The Africa-South America Summit, 27-28 September 2009

Image: Flickr, Henri Bergius
Image: Flickr, Henri Bergius

The second Africa South America summit, hosted by President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela formed the third part of a triangle of events, starting with the General Debate at the opening of the 64th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York, followed immediately by the third summit of the G20 Financial in Pittsburgh.

Each in its own way represented innovation in the multilateral environment. At the UN a special session on climate change was called by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, while President Barack Obama presided over a meeting of the Security Council that adopted a resolution on Nuclear Disarmament. This, a first for an American head of state, demonstrated how far the US has moved away from the unilateralist approach of the Bush administration.

The meeting in Pittsburgh signalled that the more inclusive G20, as opposed to the G8, would be the highest international body that deals with the world’s financial issues. It took the economic meltdown of 2008 to show the developed world that their cozy club, the G7/G8, was no longer the appropriate forum to deal with its consequences. Economic power has moved east and south and this could no longer be denied. So for instance, Argentina and Brazil from South America and South Africa from Africa are members of the Group.

On 27 and 28 September, twenty African heads of state and eight of their South American counterparts gathered on Margarita Island in Venezuela for the second summit of African and South American countries. Several leaders including President Jacob Zuma, came from Pittsburgh, while others arrived directly from New York.

The theme of the summit was Closing-Gaps, Opening-Up Opportunities. Among the documents signed on the sidelines of the summit was one formalizing the creation of the long envisaged Bank of the South, first suggested by Chavez in 1998, but launched in 2007 without any effective action to commence operation until now. This move seeks to break the control over lending to South American countries of the international financial institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These are seen as northern-controlled and the conditionalities they impose are resented by left-leaning countries in the region. The Bank of the South will be launched with contributions from Venezuela, Brazil and several other South American countries. Offices are to be established in Caracas, Buenos Aires and La Paz. According to Chavez, “The Bank of the South is strategic… I think we should go even further and gradually put together our own South-South financial system”, although there was no reference to lending to African countries.

This proposal, like several others, was concerned more with confronting the North than addressing the problems of the South. South-South co-operation was the ostensible purpose, but much of the rhetoric was extravagant and inflammatory.

In his speech to the summit the Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi proposed the creation of a NATO of the South, an idea supported by Chavez, but there was no further action on the idea. The countries on both sides of the South Atlantic already have the Brazilian-sponsored Zone of Peace and Co-operation in the South Atlantic (ZPCSA). Perhaps in reality that is sufficient.

Much of the activity was aimed at promoting the Venezuelan socialist and radical agenda. An example is the decision to set up a Radio of the South, based in Caracas, which “aims to bring the revolutionary struggles of the people of the South to the forefront, and to promote the union of peoples of the South through information exchange and cross-national collaboration.”

During the summit, Venezuela also signed memoranda of understanding on the creation of joint mining ventures with Sierra Leone, Mali, Namibia, Niger, and Mauritania. This would probably be a precursor to Chevez’s idea of creating a “multi-state” parastatal corporation to for mining.

Speaking at the summit, President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, one of the founding fathers of the Africa South America summits, said that six years ago, trade relations between the two regions were calculated at $6 billion, but since the first Summit held in Abuja, Nigeria, in November 2006, bilateral commercial exchanges have passed $36 billion.

While this information is not broken down by countries, there can be no doubt that Brazil, Argentina and possibly Venezuela in South America and Angola and South Africa on the eastern side of the Atlantic account for most of the trade and investment involved.

The attendance at the summit and the content of the speeches delivered showed up the ideological divisions that exist among the South Americans. Colombia and Peru did not attend, while Bolivia and Ecuador were the main cheerleaders in support of Chavez’s “anti-imperialist” ideas, reminiscent of Fidel Castro at his prime. The leaders of Brazil and Argentina, while claiming leftist credentials, were more nuanced and less extravagant in their comments.

What is the significance of the Summit? Extravagant rhetoric aside, it must be seen as a further manifestation of the desire of countries of the two continents to strengthen South-South co-operation. This is seen as a counterweight to their long-standing focus on the countries of the North, the developed world. It has for some time been their aim to diversify markets, sources and targets of investment and other areas of co-operation, but the financial crisis has strongly emphasised the importance of pursuing this objective.

South Africa has actively supported the concept of South-South Co-operation in its foreign policy formulation and execution. It is, for instance, a member of the India Brazil South Africa (IBSA) Forum and participated in the first Africa South America summit in Abuja in November 2006. While it has warm links with Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba, it does not join them in their anti-Northern diatribes. Rather President Zuma’s address to the summit was consistent with the messages he conveyed at the UN General Assembly and the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, and in line with the Brazilian approach.

There was therefore not one-size fits all approach and it must be expected that the countries of the two continents will act according to their own national interests, giving more or less emphasis and attention to the contents of the declaration that they put their signature to. A secretariat, to be set up in Caracas at the suggestion of President Chavez, will report to the next summit on how far the participants have succeeded in implementing the decisions they made at Margarita Island – a reflection perhaps that the high-sounding declarations that came out of Abuja three years ago have little to show for them.

30 Sep 2009