South Africa’s Place in an Economic Global Order

South Africa Pretoria

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.

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From Shanghai to Pretoria – From Where You Stand: Part II

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Shanghai was the first conference stop; but it wasn’t the last.  For the first time the partners – the Munk School of Global Affairs and the Stanley Foundation – held a conference in Pretoria partnering with our friends at the Department of Political Science at the University of Pretoria.  We were very fortunate to welcome friends from most of the key countries – Brazil, India, China and obviously South Africa.  Unfortunately, our colleague from Russia was ultimately unable to make it.

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A Turbulent and Yet Vital Country


It is very hard to capture the essence of a place in a short visit to a far away land. I am still trying to digest all that I saw and heard while in South Africa over the last couple of weeks.  Although this trip was not my first visit, it was for me the most sustained time that I spent there.  And I had the good fortune to spend time at the University of Pretoria with good colleagues and also with: a variety of folks from the diplomatic community; as well as officials from the government of South Africa.

For those of us interested in global summitry, South Africa is a significant new player in the global governance game.  It is the first, and to this point only African state that participates consistently at the “high table” of G20 leaders.  Moreover, and I’d say most critically, South Africa is a turbulent yet vibrant member of the democratic community in global summitry.

Today South Africa remains the largest national economy in Africa, though growth has been increasingly a question mark for this most southern nation in Africa.  South Africa may be taken over by Nigeria in the not too distant future.   While I was in Pretoria  the government released two vital pieces of information.  First, and due to its most recent census, South Africa had reached a population of some 50 million people.  Second, as I mentioned in the previous blog post, “An Apparently Potent Flavor of the Month”  South Africa has acknowledged that its official unemployment rate has climbed to 25.5 percent.  Now that is a nasty piece of business but let’s not forget – and I was reminded about this in recent new reports – that Spain, yes Spain, part of the eurozone, has an official unemployment level about the same as South Africa.  Definitely food for thought.

Now a quick examination of the pros and cons on the national ledger.  Official statistics reveal that violent crime is on the decline, though what we here in North America at least call b&e is not.  In fact on that front what the South Africans call “smash and grab” is seemingly an ever-present reality. Indeed, one of my colleagues at UP, or as it is affectionately known and called – Tuks – has suffered through three incidents in just a year.  In fact this colleague was on the way to pick me up when an assailant put a brick through the car passenger window and lifted the bag and credit cards of my colleague.  The more than pleasant guest facility that I was temporarily housed in had a high fence surrounding the entire facility where swiping a card was required to gain entry.  Even more sadly the University, which was only about ten minutes walk from this same guest facility was completely surrounded by an equally high fence and there was absolutely no admittance without a card or by way of a thorough check and the guarded entries.  It was to say the least unnerving.

On the wider civil society front there have been stormy and even violent labor strikes recently.  The most notorious was the Marikana strike – mines near Rutenburg – where in August 47 people, mainly miners, where shot and killed by South African Police Services personnel.  Strikes have not ended in the mining sector though they have abated, but there have been recent strikes by agricultural laborers  that have led to hectares and hectares of vineyards being torched.  Not pretty.  The social unrest is real and disconcerting and it has allowed the most populist political elements to seek advantage.  Also not pretty.

But on the positive side, I would suggest that the democratic impulse  is a tangible and ever present sense in the country – among the elites and more importantly in the broader South African society. This is a vibrant democratic society.  In response to the Marikana shootings, for example, the government struck a public commission of inquiry.  Now it could be a “white wash” and possibly a serious effort of political deflection but the instinct and impulse is right – and it is evident that this is what the South African people expect.

On the democratic side, the real impediment to a deep and deepening  democratic entrenchment is the continuing stranglehold on political life, and the national government, of the current ruling Tripartite Alliance – the amalgam of the African National Congress (ANC) the Communist Party of South Africa (SACP)   and the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU).  This ruling party, and government, is a consequence of the struggle against apartheid.  But the alliance now impedes – my political science is about to shine through, sorry – the “circulation of elites” and the holding accountable of office holders in particular.  Unfortunately, the stranglehold of the ANC alliance saps the prospect of democratic renewal and accountability.  While the DA or Democratic Alliance opposition has made gains – even holding provincial government – it remains viewed by the black majority as a white party.  The DA requires more change.  Thus, South Africans have to rely on the interplay of factions, including reformist factions, within the ANC to renew democratic accountability and to punish cronyism and graft.  It is not adequate. Extremist elements continue to call for a “second revolution” – threatening private property and in the end the rights of all citizens.  A truly bad business and unlikely to encourage investment in the economy from within or from without.

Storm clouds or not the democratic presence in South African life is palatable and to be nourished.  It was encouraging that colleagues saw the unique South African character. Notwithstanding the current Administration’s fantasies over the BRICS membership – and an unlikely South African leadership in it – colleagues and experts  were alert to the leadership and partnership prospects in the India-Brazil-South Africa partnership – IBSA.  South African leadership needs to see it as more than a development forum.  The democratic values at the core of this alliance gives this organization the critical foundation for these emerging powers and potentially a values driven institution.  And just within the G20 there are immediate partners – Turkey and Indonesia.  This is the way forward for South African leadership in global influence. Let’s encourage it.


An Apparently Potent ‘Flavor of the Month’

Well I have been absent – my bad.  But I do have an explanation.  I am currently in South Africa at the invitation of colleagues from the University of Pretoria – Tuks as it was once called – and between preparation for leaving for SA – and indeed arriving here – time ran short.  But I am back now.

This should help to explain my absence.  An hour after arriving I was whisked to Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg and the Jan Smuts House where the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) is now located.  There experts examined, “Values in Global Economic Governance: Do India, Brazil, and South Africa Share a Common Vision?”

Hardly able to catch my breath, I was requested to join a gathering in the downtown the following day, where a panel was organized to discuss South Africa and its role in the G20.  Entitled, “South Africa and the G20 – Challenges and Opportunities” this panel was put together by SAIIA again and in this event the featured speaker at the panel was the Deputy Governor of the South African Reserve Bank, Daniel Mminele.

A third day and ‘lo and behold’ – a third panel.  Fortunately, this panel was organized by colleagues here at the Department of Political Sciences at Pretoria.  Here again the organizers put together a panel on the G20 and the featured speaker on this occasion – Alan Hirsch the Director General of Policy Coordination and overseas economic policy implementation in the South African Presidency, in other words – South Africa’s Sherpa.  The session entitled “The G20: Looking to the Future” included a number of officials from the diplomatic community including officials from the Russian and Mexican embassies as well as representative from the Open Society Foundation representing civil society.

So quite an opportunity to learn about the G20 and other global summitry institutions and how the informed and informing public here and select officials view current global summitry So what do I glean from all this conference activity?

Well South Africa continues to take its leading role in Africa seriously.  But there are signs of concern.  South Africa is struggling to raise economic growth.  And there are projections that Nigeria will overtake South Africa in the size of its economy.  Statistics from the government in the last few days reveal that unemployment has risen to 25.5 percent.  And who knows what the real number is.  Strikes are seemingly an ever-present phenomenon, especially in the mining sector.  Though wage increases have been accepted, employers have begun a series of public announcements identifying plans to down size to cope with the wage increases.  There are a series of government scandals over government provision of services from the delivery of textbooks to the public schools to the provision and tolling of new roads, and on.  And there are growing doubts over the Zuma presidency.  Where is the drive?  The goals?

In the midst of this, there is excitement – in the global summitry community – over South Africa’s hosting of the BRICS Summit in March.  This enthusiasm appears to have spread beyond officialdom to the media and public intellectuals and even beyond to the broader public.  Why?  It is not clear?  Part of it appears to be that the Zuma presidency seems to view BRICS membership and hosting as a part of the Zuma legacy.  While his predecessor highlighted South Africa’s involvement in the IBSA Summit – India, Brazil and South Africa – Zuma and his officials have turned their sites on the BRICS.  Indeed The SAIIA conference at Jan Smuts House explored the future prospects for South Africa in IBSA – tied together by the commitment to democratic governance – as opposed to the BRICS – tied together by – well no one is quite sure.  For the moment the public has been excited by the proposal to inaugurate a BRICS bank.  There has been much discussion of exactly how to put together such an institution and to what end would such a bank be created for at least in concept as early as the next summit.  South Africa has publicly announced that it would be willing to host the bank in South Africa – especially if the bank’s purpose was to fund infrastructure in Africa.  There is much loose talk that the bank could represent an alternative to the “old” institutions of the World Bank.  But that seems far-fetched and South African officials have been quick to tamp down such talk.

As many have suggested though the fascination here in South Africa with the BRICS appears to be that it represents an alternative club – without the traditional powers.  No UK, France or United States.  And including China.  It appears to resonate with the anti-colonial rhetoric of many in global south.  Interesting – but it is such an odd collection.

And the love affair with China is tempered here in South Africa by China’s actions.  In Pretoria there is much frustration.  China is completing a new and very large embassy here – in fact near the US embassy.  Workers were transported in from abroad and apparently 80 percent of material procurement occurred from China.  Reality beyond the rhetoric.

So there it is – enthusiasm for an alternative – but the hard reality of policy practices that may not secure favor.  Let’s keep looking.

Africa’s Champion?

South Africa is a central player in the O5. But is it a BRIC or the extension – B(R)ICSAM/BRICSAM? This a more difficult question. In CIGI Distinguished Fellow Andy Cooper’s Heiligendamm Process Project, we have been fortunate to have Brendan Vickers join us and prepare a chapter on South Africa (SA) entitled, “South Africa: Global Reformism, Global Apartheid and the Heiligendamm Process.” Brendan, by the way, is currently a senior researcher in the multilateral programme at the Institute for Global Dialogue in South Africa (IDG). Before his appointment to IDG, Brendan was Deputy Director responsible for International and Trade in the Office of the President of South Africa.

On economic leverage, it would appear that SA is simply too small to be part of BRICSAM. Currently, SA has a GDP (PPP) of only USD$467 billion which places it as the 25th largest economy in the world. As Brendan suggest, “… there is little objective economic rationale for the country’s inclusion into the O5, let alone an expanded G13.” Brendan characterizes SA as a middle-income developing country with many of the development problems that this brings. Indeed, as he points Continue reading