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AFRICA UNSCRAMBLED OP-ED

Welcome to the new New World Order — don’t put all your BRICS in one basket

Welcome to the new New World Order — don’t put all your BRICS in one basket
Kenyan President William Ruto speaks during a press conference in Nairobi, Kenya, 5 September 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Daniel Irungu)

Despite the much-hyped contest between China and the US, Africa is no longer chained to a bipolar world. There are multiple partners across the continents. That’s a fact embraced by breakout African nations like Kenya and Zambia, as opposed to the ANC’s fixation with Cold War-type thinking.

South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor’s ideological posturing about “ending the hegemony” of the US dollar offers a stark contrast to African countries like Kenya that are just getting on with the job of winning friends and influencing people in a tough new post-pandemic world.

Scrapping the dollar as the world’s reserve currency might actually be a good idea. There are even American economists who agree, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon for reasons too complicated to get into here.

What Pandor is really expressing, no matter how carefully she chooses her words, is the ANC’s fixation with Cold War-type thinking in which aligning with the BRICS means an ideological allegiance with Russia, China and the “global South” against the American world and the forces of imperialism.

Read more in Daily Maverick: What was Sydney Mufamadi’s US mission? Minister Pandor provides the answers

Again, that probably appeals to many as a worthy objective, and is meant to signal that South Africa still has it when it comes to progressive credentials, but what is its purpose? Does it help attract investment or create jobs?

Nonidiological perspectives

William Ruto, the President of Kenya, offers a different approach to meeting the geopolitical moment if one examines his frenetic schedule of meetings just this past week.

Last Friday he met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz in Nairobi. On Saturday he was at Westminster Abbey for the coronation of King Charles III, networking with the gathered dignitaries and world leaders.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, BRICS

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (left) and Kenyan President William Ruto (right), shake hands after holding a joint press conference following bilateral talks at the State House in Nairobi, Kenya, on 5 May 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Daniel Irungu)

Then he crossed to the Netherlands and on Wednesday, Ruto, an evangelical Christian, was praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.  The previous week he hosted the Mo Ibrahim Governance Forum, a high-level gathering of personalities from Africa and the world, and met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kushida.

Ruto has engaged with South Korea and is strengthening ties with the other “Asian tigers”. He is negotiating a bilateral free trade deal with the United States, having already signed a trade pact with the British, Kenya’s former colonial occupier.

Kenya has burnished its image by being an important partner in the various peace initiatives in Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, all troubled neighbours in the Horn of Africa.

Willem-Alexander, Brics

Willem-Alexander (right) poses with Kenyan president William Ruto during their meeting at Noordeinde Palace, in The Hague, The Netherlands, 8 May 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mischa Schoemaker / Pool)

Ruto has many critics at home, where there is still enormous poverty. He is expanding his international outreach while facing unrest and a challenge from former Prime Minister Raila Odinga who continues to contest his defeat in last August’s election. And the discovery of the bodies of at least 133 religious cult members who starved themselves to death in the Shakahola Forest has shocked the nation.

But to those who have criticised him for jetting off on foreign trips while the country is simmering, he responded: “We believe it is through the broadening and strengthening of our relations with the international community that we can accelerate the transformation of our country.”

Ruto’s foreign encounters are targeted at one goal — trade and investment. He is prepared to put ideology aside and explore all possibilities.

He spoke to Chancellor Scholtz about cooperation on renewable energy, an area in which Kenya is the leader on the continent, producing 50% of its power from geothermal and positioning itself as a manufacturing hub for new technologies.

Kenyan President William Ruto, BRICS

Kenyan President William Ruto (right) poses for the media with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (left) upon his arrival for their meeting at the Statehouse in Nairobi, Kenya, 3 May 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Daniel Irungu)

In the Netherlands the topics were agricultural exports, green growth and wildlife; in Israel it was cyber-technology and water and agriculture for the vast arid areas of Kenya. Japan is helping develop Mombasa, the largest port in East Africa.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa remains a figure of great respect on the international stage. But it is Ruto — who 10 years ago was facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court for orchestrating violence in Kenya’s 2007-2008 election (which he has always denied) — who is Africa’s most polished salesman today.

Investment and development

The fact is that times are hard and capital for development and growth is scarce. Ruto’s aggressive outreach comes against a backdrop of anaemic recovery in most African economies — countries that never had the means that rich nations had to spend their way out of the pandemic-induced downturn.

Kenya is among a majority of African countries struggling with a debt burden that was rendered unsustainable by the shocks of the last three years. And the cost-of-living crisis is driving many urban Africans to the brink.

Kenya, BRICS

Supporters of the opposition Azimio coalition throw stones and shout slogans towards riot police (not pictured) during a nationwide protest in Nairobi, Kenya, on 27 March 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Daniel Irungu)

Despite the much-hyped contest between China and the US, Africa is no longer chained to a bipolar world. There are multiple partners across the continents.

There is indeed competition between the US and China in Africa, but it does not rise to what you could call a cold war.

If anything, the competition has some positive spin-offs. The US, concerned with Chinese dominance of critical minerals and the EV battery supply chain, is assisting Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia to establish their own processing facilities for nickel and cobalt instead of just exporting the raw materials.

And some of the critical challenges on the continent — such as debt relief and the transition to a green economy to combat global warming — are going to require the US and China working together and finding common ground.

China, India and Brazil are already important trading partners and investors in Africa. An expanded BRICS can contribute to investment and growth, but not if it fosters the creation of two hostile blocs engaged in a struggle for domination of the continent.

Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF’s Managing Director, has warned that this kind of global fragmentation will only stifle growth and put recovery at risk.

Kenya is among a club of breakout African nations, including Zambia, Tanzania and Angola, that exemplify the brave new world of multipolarity — and who partly because of that seem poised to become Africa’s winning nations in the decades ahead.

Another scramble for Africa or a new cold war is only going to happen if Africans let it happen — and don’t let themselves become instruments of other people’s wars. DM

Phillip Van Niekerk is the editor of Africa Unscrambleda newsletter covering the continent in a way you won’t read anywhere else. Get unscrambled by signing up right here.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Thomas Risi says:

    We are looking to the brave new world past the ANC. This can and will happen if and when our opposition parties move from there ideological base thinking as well.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Bipolar world????

    The only thing bipolar is Putin.

    Russia’s economy is smaller than Spain’s and its conventional military might is now a joke.

    Yes, Russia is a nuclear threat but going by the defence in very poorly equipped Ukraine, a nuclear war would end in Russian airspace, not over London Paris Berlin.

    China is an economic and military force, not Russia. Russia is a joke

    • Johann Olivier says:

      And let’s be clear: love it or hate it, the pre-eminence of the US dollar as the world reserve currency is here to stay for at least the next 50 years. The only possible competitor is China and until they change their form of government, it ain’t happening. As things stand now, roughly 60% of the world’s trade is in US dollars. Second? The euro at 20%. Then, we have the Japanese yen and British pound at around 5%. The renminbi? 3%. Pretty much end of conversation. The Old World Order – the Order that engenders confidence – is at roughly 90%. How ’bout that pipedream, Naledi?

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