SA and Germany realigned in energy transformation

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Federal Republic of Germany met President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Union Buildings in Tshwane during an official visit to South Africa this week. Picture: GCIS

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Federal Republic of Germany met President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Union Buildings in Tshwane during an official visit to South Africa this week. Picture: GCIS

Published May 29, 2022


By Dr André Thomashausen

In a surprise “blitz diplomacy” move, Germany’s newly elected Prime Minister (Chancellor) Olaf Scholz spent one day in South Africa on May 24.

The day was divided into an extensive meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa and his team, a visit to the Old Fort at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg (where Nelson Mandela was briefly imprisoned in 1956), a visit to Sasol headquarters, and, to conclude, the attendance of the 70th anniversary celebration of the Southern African-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

During the last years of the Angela Merkel chancellorship, South African-German co-operation was regularly praised but yielded few new impulses.

An anti-government stance adopted by past ambassador Martin Schäfer, in a finger-pointing list of complaints leaked in 2019 to the media as an “open letter” to Ramaphosa, nearly caused diplomatic relations to “freeze over”.

Merkel’s ambitious plan to invest in the production of a 100GW equivalent of hydrogen production in South Africa, to be shipped to Germany, was launched with an official policy document in April 2021, but implementation steps are outstanding.

The earlier plan, labelled in 2018 “Compact with Africa”, excluded South Africa from the outset. The “compact” was geared toward reducing migration flows from 11 African countries north of the Sahara. At the end of 2021, Germany finally achieved its political renewal with Scholz taking over as chancellor.

Scholz, a labour law attorney by profession and during his student years a radical Marxist student leader, turned out to become what was probably the most successful mayor ever of the all-important port city and trading hub of Hamburg. His tenure as minister of finance during the Covid pandemic was equally praised across party lines.

Scholz succeeds to the long and proud list of famously courageous and forward-looking Social Democrats in Germany, the most notable having been Friedrich Ebert, Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder.

How will he stand in their shoes? South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement will never forget the impact of Brandt’s global alert to the NorthSouth Divide. Brandt used to explain that if we imagine our world as a train, the “North” would be sitting in a luxurious first-class carriage behind the locomotive, with the various regions of the South sitting in second, third and fourth class carriages without seats, windows or toilets.

He warned Europe that its First-Class travel would not be sustainable nor safe. In South Africa, the change of the guard in Germany is echoed by the appointment of a new German ambassador, Andreas Peschke, who served in Africa before and chose Africa Region studies and African languages at university.

But Peschke will have wished that Scholz could have spent a day or two longer in South Africa. The “Just Energy Transition Partnership” supported by Germany, France, the UK, US and EU figured on top of the agenda, as did the support of vocational training, vaccine manufacturing, and the development and production in partnership with Sasol of green aviation fuel.

The most exciting “lifeline” news for South Africa is that the strategic vision of truly massive production of green hydrogen (hydrogen produced with solar energy) for export to Germany is solidified and scheduled to take off. It contains huge promises of job creation, balance of payment relief, and the reduction of the rich to poor divide in South Africa. Social and economic welfare considerations were central during Scholz’s address to German captains of business before his return to Berlin.

Germany’s leading solar energy expert, Professor Dr Bernd Rech, scientific director of the Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin which unites over 700 of the world’s leading renewable energy scientists, presented specific implementation plans to Ramaphosa and Scholz during their meeting.

His comment later in the day was that he was surprised to have found in Ramaphosa such an excellently informed and engaging listener. Another insider’s echo was that Scholz was likeable and firm and that good chemistry between him and Ramaphosa developed.

The South African side took away from the meeting substantial success. Germany, that chairs this year’s forthcoming G7 Heads of State meeting, invited South Africa to attend, together with Senegal, to represent the African continent.

It is no small conquest for South Africa’s “soft diplomacy” to be able yet again to be part of the G7, the most important world policy meeting.

This is so in particular as many of the “old” liberal media and the DA opposition party seemed to have gleefully expected the visit of the German chancellor to have ended badly over disagreements in respect of the Ukraine conflict.

Scholz stated unequivocally, during the press conference at the Union Buildings and later during his substantial address to the Southern AfricanGerman Chamber of Commerce and Industry, that he considered the military intervention of Russia in Ukraine an act of unprovoked aggression, in breach of the UN charter.

But at the same time, after his meeting with Ramaphosa, he chose to respect that South Africa, as a partner in the 4 billion people BRICS alliance, will stick to a different focus. South Africa firmly believes that the conflict cannot be overcome by arming and funding the Ukraine, and that negotiations and a peaceful conflict resolution are the only morally and politically viable options.

South Africa’s own history lends strong support that bloodshed and destruction can only be avoided by negotiation and compromise. The country emerged strengthened in its strategic partnership and economic co-operation with Germany.

Germany is South Africa’s second-largest trading partner and historically its most loyal international companion. South Africa’s immediate plights, the devastation of KZN, and the failure of all of its state-owned enterprises and the loss of vital infrastructure, massive unemployment and spiralling violent crime rates, were not included in any agenda but were evidently on everyone’s mind.

Germany showed its commitment to help stabilise the industrial giant in Africa which fall would doom the entire continent for decades to come.

* Thomashuasen is a German attorney and Professor Emeritus of International Law (Unisa)