.  Under Zuma’s leadership, foreign policy gradually took on a strongly anti-Western undertone.

While the value of some enhanced status or influence for South Africa through the BRICS remains controversial here in South Africa, it is not so much the collective BRICS initiatives, most notably the New Development Bank, that is criticized but rather the tilt of the current President and his loyalists to China and now even more dramatically to Russia. It has unnerved many experts. President Zuma recently undertook a rather secretive six-day visit to Russia which South African press described “as a mysterious mission and shrouded in secrecy.” CityPress said, the details of his visit were not revealed. Later it was revealed that South Africa had signed an agreement that could lead to Russia supplying as many as eight nuclear plants with a capacity of up to 9,600 megawatts of power, with most coming online by 2030.

The need for greater electrical reserves is evident. Even with our brief trip here in South Africa the strain on electrical resources is evident. And that says nothing about the failure to provide power to millions of poor South Africans. We were subject, as was the entire country, to what in North America is called rolling blackouts but here in South Africa is called ‘load shedding’. Beyond an inconvenience I can’t imagine the cumulative cost to the South African economy of these rolling black outs over an extended time frame, notwithstanding that they are supposed to occur only on weekends.

Grave concern has been registered by many South Africans for this no bid enormously expensive nuclear agreement, especially give that the Chinese and the French have both indicated an interest in supplying nuclear power to South Africa.

But the apparent reliance on Russia and the secret arrangements is not seen as the real calamity possibly for South Africa’s foreign policy efforts. Rather the concern is that the relationship signals an undermining of the democratic impulse and practice in South Africa and a growing attraction to authoritarianism as opposed to the rule of law and human rights practices.

If that were to be the case, that would be a real tragedy.


Alan S Alexandroff is Director of the Global Summitry Project at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. This article was first published on his personal blog.

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