Wanted: A skilled diplomat to lead South Africa

WESLEY SEALE suggests that the South African media did not concentrate much on the G20 summit where South Africa played a leading role in representing the continent but also leading in the discussions on the important issues of the summit. The question posed is whether the other ANC presidential candidates can match the diplomatic and foreign relations skills possessed by Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

South Africans, and the media, in particular, could be described as a nation of navel gazers. Last month, the Group 20 countries came together for a meeting in Hamburg, Germany. Topping the agenda was the issue of climate change, a subject once again on the international agenda given the President of the United States’ dismissal of it.

The presidents and prime ministers of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States, were present at this meeting. Together, their countries’ economies account for 90% of the world’s gross domestic product, 80% of the world’s trade and three-quarters of the world’s population.

While some have suggested that the body is obsolete, the sizeable chunk that their economies combined contribute to the global economy and the size of their populations’ consumption of global resources makes their meeting significant and demonstrates the potential of their ability to change the course of history.

The US’ withdrawal from the Paris Accord on climate change caused alarm and should continue to cause concern for those who are interested in protecting the future of our planet. Yet the world leaders also spoke about trade, the war in Syria, an international financial architecture, international tax cooperation, and had the key theme of the “networked world.”

Andrew Hammond, an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics, suggests that this G20 meeting was probably the “most remarkable since 2009”.

Writing in the Mail and Guardian, he states that it was Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who hosted the summit, who wanted to “bring Africa’s development centre stage at the summit.” He goes further to suggest that the Germans wanted to push a “Compact with Africa” or what was later termed in the final declaration, a “G20 Africa Partnership” in order to secure more private investment, jobs and enterprises for the continent.

Specific countries that made presentations at the G20 Africa Partnership Conference in Berlin, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal and Tunisia were all identified as countries where individual priorities in investment compacts will be made. As the only African country in the G20, South Africa’s role in ensuring that the development of Africa remains top of the agenda remains an important one.

Very little of the G20 summit and getting Africa back onto the international agenda was reported or commented on by our local media. Climate change, the Paris Accord, the future of the planet does not seem to be a priority for those conveying public discussions here in South Africa. Very little, if any attention, is given to the fact that it will be Africans who are and who will suffer the most because of climate change.

While the developed world has systems in place and is developing systems to deal with drought, food shortages, deforestation, changes in the ocean and sea, countries such as South Africa spend very little time in prioritising changing our way of life to accommodate a drastic decrease of water consumption, for example.

Importantly though, not recorded in the western media was the consolidation of the BRICS power and presence at the G20 summit. Pictures, rather than commentary, would reveal interactions between Presidents Jacob Zuma and Vladimir Putin of Russia, or Xi Jinping of China. If anything, the Zuma administration should be remembered for gaining South Africa entry into this strong alternative bloc of nations to challenge western hegemony.

The entry of South Africa into BRICS, and the subsequent challenge to other power blocs such as the EU, has enabled Africa to be able to trade partners literally. We now no longer just have to accept the terms of the west to buy our materials but we could raise our expectations a bit and turn east if needs be.

The question of course remains; will South Africa’s top-diplomat, the one be elected as president of the ANC later in this year, have what it takes to be able to play a meaningful and forthright role in the international arena? We would need a candidate, unlike the US President who is anything but diplomatic, to push for the interests of the continent and those of South Africa.

If one were then to look at the diplomatic capacity of the candidates vying for the presidency it would not be difficult to suggest who wins hands down. Someone like Matthews Phosa who has not served in a cabinet position before; given his lack of experience at national government level, it would be very difficult to see him heading the government, never mind that he lacks any meaningful international experience.

The same could be said for Lindiwe Sisulu, that despite her vast track record in Cabinet, she hasn’t been in charge of portfolios that have catapulted her into the international arena. Cyril Ramaphosa, on the other hand, has some international experience, though again extremely limited. Gaining most of these foreign skills during his term as deputy president of South Africa, Ramaphosa played a small role in the Good Friday Peace Accord and the subsequent disarmament of the Irish Republican Army in the late 90s. He has also been at the centre of negotiations to end the political feud in Lesotho.

Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, however, probably has the most diplomatic skills of all the other contenders combined. Having gone into exile, she was part of the ANC’s diplomatic efforts to isolate the Apartheid regime. During the Mbeki administration, she served two terms as foreign affairs minister. Under Zuma, she would go on to be elected the Chairperson of the African Union. It is undoubtable that in both these roles she excelled. The establishment of the AU, while she was foreign affairs minister, and the launch of Agenda 2063 are two milestones of her terms in office.

As we move into a world that loses American hegemony, it would be imperative for South Africa to reaffirm its position in the global arena. Other African countries such as Nigeria, Egypt and Kenya have already positioned themselves as formidable competitors as to who should lead the continent. This leadership would be important as global alliances realign along lines of G8 versus BRICS. Old Western powers will have lesser say in the future of the planet than their southern and eastern counterparts who are emerging as global leaders.

Yet if anything, South African foreign relations has taught us that our relationship with the continent remains a challenge. Besides the Anglophone-Francophone divide, historical factors come into play given that South Africa has only been ‘independent’ for 23 years; therefore, it is considered by other African countries as a new kid on the block.

Whoever the new president of South Africa will be after 2019, he or she will have to make sure that they have the necessary diplomatic skills and tons of it. South Africa and the continent cannot afford anything less.

Seale teaches politics at Rhodes University 

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