“We face neither East nor West; we face forward.” So said continental giant Kwame Nkrumah when describing the future of Africa more than 60 years ago in Ghana’s capital city, Accra.
Having led Ghana to become the first liberated country on the continent just three years prior, Nkrumah’s words served as not only a visionary clarion call but a cautionary warning to leaders both then and now to become self-sufficient and not become dependent on world powers — whether from the East or the West.
There are no permanent friends in international relations, there are only permanent interests. Ours is to focus on South Africa’s interests. The delivery of employment for our citizens, stability in democracy and ensuring that our foreign policy is updated to meet our future needs on climate change, security, digitisation and diplomatic relations.
Considering the incendiary revelations by US Ambassador Reuben Brigety over the past days, his subsequent about-turn, South Africa’s own official response, and the reaction of the rand to dollar value, South Africans are well placed to reconsider what a just and beneficial new foreign policy can serve us for the decades to come.
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Being pushed into a binary corner of choice by superpowers does not serve South Africa’s permanent interests. As a developing nation with under-development and rampant unemployment, trade and economic benefit are our interests. Old historical, nostalgic ties that don’t serve this interest belong to the past.
Heeding the words of Kwame Nkrumah, we need not be pro or anti either the West or the East, we must always be pro-Africa. We should be fixated on crafting a new global approach that requires tough choices and dogged commitment to those choices in the interests of South Africa and Africa. South Africa plays a vital leadership role on the continent, and we must use that leadership role to protect and advance African interests. That is how we heed the call of Nkrumah and go forward.
These are not considerations exclusive to Africa — even French president Emmanuel Macron has espoused that Europe itself “must reduce its dependency on the United States and avoid getting dragged into a confrontation between China and the US over Taiwan”, and that “the great risk Europe faces is that it gets caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy.”
In our foreign policy formulation, we must be very clear on what our own interests are at all times and act in alignment with those interests both from a short-term and a long-term perspective. The guiding principle here is radical centrism. The best of both worlds.
It’s “radical” because it departs from the old tools of democratic engagement and strict adherence to ideology. And “centre” because of the position it occupies, holding practical progress as paramount by considering all ideas from the entire spectrum.
Radical centrism is not ideologically dogmatic. Rather it is pragmatic, looking to draw the best ideas out of and bring all sides together to build consensus on a way forward that benefits the country. There is Western imperialism and there is Eastern imperialism.
Likewise, there are Western benefits and Eastern benefits. Let’s minimise the former and maximise the latter in our pursuit of a new future-focused foreign policy.
Let’s consider the lay of the land. South Africa operates within the Western financial system. Our banking sector is one of the top-rated in the world and our financial system was ranked in the top 20 by the World Economic Forum 2019 global competitiveness report.
While our financial system is deeply entrenched in the West, we have trade relationships with nations from both the West and the East. As a result of our multipolar economic ties, we must not act in ways that entangle our economic futures with the political moves of rival powers on the global stage.
Our official foreign policy position has historically been that of non-alignment. However, as of late, we’ve progressively been deepening our relationships with members of the BRICS bloc, of which Russia is a central player. This has brought us into the crosshairs of America and the West.
Moreover, SA has had to vote in ways that do not build our global reputation and placed us in the company of dubious nations in recent votes at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly.
It is a tricky terrain to traverse, guided by the view of minimising our risks and maximising our interests. It is certainly not in our interests to weaken our currency and increase living costs. Our nation is going through 10 hours a day of rolling blackout, and this is killing our economy — we are projected to grow at only 0.2% this year.
In addition to rolling blackouts, we have been going through higher-than-usual levels of inflation and our interest rates have been increasing steadily. People are going through a very difficult time because of inflation directly linked to the costs of fuel and food. The governor of the Reserve Bank was very clear that many of the challenges we are presently facing are a result of our own goals. We cannot score another own goal, not at this stage of the game.
Our aggressive posture in the diplomatic community is not aiding us in protecting our interests. Listening to Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni discussing the diplomatic row with America, I was left concerned that our government is putting its ego over the interests of South Africans.
We must keep in mind our trade dynamics, Russia is not a major trade destination for South Africa, China is our top export trade partner, followed by the United States, then Germany, then Japan and the United Kingdom. Our economic ties are stronger with the Western bloc and particularly the G7 nations at this moment in history.
In relation to America specifically, we have benefitted from strong economic ties. In 2019 South Africa exported goods worth over R150-billion. Agricultural products are one of the largest exports to the USA and in 2019 they totalled R7.3-billion.
These are significant numbers and if there is a risk that this trade will be reduced due to the introduction of tariffs or removal from agreements such as the American Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), we are in trouble.
While there is much talk of de-dollarisation and moving to alternative currencies, at present we are fully integrated into the dollar system. The global financial system is based on the US dollar and the strength of our currency relative to the dollar is going to impact the buying power of a rand.
That is our bottom line, and we must not lose sight of it. While we are going through these economic challenges, we should not voluntarily add a weakened rand to that basket of challenges. It is not in our interests.
Africa’s global role
Then, there is Africa, a continent at the centre of the East vs West economic battle for influence and power. In 2020 the United Nations projected that the global population would move closer to crossing 10 billion people by the year 2050. While over 90% of this growth is being projected to take place in middle- to low-income countries, it is also projected that the African continent will account for 55% of this growth, or roughly 1.2 billion people.
These projections are of particular interest because they mention that the population of sub-Saharan Africa will double while the continent remains the youngest in terms of median population age, with almost 60% of the continent’s population being under the age of 25.
This places in context the role Africa will play in the next 50 years. Rather than trying to play the global game of power and influence, let us focus our energies on where we can make a large impact and one that is in alignment with our interests.
We have the African Union, and we have the African Continental Free Trade Area, but we have not used our diplomatic energies to make these work. The Asean grouping is a good example of how a regional block can improve the economic conditions of everyone living in the block.
Take our biggest regional challenge — Zimbabwe. As the repressive and corrupt regime has unleashed violence on its people, many have fled to South Africa, creating a migrant crisis. This migrant crisis has contributed to Afrophobic attacks in South Africa and come with a high governance price tag in terms of providing services for both our population and the migrant population.
It is in our interests to make sure that there is a free-and-fair election in Zimbabwe, as well as ensure that any and all money from gold and tobacco smuggling in Zimbabwe does not get laundered in our banking system. We must focus our foreign policy efforts on these areas, which will be met with support from the global community rather than derision and consternation. We must respond to economic challenges that eventually deliver jobs in households and alleviate internal challenges.
Lastly, the elephant in the room is that the ANC is forcing all South Africans to honour the relationships and ties of the ANC, even though those ties do not come with benefits to South Africa. When we look at the future of Africa, it is clear that these old alliances have very little to offer us. We cannot be beholden to ANC old ties, whether with Soviet-era Russia or Zanu-PF.
A new path is required, which has consensus not only with members of one party, but with all South Africans that ensures our foreign policy is driven by our interests alone. DM