What does 2013 hold in store for South African foreign policy? Hard to predict, because it depends so much on an unpredictable world.
The unfinished Arab Spring as well as uncertain elections in Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Kenya, and unfolding crises in Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and now Central African Republic (CAR), could all alter the calendars of President Jacob Zuma and International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane this year.
The last-named country has shown once again how Africa especially can mess up your planning. Zuma dispatched Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to Bangui on New Year’s Eve to assess the predicament of CAR President Francois Bozize, an ally whose troops we are helping to train, even as they retreat rapidly before a very determined rebel advance. Did he send the defence minister because the international relations minister was on holiday still?
For her, the Brics summit in South Africa in March is supposed to be the most important event on the foreign policy calendar this year, though it remains to be seen if events will concur.
She evidently believes getting accepted as the fifth member of Brics late in 2010 was among South Africa’s greatest foreign policy achievements to date. And the summit in Durban in March will be the first which South Africa hosts, having attended the two previous ones, in China and Russia.
It will certainly be a big prestigious showcase event for South Africa, bringing to Durban China’s new leader Xi Jinping, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff. For all of the others, including Zuma, it will be a great opportunity to meet Xi and assess if he intends changing the direction of China’s politics particularly.
Beyond that, it is much less clear what will be achieved. Pretoria has been highlighting the Brics plan to create a development bank and has expressed the hope that it will be launched at the Durban summit and perhaps even that it will be based in South Africa.
It has also identified the theme of the summit as “Brics and Africa-partnership for development, integration and industrialisation”, with the intention that the proposed development bank should focus on channelling the big money from its much wealthier Brics partners to Africa.
But none of this is clear. There are evidently serious disagreements among the Brics countries on how the development bank should operate, with China believing it should finance development only within Brics countries and India fearing that Beijing intends the bank to use only its own yuan currency, to boost the yuan relative to the US dollar in the world economy.
These analysts predict that the disagreements will postpone the launch of the bank beyond the Durban summit.
Pushing a Brics development bank that might help Africa would advance South Africa’s African agenda.
Yet for South Africa itself, the real value of its Brics membership ought to be in leveraging the greater access to those economic giants to achieve more trade and investment. Zuma told then Chinese president Hu Jintao last year that South Africa was looking to China to help balance the trade relationship – now heavily skewed in China’s favour – by investing in facilities which add value to our raw materials rather than just buying them raw.
Whether that happens remains to be seen. And whether South Africa can use its Brics membership to persuade China and the other Brics countries to open their now quite protectionist markets to more South African goods also still remains a moot point.
Our spat with Brazil last year over chicken imports was not promising. Many experts believe that these conflicting economic agendas are irrelevant at the Brics, which is essentially about creating a political counterpoint to the West.
If that is true, it raises the question which has hung over our membership of Brics from the start; and that is whether we might be a bit out of our league, joining the big boys in sparring with the West, if no economic benefits flow.