SAIIA National Chairman’s Annual Statement, delivered on 19 February 2014

©SAIIA/ Riona Judge McCormack
Members of the SAIIA National Council at the annual meeting on 19 February 2014

Statement of the National Chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs, Mr Fred T. Phaswana, on the occasion of the meeting of the National Council on 19 February 2014.

The year 2014 is one of historic anniversaries – some uplifting, some shameful. South Africans celebrate 20 years since the advent of democracy. Further north, Rwandans commemorate a more sombre anniversary – a genocide, in which the inaction of the ‘international community’ made it complicit. The genocide’s impact continues to plague the politics, economics and governance of the Great Lakes region.

It is also a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ushering in of a ‘new world order’, as George Bush senior put it. The ‘new world order’ of liberal internationalism was relatively brief, and the debates about the transformation of the global system developed after the end of the Second World War, are still evolving. However, the end of the Cold War was an important factor in the events that shaped the responses of actors in southern Africa, leading to the independence of Namibia and South Africa’s own negotiated political settlement.

At SAIIA we are celebrating 80 years since the Institute’s founding in Cape Town. The Institute’s establishment was also linked to momentous global events of an earlier period, more specifically the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 that concluded the First World War, which started in July one hundred years ago. Delegates at the peace conference recognised the importance of establishing forums where international affairs could be debated among a broader circle of citizens, rather than in the smoky salons of the aristocracy and the political elites. They functioned as first steps towards ‘democratising’ international relations. SAIIA’s creation in 1934 followed in the footsteps of Chatham House in 1920 in Britain and the Council on Foreign Relations in the US in 1921. The Nigerian Institute of International Affairs was established shortly after its independence in 1961. Since then, Africa boasts many think tanks, as the University of Pennsylvania attests, and which again ranked SAIIA as the top think tank in sub-Saharan Africa in 2013.

Societies with active, dynamic and productive research institutions are the better for it. Think tanks have convening power, encourage debate and develop alternatives for evidence-based policy options.

Our mandate at SAIIA is to provide such debating forums, produce quality and relevant research, and encourage greater awareness of global issues. But we also foster discussion about what we could still be. Today, on the country’s 20th anniversary, I would like to focus very specifically on South Africa and its region. How have we fared? How joined up is our foreign policy with our domestic priorities? And how should we leverage the opportunities that the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative presents to us?

Long ignored by the apartheid government, except as an arena to fight the national liberation movement, our hinterland became a priority for South Africa after 1994. This reconnection was both symbolically and practically necessary.

Politically our Africa Agenda has been the cornerstone of our international relations, as it should be. We have reclaimed our African identity and geography; we have supported peace initiatives and brought our experience to bear on negotiated settlements; we have been a central player in raising Africa’s profile internationally; and we have pushed a transformative agenda both for the continent’s relations with the rest of the world and for the global superstructure of power. In so doing, we have identified partners in the developing world with whom we can cooperate to advance changes at the global level.

As Africa’s biggest economy, with a sophisticated infrastructure and developed and diversified private sector we have also marketed ourselves as the gateway to Africa. There is some merit in that moniker, but overstating it overplays our hand. The record over the last decade shows that the world’s external interest in Africa manifests itself through many ‘gateways’. South Africa vies with other regional hubs such as Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, for example. The economic growth and development witnessed in many African states in recent years has accelerated underlying competition with South Africa. Moreover, some of South Africa’s major emerging power partners are also among its biggest competitors on the continent, as they vie for state contracts and other investment opportunities – often successfully.

This is not to paint a dour picture, but rather to emphasise that in the 20 years since we returned to our region, our relative position has changed and will continue to do so. Africa’s much-improved prospects are good for South Africa and its political and economic priorities.

South Africa has recognised that international relations need to start at home, that foreign policy must focus on creating jobs in our cities and villages, enable entrepreneurs to expand beyond South Africa, and build up regional linkages to benefit from economies of scale and improved competitiveness.

Our putative strength on the continent has been a function of our soft power. However, we should also not underestimate the perceptual impact of our large and sophisticated economy, which many Africans see as an engine of growth as was confirmed by SAIIA’s perceptions survey on South Africa’s Africa agenda among policy practitioners in the region. We can certainly be the locomotive of development for Southern Africa. The opportunities presented by an ‘Africa Rising’ are boundless, and their pursuit, imperative for the country. After all, the number of service delivery protests that we have experienced in recent years reflect not only the challenges facing the state but also that our economy has been unable to absorb millions of youth who grow increasingly restless.

Thus my argument this morning is that going forward into a fifth democratic election we must focus our efforts on a tangible regional strategy that helps us to address our domestic challenges, while also building capacity and opportunity in the region. Regional integration after all offers ‘enormous potential for widening investment scope, increasing trade opportunities between and among SADC member states, and in the ability to move factors of production‘, including people across borders. Nevertheless, eradicating poverty and creating prosperity are not the competitive advantage of state summits and protocols. More often than not, prosperity arises from the low-level practical steps away from the spotlight that both states and other actors take to unleash opportunities and remove barriers. States cannot do this alone. They need proper partnerships with businesses, chambers, communities and regional organisations.

They also need plans that other stakeholders can buy into but that lead to concrete outcomes. Infrastructure, trade and energy are essential building blocks in any development plan in the future.

For example, SADC’s infrastructure master plan is estimated at $500 billion over 15 years. Some $100 billion must come from the private sector. In the 1990s South Africa was a pioneer in developing effective public-private partnerships. Ideally, PPPs are not just sophisticated contracts of cooperation. Effective public-private partnerships mean a common purpose and spirit of collaboration, which require overcoming the suspicions and ambivalences that have characterised the relationship between governments and business – and also civil society. The onus is on all of us. We should be thinking strategically about enhancing regional supply chains, where industrialisation is a regional rather than national endeavour. It requires practical commitment to overcoming the hurdles to the establishment of a Tripartite Free Trade Area, something even more vital in the face of the negotiation of mega-regional trade agreements in the North Atlantic and the Pacific.

We live in a region which is on the cusp of an energy revolution. To our east in Mozambique, the Rovuma basin has some 170 trillion cubic feet of natural gas deposits. The energy finds all along the eastern seaboard of Africa are reshaping the geopolitics of oil and transportation lines, reducing dependence in the Indian Ocean and beyond, away from the Middle East. Shale gas in the US is changing the global energy equation as we speak; so can Southern and Eastern Africa’s. South Africa can play a number of roles in this: (1) helping to develop regional frameworks that enable SADC states to use energy as a vital development tool; (2) working with neighbours to link the commercial boom to opportunities for local businesses; and (3) working through regional institutions to ensure that the regional and global commons on land and sea are preserved and protected. Lastly, we need to strategise about what the energy boom in Africa might mean for our place in the world and the instruments we need to manage our external relations to avoid exploitation.

As we enter the third decade of our democracy, our domestic imperatives must guide us in seeking and implementing innovative plans that not only ensure that our own youth dividend is not transformed into a liability, but also that of the region. These imperatives necessitate a frank assessment of the interplay at home between political and economic governance to ensure that we build healthy and accountable polities and regional communities.

21 Feb 2014