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Visit by Portuguese president to SA comes in midst of energy crisis

Portugal's President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa smiles during a welcome ceremony at the National Palace in Mexico City

Portugal's President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa smiles during a welcome ceremony at the National Palace in Mexico City

Published Jun 6, 2023


André Thomashausen

Rebelo de Sousa, President of Portugal, is in South Africa this week on a state visit and to meet the several hundred thousand strong Portuguese community.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is a foremost former law professor, member of Parliament and Minister, and for many years co-editor of Portugal’s most acclaimed and influential weekly, Expresso.

Coinciding with the first stop of the visit in Cape Town on June 6 was the arrival of a Portuguese Navy submarine. The arrival of a Portuguese submarine for the protection of the President of Portugal, or as a veiled threat in the old “gunboat diplomacy” tradition of the Europeans may deepen the unease in the relations between Portugal and South Africa. They are increasingly fragile because of Lisbon’s lack of interest in what South Africa wants to achieve in its region and in Africa, and especially its two Portuguese speaking neighbours, Angola and Mozambique.

A diplomatic solution at the last minute would be a re-definition of the submarine’s mission. The submarine could be of great and welcome use in monitoring the coastal sea of Cabo Delgado, threatened by the terrorist infiltration that continues to spread in northern Mozambique where the South African National Defence Force is engaged in an anti-terrorism mission with two battalions.

Portugal’s policy towards Africa has for a long time lacked direction. Portugal is economically dependent on the EU and has not been able to define its own and independent engagement with Africa.

Past visits to Africa by Portuguese Presidents focussed on the Portuguese speaking countries in Africa and displayed a romantic reminiscence of Portugal’s former presence as a colonial power. The visit to South Africa by Rebelo de Sousa, already delayed for many years, risks being no different. It comes late and in the midst of South Africa’s existential energy crisis, the tense preparations for the August BRICS Summit in this country, and closely ahead of South Africa’s most contested and difficult general elections in May 2024.

There is, however, a unique opportunity for Rebelo de Sousa to re-establish the ties that for centuries have intimately linked Portugal and South Africa. Unlike the recent visits of the King of Belgium, the President of Finland or the Prime Minister of Singapore, among many others, the visit of Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is given a high priority by South Africa, as demonstrated by the official visit of the South African Minister of International Relations to Lisbon on 18-19 May, in preparation for this week’s state visit. No other visit by a Head of State to South Africa has benefited from this kind of preparatory care at the highest political level.

South Africa has important expectations linked to Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa’s visit.

The expectation is that the President of Portugal will not come just to repeat more ultimatums from Brussels in regard to joining the sanctions war against Russia, but that Rebelo de Sousa will be willing to listen to what President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Minister Naledi Pandor want to achieve with their African peace plan for Ukraine. The hope in Pretoria is that finally a European leader will want to understand and then convey to his allies what Africa aspires to and why it believes that an endless supply of arms and encouragement for the benefit of one of the parties in a conflict, will never result in a compromise.

It is also hoped that Portugal can reflect and consider what practical measures could alleviate the existential nightmare in which South Africa finds itself. The country has more than half of the adult population unemployed, suffers daily power cuts amounting to an average 10 hours out of every 24 hours, and all this in addition to a zero economic growth rate and a crime rate that has reached 60 murder cases per day.

Contrary to the other powerful Portuguese nation, Brazil, Portugal refuses to consider that the ideological hegemony of European political systems could run out. The model of multi-party democracy in Africa has not brought the promised progress, but has instead installed parasitic elites and levels of poverty and abandonment of the masses unequalled in human history. The Anglo-Saxon political model with its variants on the European continent, no longer has a good name in Africa. In South Africa it is increasingly rejected and even hated by large parts of the electorate.

For South Africa, the future prospects for friendship and good relations with Portugal continue to be good. The industrial sectors of civil construction, electrical engineering, heavy industry and agriculture (fresh produce, livestock and fishing), have always been fostered and brilliantly well managed by the Portuguese in South Africa who can be considered to constitute the most productive and loyal European community in the country. The innumerable small and medium Portuguese owned enterprises identify much more easily with South Africa than the “large” foreign investors, whose engagement is always conditioned by economic opportunity.

The most important outcome of the visit of the Portuguese President should be to improve the perception in Lisbon of the Portuguese community in South Africa. They are a human capital that offers privileged access to enormous opportunities for high quality industrial investments in a key industrial country for the entire African continent. They are the natural basis for fulfilling Portugal’s historic mission to be the bridge of understanding and development between Europe and Africa.

Andre Thomashausen is Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and is a Constitutionalist, and a contemporary in of Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa in Lisbon in 1975 and 1976