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SA must clean up its act in Africa – Its future depends on it

This article appeared in Sunday Times Daily (South Africa) in the Opinion and Analysis section on 31/08/2021:–sa-must-clean-up-its-act-in-africa-its-future-depends-on-it/

It has certainly been an active 18 months or so for President Cyril Ramaphosa and his foreign policy pivot to Africa.  As Chairperson of the African Union (A.U) last year and at the G20 summit in November, he championed decisive measures to counteract the impact of the pandemic on Africa as a whole.  Seeking debt relief, increased vaccine procurement and waivers on vaccine patents to encourage domestic African production.

And just last month, South Africa deployed 1500 South African troops making up the bulk of the multinational force under SADC command to counter the growing threat of an Islamic insurgency in northern Mozambique.  

Increasing South Africa’s footprint in Africa has been central to Ramaphosa’s Presidency.   And underlying this energetic re-orientation is the belief that the country’s prosperity is closely tied to that of the continent’s.  Foreign policy aimed at lifting Africa’s fortunes as a whole will ultimately help South Africa’s own cause.  And at the very heart of this economic diplomacy is the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA).   When fully functional it could witness the birth of the largest tariff-free single market in the world and probably the best long-term hope for South Africa to escape the low-growth and high unemployment trap that it perennially finds itself in. 

But a closer look and everything isn’t as clear cut as first seems.  South Africa’s foreign policy strategy is more ambivalent and tainted by failure on the continent more often than not.  Where many of its objectives bump into the harsh reality of financial restraints, poor implementation and the often harsh geo-political realities in Africa.  Shortcomings that could ultimately hamper the AfCFTA that desperately requires Africa’s continental heavyweights – namely Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa – to step up if the agreement has any real chance of success.

South Africa has certainly been at the forefront of pushing AfCFTA in a constructive manner.  It successfully campaigned for the experienced and widely-respected South African technocrat, Wamkele Mene, to head the AfCFTA Secretariat.  “I think that is one good example of how South Africa threw its weight behind the agreement,”  Cyril Prinsloo, Senior Researcher at the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA), an independent public policy think-tank, points out.  And South Africa was instrumental in making sure the headquarters were based in Accra, away from Addis Abba and the seat of Africa’s political power.  “The fact that the AfCFTA Secretariat is physically away from Addis is not coincidental,” continues Prinsloo, “So when you come to the economics and the trade agreement, you don’t want political interference.”

But for all the euphoria that has come with AfCFTA, there are some glaring problems that Africa faces if it is to succeed.  Most of these centre on the continent’s lack of infrastructure, without which the industrialisation and inward investment will be hard to attract, and the non-tariff barriers such as customs bureaucracy and porous borders that impacts the continent more than most.   “If you can’t enforce rules of origin and entry points and there’s an influx of goods that really negates a lot of the good of AfCFTA,”  Prinsloo states.

While South Africa might have been constructive in pushing for a strong administrative backbone for AfCFTA, when it comes to negotiating the actual agreement, it has been far less constructive in its approach.  It is currently dragging its heels over tariff concessions in industries it deems crucial to its industrial strategy.  Industries that include textiles that has been decimated to the point of being negligent to the country’s fortunes and the automotive industry, in which South Africa enjoys such a large comparative advantage that it is doubtful if any other African country would be able to out-compete it. 

South Africa is certainly not alone in this stance, but if it is to act as a leader and drive the agreement then it will need to lead by example, confident in its advantage at home and in its ability to exploit any opportunities opened up in return on the continent.  If it doesn’t, then as Trudi Hartzenberg, Executive Director at the Trade Law Centre (Tralac), a public benefit organisation developing African trade governance, explains, the consequences would defeat the entire purpose of AfCFTA.  “As a result we may see that tariff concessions are made for products where currently there is little trade and limited trade potential, and those where there is potential to boost intra-Africa trade, may well not be liberalised.” 

And it is not just in the negotiations that South Africa exposes another side to its economic diplomacy.  It also suffers from a lack of co-ordination and effective implementation of its business policy on the continent.  “ I think business chambers, from domestic business chambers to even the diplomatic business chambers that are represented through their various missions here in South Africa, find it very difficult to understand what South Africa’s communication strategy is.  And in many ways, I think that becomes a critical issue as well for how South Africa talks to the continent,” says Sanusha Naidu, Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD), an independent South African foreign policy think-tank.

Consecutive budget cuts to both DIRCO and SANDF haven’t helped either.  But budgets can also be better managed.  Naidu calls for more targeted and skilled deployments, especially to African multilateral bodies.  “I think you can also do well by sending South Africans who are career foreign policy specialist into these institutions,” she says, “A group of people that are willing to communicate back to Pretoria, to DIRCO, or even to the Presidency about the ebbs and flows around issues there and what’s gathering traction.  I think it will help South Africa in formulating strategy , because I think not being at that centre at times does play a kind of disabling and disempowering role for South Africa.”  Shortcomings in its diplomatic structure were cruelly exposed last month when South Africa was caught off-guard by the accession of Israel to observer status in the A.U., something that it has vehemently opposed partly because of the ongoing conflict in Gaza, but also because of the Israel’s historic links to the apartheid regime.

Tying foreign policy to the past in general has also had some confusing and counter-productive outcomes.  Refusing to speak out even where other African countries fall short of the values of good governance for example.  “I think the challenge for South Africa is that it remains caught by its apartheid identity to a large extent.”  Naidu insightfully laments,  “South Africa gets very nervous about its role at times.  So it talks about peace, stability and development as key to its Africa policy. But what happens is, when it really has to push on that peace, stability and development, it gets entangled more with what the reaction is going to taking any kind of intervention.”

In the post-pandemic world, where increased unrest on the continent is a likely outcome, intervention may be crucial to Africa’s stability.  And as recent events in Afghanistan have made abundantly clear, the U.S is retreating from its traditional role of the world’s policeman.  And it will be increasingly up to regional powers to push for stability in their own backyard.  While the recent deployment in Mozambique is a start, it is likely that SANDF will be called upon again and will have to step up through stronger security co-operation with other countries on the continent.  But with its budget cut to the bone and focus turned inward following the recent historic unrest, it is hard to see how it will cope.

In the past, it was easy to cut DIRCO and SANDF budgets without much fuss, but increasingly, having an effective footprint on the continent is directly tied to South Africa’s economic prosperity, and one that it can no longer afford to ignore.

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