FOREIGN AFFAIRS OP-ED
Dr Jackal, Mr Hyena and the two faces of ANC politics
Dr Jackal or Mr Hyena? Step forward, South Africa into the global community of nations. But which South Africa?
Fresh from his audience with King Charles III at Buckingham Palace in London, President Cyril Ramaphosa is about to host one of the world’s most odious dictators, a man who has remorselessly and selfishly driven his country into economic penury while hollowing out its courts and ignoring the resolutions of its elected parliament.
Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, who rose to power through dodgy elections, has picked up where his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, left off, consolidating Venezuela’s authoritarian democracy, overseeing the arrest, detention and assassination of thousands of citizens.
These policies have driven out a quarter of Venezuelans, more than seven million people, as refugees, the largest displacement crisis in the Americas.
That is not all. Amnesty International has blamed South Africa’s new guest for “8,292 extrajudicial executions carried out between 2015 and 2017”. His rule has been condemned by the Organisation of American States (OAS). More than 50 countries do not recognise his regime.
But, if the South African government is to be believed, it has “strong relations” with Caracas and the visit will “consolidate concrete actions for mutual benefit”.
Bad company, again
South Africa’s back in bad company, again. Among those who do recognise and cosy up to Maduro’s government are the similarly authoritarian regimes of Russia and China, which South Africa, despite being a constitutional democracy, greatly admires.
The explanations for both these trips, from Venezuela and to Britain, range from the generous to the cynically realist.
Ramaphosa was the recipient of the rare honour of being the first to make a state visit to Britain since King Charles III became head of state and the first in three years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The pageantry, 63-gun salute and invitation to address members of Parliament and guests at the Palace of Westminster provided South Africa with a golden opportunity to reset its global positioning after a disastrous year of equivalence over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It was also a chance to drum up much-needed investment and impress sceptical power brokers that have begun to view South Africa, with its collapsing power grid, rising crime and spasms of deadly rioting, as a rising economic and political risk.
Such is the generous interpretation of the motives, and the possibilities. The UK’s similarly generous motives for according South Africa this diplomatic honour are several that could be imagined. While accepting differences over foreign policy from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and, now, Ukraine, a celebrationist version is that it was an attempt to bury the hatchet and usher in a new era of collaboration, trade and investment. The UK is not alone in this orientation currently — it’s a direction in which the Biden administration is also seemingly heading.
It could also be that London wanted to “reach out”, to use the modern phrase, to a country drifting perilously towards a reversal of democratic reform.
There is precedent for the “reaching out” theory — but it’s not a particularly encouraging example for the reachers. Almost three decades ago, when Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe began to bare his teeth as his decade-long honeymoon drew to a close, he was treated to a similar reception.
The late Queen Elizabeth went so far as to confer a knighthood on him — the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, no less. And, in one of her less memorable moments, she said to Sir Robert at the official state banquet: “Through your personal commitment to economic reform … your economy seems to be well on the way to recovery and sustainable growth.”
In 2008, as Zimbabweans died while an election was stolen and the economy entered its death spiral, the knighthood was revoked.
A generous view of the Venezuelan visit is that this is Ramaphosa adroitly using foreign policy to balance out any resultant perceptions of an overly pro-Western orientation, especially with the ANC conference around the corner.
Then there is the more cynical view, that post-Brexit, Africa is viewed as a good place to make trade and investment deals. It could be that Whitehall scanned the room and settled on the least controversial visitor, and the one where British business is most ensconced.
Compared with Mugabe, Ramaphosa is an entirely more acceptable figure, although there are growing similarities between the ANC and Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, both of which survive on rent extraction and patronage at the expense of economic growth.
In this cynical narrative, London threw the kitchen sink at this trip in an attempt to craft a post-Brexit Africa foreign and trade policy. Everything was on view, including the pomp and ceremony of British institutions, and the institutions themselves. Even the English rugby team was brought onside to help.
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This explains London’s approach in siding with Ramaphosa precisely at a time when he is entering a domestic political race, and as his country’s economy enters (quite literally) its darkest phase. In this version, Ramaphosa is in a life-or-death fight with corruption within his party even though the shadow of the Phala Phala scandal has undermined this a little.
Still, South Africa struck gold with the invitation to Buckingham Palace.
But how did Ramaphosa do — did he seize the opportunity, act the slim jakkals, and turn on the charm to help deal with its interlocking crises of growth, governance and social cohesion; or did he play the old game of scavenging over guilt and ideology? Was there the suave foreign salesman or instinctive domestic ANC politician?
The reviews have not been good. Instead of resetting South Africa’s global posture, Ramaphosa chose to blame the past for his predicament and lecture his hosts. As the Telegraph, the Tory bastion, put it: “ ‘Give us yer money’ he might as well have said to the assembled guests, apparently unaware that Britain doesn’t have any.”
Or as Quentin Letts observed in The Times, “Ramaphosa, not one of life’s charmers, demanded that Britain cough up for historical industrial emissions. South Africa wanted ‘compensation for harm done and harm yet to be done’. Get out your chequebooks. Actually, from what one hears about Ramaphosa, folding stuff might be preferable.”
The Times article concluded about the President’s (overly long) address to Parliament: “Ramaphosa certainly misread the room.”
The key metric of this trip is, at least for South Africans, whether Ramaphosa lowered or raised the premium on South African investment this last week. Without that key takeaway, the hosts — and Ramaphosa’s other international supporters and apologists — risk alienating South Africans.
Instead, with its flirtation with Venezuela, South Africa is discounting its investment case in signalling that it is more comfortable in the company of rogues. DM
Greg Mills is director of The Brenthurst Foundation and Ray Hartley its research director.