SA’s WEF strategy beholden to politics of Middle East

Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana.

Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana.

Published Jan 16, 2024


It could not be more glaring and dichotomous! On the day a top-notch legal team representing the South African government was filing a case with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague last Thursday to investigate Israel “for committing genocidal acts (against the Palestinian civilian population) in Gaza,” Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana was hosting “a Pre-World Economic Forum (WEF) Breakfast with Business Leaders”, in the salubrious surroundings of the Sandton Hilton Hotel “to collectively prepare” for that hubristic annual jamboree in the winter playground of the rich, powerful and famous in the Swiss enclave of Davos-Klosters, renowned as the ski resort of choice for royalty and the mega rich.

At a time when South Africa, especially Minister of International Affairs Naledi Pandor, has piled up the kudos and support from most of the non-Western world, albeit many ordinary people on the political centre and left in the West too concur with Pretoria’s call-out of Israeli stridency, indiscriminate bombing without impunity of civilians in Gaza, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s protestations to the contrary, how will Team Godongwana, no doubt comprising a bevy of ministers, bureaucrats and businessmen, fare in Davos, whose proceedings started yesterday?

Will his delegation reap any dividends from the government’s ICJ initiative, especially from institutional and private investors from Middle East and Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) countries, which have lavished much praise on Pretoria’s bold action with some even branding the country as the “moral conscience of the world”, given that no other country had dared to do so?

Alternatively, will South Africa suffer consequent deficits from Western investors, especially from the US, UK and Europe, supported by Japan, South Korea, India and Taiwan – all staunch supporters of Israel and seemingly the arch colluders in giving the amoral Netanyahu carte blanche to act without impunity in which the term ‘collateral damage’ involving millions of civilians has sunk to a new moral low in international law and geopolitics?

It remains to be seen whether the Rainbow Nation suffers with relation to the $4.5 billion African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), which is up for renewal by US Congress in 2025. When he hosted the Agoa summit last November in Johannesburg, President Ramaphosa asked for a 10-year extension of the Act which facilitates duty-free access to the US market for over 32 African countries.

But President Biden has not hesitated in expelling participating countries who are deemed to have violated he accession metrics to Agoa. He expelled Niger following a military coup there in 2023; expelled Uganda recently for adopting anti-LGBTQ legislation; and reinstated Mauritania due to progress towards a democratic polity.

The elephant in the room of course is the US presidential elections in November. Should Biden win, South Africa’s membership of Agoa may still be under threat given that Congress is dominated by a slim but extreme right-wing Trumpian Republican majority and base. They might ‘punish’ South Africa for daring to take the US’s arch ally, Israel, to the ICJ by vetoing or reversing any extension of Agoa or any widening of the duty-free universe requested by the African countries. Should the maverick, impulsive, unpredictable and undemocratic Trump return for a second term, whose one-sided chauvinistic support for Israel was a feature of his first term especially in recognising Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State and moving the US Embassy there, then we could see a dramatic decline in US-South African relations.

Netanyahu’s defiance in pre-empting a possible negative decision from the ICJ was evident on Saturday when he declared that “no one will stop Israel from winning its fight against Hamas”. Which begs the question as to why lawyers representing Israel bothered to turn up in The Hague to rebut South Africa’s case of a violation of the Genocide Convention.

That South Africa’s ICJ action resonates with Arab, Muslim and Developing Country Street, is clear.

This does not imply that President Ramaphosa was wrong in filing the investigation against Israel for allegedly breaching the Genocide Convention in Gaza. On the contrary the ANC government is merely doubling down on Madiba’s assertion on a visit to the West Bank that: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.

We identify with the PLO ( Palestine Liberation Organisation) because just like ourselves they are fighting for the right of self-determination.”

Whatever strategy Team Godongwana mapped out at the breakfast indaba at the Sandton Hilton to promote Brand South Africa, will inevitably be beholden to the politics of the Middle East and the ICJ case.

The theme of WEF 2024 – “Building Trust” – far from being apt as Godongwana says, betrays a complete dissonance with the reality on the ground whether it is a 75-year failure in delivering Palestinian statehood after so many false dawns, promises and internecine conflict – the root cause of the so-called “Palestinian Question”; the entrenched inequality of trade terms and conditions, and foreign direct investment flows from the developed to the developing economies; the exaggerated negative perceptions of developing country credit risk by international rating agencies thus adding to their cost of finance and sovereign indebtedness – all metrics which influence the investment sentiments of international private capital towards low-and-medium-income countries (LMICs)

The WEF used to have the gift of the gab for the movers and shakers of the global establishment, but its star has waned markedly over the last decade because of its inherent contradictions and moral ambivalence. It has evolved into yet another perennial celebrity and expensive talk shop which does well for Swiss tourism, but not much in delivering the grandiose priorities it sets itself.

For 2024, these are: Achieving Security and Co-operation in a Fractured World; Creating Growth and Jobs for a New Era; Artificial Intelligence as a Driving Force for the Economy and Safety; and A Long-Term Strategy for Climate, Nature and Energy.

These priorities contrast sharply with those of the IMF which pertain more to the real economy whether it is tackling the disruptive force of climate change in global trade; the surge in global uncertainty and its impact on economic growth; the global food crisis which is expected to persist, with prices still elevated after a year of war in Ukraine; the decline of globalisation and the ascendancy of economic fragmentation; and the most nauseating of them all – fossil fuel subsidies topping $7 trillion in 2023 which makes a mockery of the COP process.

While the role of public, private and philanthropic capital are important development, wealth creation and economic equality facilitators, Godongwana seems to think that WEF Davos is the ultimate platform to “market our country.

Many of you have been attending the Annual Meeting for years now, and I’m sure you will agree with me that these issues (of structural reforms to accelerate economic recovery and resolving the energy and logistic challenges), are ones that current and potential investors in our country and continent are interested in.”

Many South Africans, clobbered by the inadequacies of the ruling ANC’s stewardship of the economy and country over the last decade, may beg to differ and see the WEF Davos engagement as yet another exercise in costly civil service tourism, which the country can ill-afford!

Parker is an economist and writer based in London

Cape Times