As South Africa enters its 15th year as a free and democratic country it has become less exceptional in the eyes of others. This should not be regarded as a disappointing development, but as a natural outgrowth of an evolving and maturing process of engagement between South Africa and the world. However, becoming less exceptional does not mean playing a less constructive role in shaping global affairs and dealing with global challenges.
Our voice achieved credibility and legitimacy because of our divisive past, our considerable achievements and our aspirational future for a tolerant, progressive and equitable society.
Any country’s external engagement is linked to its internal circumstances and policies. Active global citizenship, which carries legitimacy and integrity, emanates from responsible domestic stewardship. However, legitimacy and credibility are intangible virtues that are difficult to build up yet quite easy to lose.
In the next year South Africa will move into a new phase of its post-apartheid odyssey, with the election of a government that is likely to be very different from the first three administrations in many respects. The new government will take office in a global and domestic environment that presents many uncertainties, and where South Africa will have to assert its voice clearly and in ways that bridge the divide between rich and poor, the West and the rest and between the South and the South. To fulfil this role South Africa has to pass some crucial tests in the next year or so.
The first of these is that of responsible leadership. Unfolding developments in the ruling party and its alliance partners, and their impact on government business in the period before the 2009 elections is already affecting perceptions of South Africa abroad. The transition must be managed smoothly and carefully to ensure that South Africa’s standing as a stable, reliable and positively engaged partner in global affairs is sustained and deepened.
The second test is the resilience and consolidation of our institutions and through them the values upon which the democratic and constitutional South Africa was built. The upholding of the integrity of such institutions strengthens South Africa’s image as a state run accountably, responsibly and respectful of the fundamental principles of good governance and human rights. This adds to South Africa’s reputation in the international community and gives weight to its initiatives on the global level. Support and encouragement of a rules-based multilateral system must inevitably be grounded in respect for the same at the individual state level. Only in this way can a fair global architecture have an impact on our greatest challenges of poverty and under-development.
The third test is about the quality and prescient nature of our policy evolution and implementation that requires us to be seen to act not as contrarian but as a builder on matters that require collaboration – whether these are in conflict resolution in Africa or the development of new regimes on climate change or cluster munitions, or playing a consensus-building role within the UN Security Council.
South Africa will have to pass these tests, at a time where it is essential that actors in the global arena redouble their efforts to cooperate on a number of challenges that highlight the interdependent nature of our world – whether one is wealthy or impoverished.
First, the year 2008 is the halfway mark for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs are about poverty reduction. Much of Africa will not achieve these, many of these countries are caught in development traps. Unfortunately, even the achievement of universal primary education in Africa will not necessarily help those who are part of Paul Collier’s ‘bottom billion’ to escape from poverty. The challenge increasingly is how to shift towards a development paradigm that is more growth-oriented. To quote Collier.
Overwhelmingly, the problem of the bottom billion has not been that they have had the wrong type of growth, it is that they have not had any growth.
In other words, the MDGs are necessary but not sufficient. This has substantial resonance for South Africa, not only because of its own developmental challenges but also because it is part of the poorest continent. South Africa must continue its engagement with the region and the global debates taking place around these issues.
Second, while South Africa has been heralding the dawn of an African renaissance over the last decade, the last year has seen some of the pillars upon which such a renaissance would need to stand weaken. The continental project of regeneration requires many hands to the wheel. It depends on regional leaders to provide the stability, the engine and the vision to make it happen. These are the ‘African Drivers’ of our development agenda. When these drivers careen off the road they jeopardise much more than their own country. Thus, the ongoing crisis in Kenya is not only disconcerting because of the suffering that it has brought to Kenyans. It is also disturbing because its drumbeat echoes beyond the borders of its sovereignty. Within our own region, Zimbabwe’s unresolved election, its accelerated economic decline and its impact on the social fabric, leaves an economic vacuum in South Africa’s hinterland, which limits the potential for deeper regional integration and development. Angola also faces a crucial election in 2008, the outcome of which will be significant far beyond its borders. We need to expend all our energies on ensuring that pivotal states such as Zimbabwe and Kenya do not descend further into ‘conflict traps’, but that they take their rightful place in promoting a more stable, progressive and prosperous region. This is ultimately in the interests of South Africans and indeed of all Africans.
Third, global trends indicate that Africa will have many suitors lining up outside its door for her natural resources. Two years ago China held a Summit with African leaders in Beijing. On 8-9 April this year, India held its first summit with 14 African heads of state in Delhi. These are important developments for our continent. They provide an opportunity for leverage with these emerging powers to complement our strategic development objectives. India and China are also important players in their own right on the global stage. To deal with them effectively Africa will require a more refined understanding of the drivers of India’s and China’s engagement.
However, African states should not regard this renewed interest from fellow Southern developing states as signalling the panacea to Africa’s developmental challenges. The panacea comes from the development of forward-looking and effective internal policies within a framework of good governance.
The fourth challenge of the 21st century is to galvanise cooperation among both developing and developed states on the responsibilities we all share regarding the planet. In the face of the stark pronouncements about the impact of climate change on the globe and Africa in particular, African states should participate fully in the debates about adaptation and mitigation strategies. The global necessity of moving to a low carbon economy and the potential innovations that we in developing countries can develop are opportunities that allow us to break out of technological dependencies and to become partners in new technologies rather than recipients. South Africa can play an important role here and we should not forsake the opportunity.
In all of the challenges I have outlined above, South Africa has been both an active and a respected partner. Although we are an emerging market – and some say, emerging power – we do not play in the premier league: we are not a China or an India. What we are, however, is an actor that over the last 15 years has earned kudos for the often constructive and willing manner in which it has taken on regional, continental and global issues. This has always been informed by our own history and our political and economic successes since 1994. As we face growing global uncertainties and power shifts, we should remember the link between our domestic well-being and our external engagement, and the importance of upholding the principles that established our credibility on the global stage.
Against this background, SAIIA faces particular challenges in ensuring that government policy reflects and responds to the fundamental regional and geo-strategic shifts of our time. The lead-up to the next election in 2009 will be a watershed period for our young democracy. It will also determine the extent to which South Africa is perceived globally as having the ability to play a stabilising and proactive role on the many issues that face our globe. Our role will be to remind and prod policymakers that South Africa should retain its focus as a leading progressive state on this continent, willing to engage on issues in the interest of the global good.
- Collier P, The Bottom Billion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 11.