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.