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23 June 2017 19:23 (South Africa)
South Africa

Analysis: ANC's International Relations Discussion Document – not a guide to what to do next

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • South Africa
Photo: President Jacob Zuma with Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula Second Extraordinary Summit of the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) at the African Union Headquarters, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 9 November 2016. (Photo: GCIS)

It took a while but J. BROOKS SPECTOR eventually tackled the ANC’s discussion document on international relations and tried – hard - to apprehend its meaning and utility.

Okay, I finally bit the bullet, girded my loins, strapped on my armour, picked up a nice, serviceable lance and a broadsword in order to help in taking a look at the ANC’s international relations discussion document. The question, of course, is whether it is possible to discern the party’s guiding ideas and strategies for South Africa’s foreign relations. Sadly, too much of it was a rehash of old ideas and tired rhetorical flourishes.

At the very least, it was not possible to figure out a concrete way forward for such important tasks for the country – from this very long, rather tedious document, at least as it is now phrased. Instead, the reader gains a rather dreary sense of the ideas that have captured the imagination of the ANC over the years, but a party still largely mired in the ideological thickets of yesteryear, rather than a policy document designed to help party, government and citizens prepare themselves to face the challenges of the future.

Reading this document, one might glean useful insights into how the ANC clings to a unique vision of a heroic journey that began with a small band of men gathered in Bloemfontein over a century ago, until it became the internationally recognised leader of the country’s liberation from apartheid. Beginning with that saga could be an appropriate preamble but it is really no longer useful in providing serious guidance and analysis about what the country faces going into the future.

Accordingly, there are too few tangible handholds for the government departments and offices that ultimately must articulate and then try to carry out such policies, such as the Departments of International Relations and Co-operation, Trade and Industry, and Defence and Security – as well as the president’s own office. And there is virtually no recognition of the place of individual citizens or their interest groups and other non-governmental organizations – save to warn about the sector that potentially can be responsible for transmitting malignant influences from abroad.

The document begins well enough, even if there are the usual genuflections towards the usual revolutionary rhetoric. It notes that the transition to democratic, non-racial government in South Africa took place amid “tectonic shifts in the global power as epitomised by the rise of China and other emerging powers, the continued decline of hegemonic domination and influence of the United States as the global super-power (acting frequently to defend that position), and greater contestation in the United Nations and international organisations over matters of the use of power and resolution of problems that global capitalism and imperialism generate.” It does not, however, acknowledge the collapse of the Soviet Union and disintegration of its Eastern European empire in all of this tectonic shifting about, or the economic trajectory of China by virtue of freer market policies, but maybe all those were dropped for space reasons?

While the ANC’s discussion document goes on to note, reasonably enough, that the recovery from the 2008-9 global financial crisis has been difficult for many parts of the world, it also asserts that this difficulty has been “symptomatic of the unjust nature of global capitalism and the manner in which global power is used to advance the narrow national interests of powerful states”. The assumption, thus, is that there is some kind of mystical, direct connection between the financial crisis and global hegemonic economic power, but this connection is left unexplored, let alone convincingly proved.

Nonetheless, for most nations, the effects of that financial crisis of the previous decade have receded substantially. For example, according to the most recent issue of The Economist,

“Today, almost 10 years after the most severe financial crisis since the Depression, a broad-based economic upswing is at last under way. In America, Europe, Asia and the emerging markets, for the first time since a brief rebound in 2010, all the burners are firing at once….”

The Economist goes on to observe,

“The past decade has been marked by false dawns, in which optimism at the start of a year has been undone – whether by the euro crisis, wobbles in emerging markets, the collapse of the oil price or fears of a meltdown in China. America’s economy has kept growing, but always into a headwind….”

But, while things have been hard in the US during this recovery as the nation was largely the solitary driver of a global economic recovery over the past several years, The Economist adds,

“Now things are different. This week the Fed raised rates for the second time in three months — thanks partly to the vigour of the American economy, but also because of growth everywhere else. Fears about Chinese overcapacity, and of a yuan devaluation, have receded. In February factory-gate inflation was close to a nine-year high. In Japan in the fourth quarter capital expenditure grew at its fastest rate in three years. The euro area has been gathering speed since 2015. The European Commission’s economic-sentiment index is at its highest since 2011; euro-zone unemployment is at its lowest since 2009.

“The bellwethers of global activity look sprightly, too. In February South Korea, a proxy for world trade, notched up export growth above 20%. Taiwanese manufacturers have posted 12 consecutive months of expansion. Even in places inured to recession the worst is over. The Brazilian economy has been shrinking for eight quarters but, with inflation expectations tamed, interest rates are now falling. Brazil and Russia are likely to add to global GDP this year, not subtract from it. The Institute of International Finance reckons that in January the developing world hit its fastest monthly rate of growth since 2011.”

Such developments hardly speak to the hegemonic collapse theory in the discussion paper.

Moreover, in the discussion document, there is, by contrast, little or no recognition of the critically important impact of the collapse of the primary product commodity markets and the end of the good years of the long commodity cycle that was important to a nation like South Africa. That, of course, means that the discussion paper essentially ignores the criticality of exports as a driver of South African growth (along with services and tourism), and, therefore, the centrality of economic diplomacy in the nation’s diplomatic and foreign policy efforts. Subtract those things and one is increasingly left largely with some “struggle”-style rhetoric versus results-driven substantive guidance. There is no mention of “economic diplomacy” until near the end of the paper, nor any concrete discussion of how to improve efforts to encourage foreign direct investment in South Africa as part of a coherent economic strategy, for example.

Moving to other global economic themes, the document notes, “the gulf between the industrialised North and the developing South is exemplified in the negotiations over climate change, among others.” That would not seem to accord with the success of the recent Paris Climate Accord and the agreement between – crucially, China and the US – over the accord’s commitments and provisions. Yes, of course, the new Trump administration is making particularly ugly noises about reneging on this accord, but it has not yet happened and any such decision may well be tied up in US courts for years.

In any case, many elements of US pollution controls are already well-established parts of the American legal and regulatory worlds, as well as more fundamental economic determinants such as production efficiencies and the profit motive. These are driving many energy users to mitigate carbon emissions anyway, even if the Trump administration erases the US’ name from the document in a formal sense. Moreover, there is no recognition in this ANC discussion document that the by-volume leading polluter and greenhouse gas emitter is now China by virtue of its rapid economic growth and the rising tide of middle-class consumption there, although its output still remains significantly less than that of the US on a per capita basis.

This discussion document spends significant space reviewing the many Third World-style declarations and groupings “in the face of the re-emergence of imperial forces”. There is, however, no mention of Russia’s engagement in the Middle East (particularly Syria), or its military actions in Ukraine or Crimea, let alone the more complex issue of the growing Chinese engagement in the South China Sea. 

Returning to economic issues, the paper argues that the masses of the poor are becoming continuously poorer as the rich (presumably only in the west) are becoming ever richer. This assertion flies in the face of the global movement of hundreds of millions of heretofore poverty-stricken people in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia into incipient middle-class status due to the globalised economy and the ongoing dispersion of supply chain and manufacturing chains throughout the world.

Of course it is true that there has been an explosion of wealthy people around the world becoming increasingly wealthy at faster rates than poorer people move up the income ladder (and that they have much larger shares of global wealth), but that is very different than arguing that the rich – including all those new Chinese, Indian, Russian, Indonesian and Vietnamese millionaires and billionaires – are squeezing all the income out from the poor among them. Nor does the paper take into account widely supported predictions that several hundred million Africans are poised to make the same leap to middle-class consumerism in the next decade or so. In short, the paper confuses relative inequality and the rise of the newly wealthy in many places globally with an ongoing impoverishment of the masses.

Moving on to international security issues, the paper hones in on the cataclysm of Syria, but lays the blame on an “interventionist agenda by forces that seek to bring about regime change in Syria” rather than pinpointing the disaster as an only partially successful outcome of the earlier “Arab Spring”, and the deep involvement of the Russian military there. The paper then argues that Syria’s agonies demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the UN by virtue of its control by those old hegemonic forces we still hear so much about these days.

The paper also argues that the present circumstances in the Israel/Palestine conflict come from the inability of the US under the Obama administration in bringing the conservative regime in Tel Aviv to heel successfully. In effect, the paper shifts the problem there to one of American domestic politics.

Further, the paper argues, the UN “is hampered by its limited legitimacy as it is yet to be reformed in order to reflect the current geopolitical realities. It is also hampered by geopolitical contestations where Western powers are often pitted against the East, particularly Russia and China as witness in matters of the Middle East. In this context, regional military alliances like Nato have grown bolder in their geopolitical positioning and influence in world affairs. Divisions in the UN Security Council are often limiting and almost paralysing its ability to ensure an end to unnecessary conflicts. It is clear that it would need a fundamental reform of the Council for it to regain both its legitimacy and its effectiveness….” There are few subtleties in such analysis. The Middle East’s problems are simply a function of the old East-West divide – and changes to the UN’s structure will fix this. No Iran’s apparent nuclear ambitions, no religious or ethnic schisms throughout the region, no ancient or modern animosities, no rivalries for influence, and no exercise of a resurgent Russian military engagement.

When the paper moves to NGOs, it betrays the party’s ambivalence on such groups, arguing that there is the growing agency of “International NGOs and corporations in the shaping of global discourse and, by implication, actions on current global issues. International NGOs and corporations have taken advantage of globalisation by deepening their role in shaping the thinking about global and regional problems and offering solutions to them. They both can act as an extension of powerful countries in advancing the goals of new cultural, economic and political imperialism or they can promote a progressive agenda. The countries of the South are often least prepared to respond to the use of non-state actors as proxies and are not often effective in countering them by using their own non-state actors to advance their interests or to counter Northern geopolitical games.”

Actually, this doesn’t make much sense unless one is becoming a devotee of the “Steve Bannon worldview” where the power of an inimical “deep state” brings foundations, businesses and governments together in a seamless, giant web to subvert legitimate authority. Are the authors truly advocating a battle – as they seem to be – between domestic and foreign NGOs over “Northern geopolitical games?”

The paper praises the country’s efforts at regional peacekeeping and peacebuilding in Africa’s conflict zones. However, it makes few proposals about how to improve such efforts, or to explain where they should figure among South Africa’s priorities. Similarly, the paper speaks to strengthening the country’s leadership in its African Agenda and its quest for continental unity, but offers few specifics.

The re-admittance of Morocco to the AU leads to a call for dealing with Western Sahara – and that in turn leads right back to Palestinian statehood, although there is no discussion of any other statehood question on the globe, or any serious discussion of pan-African peacekeeping forces for the violent separatist conflicts that afflict a number of African nations. There is, however, notice of “the designs of Africom”, even if the authors recognise there are no Africom bases now being contemplated. The need for better SADC integration gets some attention, and rule of law on the continent is a topic of concern as well. The Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court are mentioned, but they are largely summoned as a goad for giving life to the mooted African version of such a tribunal.

The paper calls for better North-South dialogue, but a key element seems to be a call for further extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, following its recent 10-year extension by the US government. However, the paper confuses AGOA with an international agreement, rather than understanding its status as a unilateral US action. There is no practical discussion of how AGOA’s benefits to Americans might be tangibly demonstrated by Africans. Absent that, it would seem to condemn AGOA to ending when the latest extension ends in 2026, given the “transactional” bilateral trade policy agenda favoured by the new Trump administration.

By page 14, there is finally a brief discussion of economic diplomacy, after the question of the role or reality of the Pan-African Parliament, but the paper then casts economic diplomacy as part and parcel of the re-building of ties between South Africa’s ANC and other former liberation movements throughout the continent and with the Socialist International. There is no attention to the fact South Africa maintains negative trade balances with much of the world, save for with the rest of continental Africa and the US, or how to lessen such deficits – or how South Africa’s government departments and the private sector can co-operate on such steps.

The paper finally wraps up by including a list of campaigns to be carried out. The authors would have South Africa decry the continent’s exploitation by others, lobby for progressive positions in international bodies, consolidate the AU’s relationship with the African diaspora, condemn colonisers for their efforts to promote factionalism via NGOs, popularise the outcome of a panel on illicit financial flows, express concern for the plight of the South Sudanese, unite on the urgency of the aspirations of the Western Sahara’s population and condemn Morocco’s actions, recognise the Swazi political situation as something for Swazis to address, develop programmes to support women and youth, condemn continued occupation in the West Bank and reiterate Palestinian independence, and celebrate Africa Day. But there is nothing in this campaign roster on the country’s economic relations with the rest of the world. Nada, zilch, nothing.

The whole exercise concludes with suggested topics for further discussion by citizens such as conservations on the domestic elections in the BRICS nations and the US, on how can the party (and presumably country) can help build a better, more integrated continent, and on generating support in the AU and carrying out a push for party-to-party relations. But, yet again, no real mention of economics, trade and investment. Such things must not be very important.

In sum, as a document for hands-on guidance to the government or the nation’s people, it suffers the flaws of all cut-and-paste jobs. Its constituent parts are there in response to the goals of many different interest groups and factions and the stitching together was spotty at best. What it clearly lacks, however, is any real sense of the criticality of economics and trade for national growth and success. There is no sense of comparison with rivals and alternative models of success, and no embrace of difficult choices that must be met in the future. When everything has equal weight and everything is a first priority, nothing is.  This paper will make some ideologues happy, but it will offer little practical guidance to the party’s own government leaders, or to the bureaucracy they must lead in a complex, difficult world. And it will give them no insights about opportunities to advance the national interest that must be pursued. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma with Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula Second Extraordinary Summit of the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) at the African Union Headquarters, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 9 November 2016. (Photo: GCIS)

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • South Africa

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