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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

South Africa's global status slipping?

Chris Landsberg

AS US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was recently in South Africa, it is important to try to unpack the United States’ agenda towards our country and Africa. To do this, all those who help to determine South Africa’s destiny should study an important foreign policy address delivered by Clinton at a Washington meeting convened by the influential US Council on Foreign Relations last month, which contained some important messages about the US’s approach to South Africa.

In that speech, Clinton said: “Our approach to foreign policy must reflect the world as it is, not as it used to be.”

But what is the US view of the world as it is? Clinton gave a clue to the US’s understanding of the global pecking order, and South Africa’s policy makers should have no illusions about where South Africa fits in.

According to Clinton: “We will also put special emphasis on encouraging major and emerging global powers – China, India, Russia and Brazil, as well as Turkey, Indonesia and South Africa – to be full partners in tackling the global agenda.”

With these words, Clinton made the point that in the world “as it is”, China, India, Russia and Brazil are major global players, while other developing countries, such as Turkey, Indonesia and South Africa, should be content with a lesser role.

Be clear that in the ordering of global affairs by the current US government, South Africa will no longer play the role that it has done in the period since 1994, and especially since 1999. The irony is that this marks a significant departure from the policy positions adopted by the Bill Clinton and George Bush administrations. In practice, both those administrations treated South Africa as a major global and strategic actor, and interacted with successive governments in a manner consistent with this designation, major differences and policy fall-outs notwithstanding. It seems clear that in its understanding of “the world as it is”, the Obama administration has determined that South Africa has been “punching above its weight” and should no longer be allowed to do so.

Even some of post-apartheid South Africa’s most strategic partners from the global south seem to be sending tough messages to Pretoria. One of these was communicated in dramatic fashion recently, when Brazil, Russia, India and China (the so-called Bric countries) met on their own in Moscow, without South Africa. The effect of such an event becomes all the more clear when we take into account that South Africa is an initiator state of the India- Brazil-South Africa Trilateral Forum, as well as a founder member of the New Asia-Africa Strategic Partnership, a champion of the G-77+China, and a key strategic partner of Russia.

South Africa will have to study the new tone emanating from Washington. Among other things, we must understand that it constitutes a deeply disturbing weakening of one of the principal pillars that has supported the programme we have sustained for 15 years to achieve the reconstruction and development of our country.

In practical terms, a new US attitude to South Africa means, among other things, that our country will fall ever lower as a preferred destination for foreign direct investment.

It also means that, even in terms of the economic and other relations of the Bric countries, with which we have built strong solidarity, South Africa will assume a lower profile.

The force of contagion will spread this sentiment to other countries of the north and south, which hitherto had accepted South Africa as a leading country of the south, capable of using its eminent position resolutely to defend and advance the interests of Africa and the south.

Immediately, there is a vitally important question we must address: are we continuing to address our domestic challenges relating to issues of democracy, good governance, economic growth, poverty eradication and development, social and political inclusiveness and foreign policy, in a way that positions South Africa in the global public mind as an example of genuine and sustained progressive African and global change?

If we fail, it is inevitable that South Africa will lose its status as a pivotal player in world affairs, negatively affecting both the domestic and the African development project.

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