SAIIA at 75

SAIIA logo coloursmall
Image: SAIIA logo coloursmall

Speech by the National Director of the South African Institute of International Affairs, Ms Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, on the occasion of the banquet celebrating the institute’s 75th anniversary. 16 September 2009

Votre excellence, l’ancien president du Mali et aussi de la Commission d’Union Africaine, Professeur Alpha Oumar Konare, governor of the South African Reserve Bank, Mr Tito Mboweni, the director general of international relations and cooperation, Dr Ayanda Ntsaluba, the vice chancellor of my alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand, Professor Loyiso Nongxa, national chair of SAIIA, Mr Fred Phaswana, your excellencies, ambassadors and high commissioners, representatives from our various partners in South Africa, the continent and beyond, members of the SAIIA Council, executive and finance committees, friends and colleagues.

Many years ago, I had the occasion to study a well-known and insightful piece about one of the earliest democracies in the world, the Athenian city-state – it was the funeral oration made by Pericles during the Peloponnesian War and recorded by the historian Thucydides. One paragraph in particular stands out, which I think is as relevant to societies of the 21st century as it was to the city-state of Athens in 431 BCE:

It lies with all to look after home life and state affairs alike, while despite our varied concerns we keep an adequate acquaintance with politics. We alone regard the man who takes no part in it, not as unobtrusive, but as useless and we all at least give much thought to an action, even if we do not rightly originate it, because we do not suppose that it is debate which is the undoing of action, but rather the lack of debate to warn us before it.

There were two points that struck me: the first was that we all have a responsibility to be involved in public life, whether this forms part of our work or is simply our function as citizens; and the second, that debate is not only the natural prerequisite for carrying out such a responsibility, but that it is also essential for informed decisions.

Pericles’ statement also implied another message, that we all have a responsibility to ensure that future generations cherish an equal acquaintance with public affairs both foreign and domestic.

When SAIIA was founded in 1934, one of its prime objectives was to establish a forum for debate among citizens on matters of international affairs, so that the errors, back-room alliances, and elite war-mongering, which had led to the eruption of the Great War, twenty years before, might be avoided in the future.

As with the ancient Athenians, the founders of SAIIA (and other institutes like it across the British Empire of the time) recognised that citizens had a stake in not only keeping an adequate acquaintance with home life but also with affairs of state. And therefore, such institutes would have a responsibility to stimulate informed public debate, providing a platform for the airing of all opinions so that government actions were the result of carefully considered arguments. This ethos continues to guide SAIIA’s actions 75 years after it was established.

In the 1930s, the discipline of international affairs was primarily about the relationship among states. Those relations were principally mediated through the ministries of foreign affairs and heads of state. Today, the discipline is increasingly about the nexus between the state and other stakeholders and concerns development, security, and governance; and how these dynamics play out both within this new more complex global environment, and within the traditional state-centric configurations. International affairs think tanks are thus much more interdisciplinary today and their constituencies are far more diverse.

Thinkers and boxes

Indeed if think tanks, like some governments, CONTINUE to operate in the paradigm of the first half of the 20th century, they will find themselves as out of touch with their constituencies as with the real issues of the 21st century.

It is often the case that what makes the most common sense in policy is actually not that common, and that conventional thinking becomes the default option. Think tanks all over the world, if they are truly effective, should be able not only to make the case for what is the obvious but also for what may not be the conventional understanding or accepted paradigm. So while we are think TANKS, we should not be boxed in. Guided by integrity, we should challenge the conventional. And to do that requires not only courage but also creativity and innovation. At all times we must be credible, balanced and fair, rather than simply agreeable, mundane and unobtrusive. We need to have both great minds and be great communicators; be able to make technical or very academic analysis accessible; and have the skill to convince often suspicious or sceptical stakeholders about how our research helps policy makers to arrive at better decisions, or to see beyond the obvious.

Ultimately, the real value of think-tanks is measured by their responsible engagement with, and impact on policy and the thinking of policy makers. We do not produce knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but to bridge the gap between research and policy. Without this skill, our work becomes meaningless or at the most, marginal to political and economic developments, if the raison d’etre of our existence is to contribute to improved policy outcomes and ultimately better lives for all.

Clearly, think-tanks are not grassroots institutions in the way that community-based organisations are. Some people say we are elitist institutions, as we deal with high policy in the big cities and the powers-that-be. But we have to be at the cutting-edge of the world’s biggest challenges – war and insecurity, poverty and marginalisation, and to provide answers and options on how best to fight these through collaboration across borders and without regard to narrow self-interest. At their most fundamental, these concepts are not elitist, but are essential to the creation of a more secure, fair, accountable and responsible world.

I would argue that this responsibility is even greater for think thanks in Africa because the stakes on rolling back war and reducing poverty are so much higher.

Thus it is ironic that developing world think tanks operate under much more serious financial and human constraints and sometimes in much more adverse political environments than their counterparts in the North.

What characterises the policy environment in Africa?

Most of us here tonight understand the policy challenges in Africa. The policy community (both practitioners and analysts) is fairly small, with some of our greatest minds often in the diaspora. Think tanks are often not well or independently resourced, with little indigenous funding. Unless they are government-funded, (and a fair number are) there is more frequently than not, little security of revenue streams. This affects the way they operate: often with short-term agendas and horizons and with difficulty in ensuring staff retention. Dependence on government funding can sometimes affect independence and the freedom to say what should be said.

This is often compounded by an under-appreciation of their value by stakeholders, which is a disincentive to retain talented people in their ranks and to grow these institutions.

In some parts of the developing world, the establishment sees think tanks as alternative sources of power or the opposition, leading to an adversarial relationship. Such actions by governments are the exact antithesis of what Pericles urges his fellow Athenians to be – engaged in public affairs, willing and able to debate the issues, and appreciating that debate should precede action.

A final characteristic is that ordinary citizens may have less access to the debates on such issues, or less time to engage effectively as citizens, because their lives are taken up with more mundane matters like basic survival and subsistence.

I want to pose a question in that regard. What roles should think tanks in Africa be playing? And what are our responsibilities?

The constraints that I have mentioned previously should not deter us but make us more committed to play our role. If we want to create leadership in our citizenry through active engagement in public affairs, then think tanks are important cogs in that process of cultivating an informed electorate, especially in societies where sober analysis is rare or inaccessible.

We need strong think tanks in Africa to make their voices heard in the debates both on the continent and in global fora. Our role in these places is to disseminate our analysis but also to convey to the North the debates in African countries and their nuances. We should not be introspective but networked and connected. This is an equally essential undertaking if we are to address the skewed nature of knowledge production and its dissemination in the world. As developing world think tanks we have to come into our own on the global stage so as to contribute to the diversification of the content of the global debate.

Perhaps we should also be more critical of how THINK TANKS engage with government and others to highlight synergies, always bearing in mind that polarities are sometimes good they can be counterproductive.

SAIIA’s world

SAIIA has evolved and changed over the last 75 years. Africa itself is a very different place from when SAIIA was established. Many parts of Africa are democratic today and have been experiencing growth but fragility remains, integration is still patchy and attempts at economic diversification have been very mixed. Also, the world is more complex today and African states have to develop competences across a whole range of sectors.

75 years on, as a think tank in the developing world and in Africa, we see our role making constructive input into policy formulation, stimulating debate, providing leadership development and nurturing analytical excellence on the variety of challenges facing our region.

The conference we are hosting over the next two days, entitled ‘Africa in a new World: Geopolitics, leverage and interdependence’, reflects this approach. It asks the question of how the continent should be responding to these new global shifts and currents, what leverage and what vision does Africa have for itself? How do we model success on Africa’s terms? These are the types of interrogations we believe we and other think tanks on our continent should be carrying out – these are the key questions African countries and others are asking and we need to be in a position to respond to them.

In our work we are guided by the following undertakings:

To be uncompromising in the quality of our research

To engage with the powerful as well as the marginalised

To be an independent and credible resource for government, business and civil society in South Africa, Africa and beyond.

But this does not mean acquiescence on some of the most important and contentious issues facing our country, our region and our world. Instead it signals a genuine desire for debate and dialogue. – SAIIA’S trademark over the last 75 years.

Thank you’s

Today we are able to celebrate our 75th anniversary because we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Many of these people have served the Institute as volunteers over many years. We have honoured one of them tonight.

Our branches around the country are run by volunteers, our Council and Exco too – all of them galvanised by their recognition that institutes such as SAIIA are necessary in any society. I would like to make particular mention of three honorary members, Dr Conrad Strauss, who served for many years as National Chairman, Mr Gibson Thula, who was also for many years deputy chair, and Mr Brian Hawksworth, who served a long innings as Honorary Treasurer. Mr Phaswana has paid tribute to Mrs Elisabeth Bradley’s long service to the Institute tonight, but I would like to reiterate our thanks and profound gratitude for her generosity of spirit and for her guidance.

I would also like to express my gratitude and appreciation to our current national chairman, Mr Fred Phaswana, and to the members of the executive and finance committees. They are always more than ready to respond to our requests and to provide wise counsel. Collectively, they probably have over a century of service to SAIIA in one capacity or another.

It is also fitting as we celebrate our 75th anniversary to pay tribute to those who had led the institute during difficult times. I want to make particular mention of Professor John Barratt, who served as director-general and then national director as the post became known, from 1967 to 1994. Professor Barratt was regarded as one of the founding fathers of the discipline of international relations in South Africa. He sadly passed away last year. I would also like to pay tribute to my two most recent predecessors, Dr Sara Pienaar, who served as national director from 1994 to 1996, and Dr Greg Mills from 1996 to 2005. Dr Pienaar took over at the start of the renaissance of South Africa’s foreign engagement as the country took its rightful place among the community of nations. She began the rebuilding of the Institute after a difficult period in the dying days of apartheid in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Under the entrepreneurial and dynamic spirit of Dr Mills the Institute relished the opportunities created by our country’s re-entry to the world and the Institute grew both in its research and its profile in South Africa and beyond.

The Vice Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand is here today and I want to make special mention of my alma mater. Next year SAIIA celebrates 50 years on Wits campus. We have benefited tremendously from the exchange with the Departments of International Relations, Politics, Economics, and Law and the interaction with students, many of whom use our library and have been either interns at SAIIA or worked as researchers. We are proud to have our headquarters on Wits turf.

Lastly I would be remiss if I did not thank my team, especially the team that put together this evening –


In his fascinating book on The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, Kishore Mahbubani makes little mention of Africa. In another book by an American analyst, The Next 100 years, Africa is rarely mentioned as a mover and a shaker of the next century. To some we are not regarded as part of the discussion nor do we always contribute in fora that have wide resonance. However, we should not rely on others to find our place in the 21st century. It requires us to tackle our marginalisation by committing to the ideals we have espoused in the AU constitutive act and other national, regional and continental documents, but which we have battled to apply.

The question we must ask is whether we, leaders and citizens alike, are willing and able to carve a space out for ourselves by encouraging our society to think, to challenge, to serve.

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