Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 20 October 2013

The visits of French president and Polish prime minister: a scattering of welcome fairy dust

State visits by the President Hollande and Prime Minister Tusk have done some necessary and much appreciated underlining of South Africa as the dominant economy on a continent which is enjoying increasing attention.

With Europe struggling to find a new strategy for itself and to somehow reinvent its brand, diverting oneself to Africa must provide an alluring opportunity. South Africa with its Madiba magic and large economy has for a long time enjoyed the reputation of an engaging and worthwhile place in which to make friends and build business relationships. No more, it seems, judging from some current opinions.

There have been disconcerting indications recently of South Africa losing its foothold as the dominant economy in Africa and the go-to place for anyone wanting to kick off an African investment. Those becoming disenchanted with our debilitating labour troubles and poor political leadership are mentioning Nigeria and talking about how Lagos is becoming a more trade-friendly and stable place to use as a base in Africa. Comments from companies like BMW, who now plan to take a major piece of their manufacturing operations out of South Africa, have left South Africans smarting and compounded the government’s troubles.

Jay Naidoo, talking about what the Economist called “South Africa’s sad decline”, says we are no longer a shining example of good governance. Commenting on why South Africa has slipped down the Ibrahim Index of Good Governance, he says “South Africa has squandered the political and social capital accrued under Mandela”.

Two almost simultaneous high-profile state visits from France and Poland have put a little balm on this sore. They have given the thin-skinned South Africans, always eager for approval and recognition, some comfort and reassured us that we still matter and can attract the attention of some major figures on the world stage.

President Hollande did not only come to pay his respects. He came with his impressive delegation to consummate some heavy-hitter deals and to extend our existing business and political relationships. Fighting off rising unemployment in France, he must have been happy to do some of the schmoozing for the R51 billion Alstom of France deal, where they will be building 3,600 railway coaches for our Passenger Rail Agency. Great business for France and for South Africa; with some unfortunate memories of the arms deals that are still not laid to rest, we can only hope that it all has proceeded above board. For their part France has signed a loan agreement worth R1.5 billion for Eskom to build its solar power projects. Plans, presumably under the radar, for collaboration in building nuclear power stations, were not part of the official discussions.

All of this during a two-day state visit, which must have provided welcome respite for Hollande, who is facing mounting criticism at home, and whose party has just lost an important by-election. In the warm bubble of goodwill that these events tend to generate, his aides talked about the “close relationship” between Mr Holland and Mr Zuma, dropping the surprising little piece of information that the two of them “often talk on the telephone”. Really? Who’d have thought that?

The visit by the Polish Prime Minister did not bring such specific investments but he and his large ministerial and business delegation talked about how much our two countries have in common and referred to the great political transitions we have both experienced. They also noted with pleasure the increasing trade between the two countries, growing from R2.6 billion in 2006 to R6.3 billion in 2012. The economic cooperation agreements were signed and prospects for future mutual benefit now seem to be strong.

Mr Zuma, who has often complained that he has greater credibility when he is out of the country than when he is at home, must have relished his statesman-like role of graciously hosting these two major international figures. With his eye firmly on the election just down the road, any photo-op that is not connected to corruption or political slippage must be like manna to him right now.

So now we know what our side got out of the entente. What did their side get and what can they expect from our future relationship? According to Christo Wiese, chairman of Pepkor and Shoprite, not much. Delivering his annual chairman’s address for Shoprite, he said that South Africa used to be the top nation for doing business in Africa but now has lost its place and several of the other countries on the continent are beating us to the draw. His company operates in 17 African countries and he says they are “presenting investors with better opportunities”.

Putting it all together, where does this charming little international visitor episode leave us? Presumably in a place where we have to make peace with the ups and the downs of our own performance and achievement; and then to take courage from our still significant international stature and the kind of goodwill that made these visits happen, to build for the future. DM


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