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The decline of South Africa’s geostrategic relevance


Saliem Fakir is Executive Director of the African Climate Change Foundation

Despite the World Economic Forum Africa meeting being held in Durban, last week, South Africa’s geostrategic relevance in the region has been on the decline for the last decade or so. To turn this trend, the country needs to resolve its internal friction and develop an orientation that is less inward and more long-term.

The southern backwater held great importance before the Suez Canal opened its gates connecting the Indian ocean with the Atlantic sea. The once peripheral replenishing station, the various East India companies used, had some geostrategic import as far as early mercantilism was concerned.

The discovery of gold also gave importance to this southern outpost as more and more European settlers came to settle on its shores. And Jan Smuts recognised that to give South Africa geostrategic importance he willing had to tie South Africa’s future with that of the British Empire and commit soldiers on behalf of World War l.

Some quarters among the Afrikaners held Smuts with great contempt for siding with the British Empire. Smuts also had the idea to expand the territorial boundaries of South Africa well beyond the current borders of South Africa. Except that other British controlled areas would not accede to this vision of a grand imperial state emanating from down south.

Today, gold has been replaced by platinum which has gained strategic importance but only up to a point as it is under-girded by magisterial politics of a grand kind that surrounded gold given the Anglo-Boer wars.

Perhaps a tomorrow may come, when for some unforeseen reason if the Suez canal were shut, the southern sea route -via the Cape of Storms – may have trade and military relevance once again. But the fact that no foreign power has yet rented our shorelines for a naval base tells us a lot of how far we are from worldly geopolitics.

This may not be entirely true in the future – the Chinese appear keen to build a maritime fleet and showcase their new power at the far seas, and have taken some interest in our underused naval infrastructure.

Denel, last year, signed an agreement with China’s armaments company Poly Technologies to upgrade the Simon’s Town naval harbour and make that a ship-building hub. Poly Technologies is on the US watch list. You can see geopolitics already playing itself out.

In the long-term, Simon’s Town, may come to serve China’s growing far seas capabilities in the Indian ocean and could be a docking point for their new nuclear submarines.

Every dominant economy builds a natural geostrategic impulse to gain influence outside of its borders for market expansion. This alignment usually takes place, often seamlessly, if business and political elites feed-off each other. In South Africa this alignment has never quite been attained due to mutual mistrust between the two forms of power.

In the Jacob Zuma era, political-business alliances are weaker given that they were traditionally anchored, predominantly, around a white and foreign capital. Business that is not dependent on government procurement tends to operate as free agents anyway and have been doing so for a long time outside South Africa’s borders.

In the post 1994 period western powers encouraged the kind of settlement we produced simply because it offered a model for the rest of Africa. It conformed to the liberal order and its architecture.

The South African economy also had significant western investments. For the world, South Africa’s financial, transport, telecommunications, and mineral wealth served as a foundation for market seeking investments into the rest of Africa. The Johannesburg Stock Exchange facilitated short term capital flows in a well-developed emerging market.

The South African bond market, with a disciplined fiscal dispensation, offered handsome rewards and security for bond traders. Strategic market-seeking investments by foreign entities continues in South Africa – and South Africa is a destination en route to the rest of Africa.

Both the Mandela effect and the interest of global capital in African markets made South Africa not a country of geopolitical interest but geo-economic value. This still continues to be the case albeit weaker in the post the Thabo Mbeki era.

Mbeki saw in geo-economic importance also a geopolitical opportunity to grow South Africa’s influence in Africa, through NEPAD. His idea was to establish a network effect relying on soft-power, market forces, donor aid and state infrastructure spend to harness African potential and in so doing also extend the sphere of influence of South Africa on a continent rife with geo-political intrigue from old and new global powers.

Geopolitical ambitions are as good as geo-economic presence. The vision of a geo-economic role for South Africa in the rest of the continent has been more strident from private capital and was clearly understood after the post 1994 settlement. Outbound foreign direct investment (FDI) in banking, retail, health, and other services continues to be more geographically diverse in Africa from South African private capital and still contributes the largest share of FDI in Africa even from the likes of China.

There has never quite been the alignment between South Africa’s new political establishment and private capital that is necessary if any state deems itself to be of geostrategic importance. The ANC did not have the kind of embedded business relations that Turkey and Iran’s political elite had with the business elite in their countries.

If, there was alignment it never was an ideal fulfilment of common goals and vision. If, there is one, it certain is of grovelling kind filled with tension between old capital and new capital. Unity is certainly not the hallmark that defines the relation within business elites themselves let alone with the political establishment.

Where private capital failed to align with the new political elite the hope was that South African state enterprises would fill that gap.

Some hope of that did manifest in the early period of the post 1994 era through investments from Eskom, Transnet, PetroSa, SAA, ACSA and others. Much of it was also facilitated through Spatial Development Initiatives (SDIs) that had a regional dimension to them. There is some continuity if you look at Transnet’s ambition for regional coverage.

The problem is that the troubled mother ships of the developmental state are less developmental today. If anything, they are subject to predatory pursuits undermining any hope they could serve both an internal development agenda or an external economic ambition. Things are not too far-gone but if a predatory state prevails then all semblance of an outbound geostrategic play will not cohere if exist at all.

In fact Chinese state enterprises do much better on the African continent than South African state enterprises. This is largely due to the centralisation of politics and economic policy in China. Coherence in China, after all the party congress talks and discussions, is commanded through their five-year plans and not subject to further negotiation.

After the Mandela effect had gone South Africans soon realised that despite the rhetoric of sublime African brotherhood and mutual protection it is still each African state for themselves. This is just like the rest of the world and in Africa, despite the presence of the African Union, each state continues to engage intrigue through engaging with various non-African powers interested in Africa’s vast resources and its market.

This is because when elites govern they speak the rhetoric of the people but in reality they do what is necessary for self-enrichment.

South Africa is too far south to be of great geostrategic interest as a pivot state in the context of Eurasian geopolitical games. As the great geopolitical thinker Halford Mackinder once noted: “The one who controls the heartland, controls the world island, and one who controls the world island controls the world.”

The US is the pre-eminent power of the world today. The US’s future status does not lay in Africa but what goes on in the heartland – Eurasia. This is the real prize.

Its present and future rivals, in great power games, will be China and Russia. Africa will still continue to attract geopolitical intrigue from the great powers because in the Mackinder framing it is a vast and rich resource island to the periphery of Eurasia.

This status will remain so long as Africans do not enhance their self-determination and use their natural wealth and people to build their own modernity and civilisation.

South Africa can play a positive role in this but it needs to resolve its internal friction and develop an orientation that is less inward and more long term. It can use its vast internal advantages to shape a geostrategic role that enhances the broader African development agenda. DM


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