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G7 summit: South Africa punches above its weight as torchbearer for Africa

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Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

US President Joe Biden, after the disastrous administration of Donald Trump, comes to the G7 gathering with a message that speaks about the ‘Coalition of Democracy’. This is the company South Africa keeps. Not bad, wouldn’t you say?

“As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives” (G7?)… No, this is no time for riddles and/or rhymes. As President Cyril Ramaphosa and his delegation prepare to jet off to Carbis Bay to honour the invitation of the G7, we must ask: Why did we make it on to the invitation list? After all, if domestic sentiments are anything to go by, South Africa is surely not worthy of such an invitation. The economy is in tatters, unemployment levels are through the roof and inequality has widened since the advent of democracy. So, why does UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson think it necessary to invite South Africa to this all-important Group of Seven gathering?

Well, others that made it to the list are South Korea, Australia and India, and we can safely assume that from an international relations and geopolitical point of view, these are all seen as pivot states. Pivot in the sense of strategic countries in their respective regions. Strategic meaning economically, politically and militarily strong.

For South Korea it would be the Korean Peninsula region and for Australia it would be the Oceania region. India would satisfy the Central Asia region. And so South Africa, I think we can safely assume, covers the southern African region. But in effect, given the instability in Nigeria and that the G7 probably still views Egypt as part of the Middle East, South Africa represents the entire continent. That’s probably the reason for the invitation.

It’s noticeable that China does not form part of this group and for all intents and purposes is probably viewed with some suspicion by the Group of Seven – another reason these specific invitees made the cut. South Korea plays a very important role on the South and North Korea axis, with the North long viewed as a strategic partner of China. And with the South China Sea debacle, Australia, together with South Korea, provides some buffer for the West.

Similarly, India is already finding itself engaged in military skirmishes with China on its borders, notwithstanding India being a counterbalance to China’s complete economic dominance in the world.

As for South Africa, it is seen as strategic because of China’s massive expansive strategy in Africa and the fact that China has now built its first military base on the continent. The dragon, it seems, is viewed as a danger and it’s up to the pivot states globally to lend a hand to the West to contain this dragon. I’m not entirely convinced South Africa sees itself in such a role given the good relations it enjoys with China, but time will tell.

Now, being seen as a pivot state is a very good thing for the country, of course, but what is it that we will be saying and doing in St Ives? For starters, the president, in his weekly letter, indicated the good strides we have been making over this very difficult period and he will certainly be speaking to some of these.

First, he will indicate that we remain a country that is free and united and determined to succeed. Second, he will be presenting a clear signal that our country is emerging from the devastation wrought by the pandemic (what with having achieved more than 1.3 million vaccinations to date).

We have a strengthening currency, a record trade surplus and growth in mining, financial services and manufacturing. Through the Presidential Employment Stimulus we have also created nearly 700,000 jobs, and the regulatory certainty so desperately sought is being worked on. He is sure to also engage the group on the Covax commitment and the patent issue surrounding vaccines.

US President Joe Biden, after the disastrous presidential administration of Donald Trump, comes to the gathering with a message that speaks about the “Coalition of Democracy”. This is the company South Africa keeps. Not bad, wouldn’t you say?

A contentious issue that will certainly have to be discussed is climate change and its impact on the growth of the world’s leading economies. It has always been very contentious because there are many countries that disagree on how to tackle the global challenge. First World countries and regions such as the US, EU, UK and Canada want India and China to cut back on their fossil fuel and carbon emissions, while the latter argue that the former contributed their fair share to destroying the environment while they were industrialising so it’s a bit fresh of them now wanting China and India to pull back when this is their time to grow and thrive economically.

This is but one element of this very complex issue. There is also carbon tax, commitments to industries to ensure fewer carbon emissions, and the overreliance on fossil fuels to this day. Where does South Africa stand on these complex matters since we can’t get our own energy sector right? We have an overreliance on coal-fired power stations and seemingly a reluctance to allow more providers into the sector who can provide alternative energy solutions. And let’s not forget the controversial decision to allow fracking in parts of the country.  

It behoves the torchbearer to be true and principled in his engagements with the group. I share the sentiment that we are on the mend. In a 2020 interview at Davos, Richard Quest from CNN mentioned three concerning issues regarding the South African economy: State Capture and what is being done about it; the state of South African Airways; and state-owned enterprises.

Well, the president can confidently report to the group that the Zondo Commission has uncovered so much and persons are being arrested and prosecuted as we speak. The Asset Forfeiture Unit has seized a lot of stolen properties and assets and more will follow. SAA is in business rescue and will fly again soon as a revamped airline, having satisfied its creditors and debtors.

Finally, the governance structures at all state-owned enterprises have changed and new management is moving each in the right direction. How we dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic has also been very good, keeping our death toll reasonably low and having a compliant citizenry more generally. We are certainly on the mend.

In short, domestically, whether you agree or not, we are making very good strides towards a non-racial, non-sexist, prosperous and democratic South Africa. In other words, we are not just hoping for better days, we are working even harder to achieve them.

And unlike the various interpretations of the rhyme or riddle of the man who goes to St Ives, let us hope that he is not the only one going to St Ives.

Because, optimism is the foundation of progress and hope is the companion of development. Fare thee well, torchbearer, and make us proud. DM

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  • You are singing in the dark, literally. Talking about the creation of 700,000 new jobs while millions lost theirs and referring to other minor improvements just demonstrates your own blinness. We have an unemployment rate of 74% of people under 24 and you are talking about good strides. I only hope that this social time bomb does not explode. It will totally destroy what is still good in this country.

  • Great recognition for SA that CR was invited. Progress indeed, but overstated. The ANC soul still lies in outdated communism and socialist ideology. EWC, inflexible and worsening labour legislation, the Mining Charter. The list goes on. Government is run from Luthuli House. The role of Parliament circumvented and the Chapter 9 institutional powers abused. A police force corrupt and that cannot be trusted, a prosecuting authority under resourced to be effective. Children killed in the cross fire of gangsters, and violent taxi wars. We pay lip service to what is needed to fix these major impediments to democracy. The pressure to de-rail the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers into a single power base run by a political elite remains. Over 700 SOE’s draining the fiscus. We claim we want development, but we cannot fix power generation. Delivery of services by the public sector has failed at central government, provincial and municipal levels. The intellectual capital in the State that existed 25 years ago squandered on jobs for the politically connected, mismanagement and corruption. There is progress, but we have taken a small hammer to the granite block that needs to be broken to unleash South Africa’s potential and truly begin the journey to democracy. It cannot happen within the present political dispensation dominated by the ANC. St.Ives is a beautiful part of the World. Hopefully CR comes home with more than a stick of rock and sand between his toes.

  • Now the trigger for this week’s announcements regarding enabling energy projects up to 100MW outside Eishkom and the privatization seems clearer. Something CR could report to the G7 🤔