Forging its place

Published: 01-APR-04

Today we are so used to seeing South African leaders on world platforms that it is easy to forget that the South Africa of today is a very young nation. It is just 10 years since we watched the 'Rainbow Nation' emerge from the hard, constricting shell of apartheid, writes Lynda Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

Ten years is an impossibly short period of time in the development of any nation. Yet, within this period, South Africa has had to come to terms with itself in a new multi-cultural, multi-racial environment; work out its position as a regional and continental leader; and at the same time re-establish itself on the world stage. Most developed nations, with stable institutions and a long history of democratic rule, would find this a 'big elephant' to digest, and better dealt with in bite-sized chunks over many years. South Africa has not been afforded that luxury. It is a credit to the government and people that South Africa can look back on the last ten years with real satisfaction and pride.

When, in 1994, South Africa embraced a new world, opening its gates to new opportunities and new challenges, the 'heaven' and 'hell' scenarios were frequently advanced in the media and over dinner tables. Ten years later, the former 'pariah' state has become a fully fledged member of the international community. Its troops have been valuable additions to peace-keeping operations.

Its economic policies, progress in reducing debts and its restructuring process have been warmly acknowledged by institutions and ratings agencies. Not only has it proved itself to be a regional powerhouse within the southern Africa region but also a founding member and driving force of the NEPAD, the continent's major initiative for regeneration and development.

Many issues remain to be settled. For long-term sustainability there is a need to create a genuine, widespread black middle class right across South Africa. The Government's attempts to move this forward, through Black Economic Empowerment, have generated much debate and emotion. Yet an open debate has taken place, and as a result, both the private and public sectors are beginning to accept BEE as a potential economic and social benefit rather than simply as a political excercise. In a similar vein, it is to be hoped that other issues, such as how to tackle HIV/AIDS, may now be moving into the arena of practical action and away from rhetoric and polemic.

Externally, South Africa has contributed to stability in Africa, although there continues to be a real economic and social crisis in its northern neighbour, Zimbabwe. There, South Africa's efforts to mediate have so far not brought relief for the ordinary Zimbabweans. Nevertheless the issue of Zimbabwe, and the emotion it generates, has not destabilised the wider relationship between South Africa and the rest of the world, nor should it.

This is important for Africa's future. South Africa enjoys an economic infrastructure and environment in its main cities that is far more sophisticated and advanced than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa. It has a much more diversified economy than other countries in the continent and is not as reliant on commodities as many other African states. South Africa also enjoys a strong manufacturing and industrial base. These benefits mean almost no reliance on the international financial institutions, and consequently the country has greater structural flexibility than any other African state.

In a recent statement on the 2004/5 budget, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel spoke of building South Africa as a regional finance centre able to meet the needs of Africa. In fact, South Africa may provide models for Africa in many other sectors as well. The Johannesburg Securities Exchange is currently helping other exchanges in the SADC region to improve their capabilities and the Department of Trade and Industry has introduced a number of measures and incentives to encourage the expansion of business across the rest of Africa.

By 2003, according to the South African Institute of International Affairs, there was virtually no sector in South Africa that was not doing business with, or investing in, the rest of Africa. While southern Africa continues to be the main area for investment, particularly those countries bordering South Africa, business has also expanded into both east and west Africa. In the west, Nigeria is South Africa's biggest trading and investment partner, with increasing diversification away from the traditional oil sector. South African investment is often seen as an alternative to capital from North America or Europe.

Such expansion does bring with it certain issues. South Africa, politically, is contributing to peacekeeping, regional stability and NEPAD, yet its borders remain officially closed to most other African citizens. In a similar vein, South African companies continue to expand in the rest of Africa yet these companies rarely buy products and services from the countries in which they have economic investments. South Africa may be one of the biggest trading partners for many African countries, but that trade is currently skewed in South Africa's favour in almost all instances. As South African companies have begun displacing European and North American companies as prime investors and trading partners, so worries have been expressed in some quarters that South Africans are the new colonisers of the continent, taking over markets and undermining local businesses.

These are issues to which South Africa and South Africans should remain sensitive, particularly as both the public and private sectors in South Africa have much to offer in the way of capacity building in the rest of Africa - skills training, education, the transfer of knowledge and the implementation of sound governance among other areas of activity. Nevertheless, when these issues were raised at the World Economic Forum's 2003 Africa Regional Summit, the sentiment expressed was that, whatever the worries, the benefits of a stronger South Africa would outweigh the potential costs.

Far more damaging, the Summit concluded, would be for South Africa to turn its back on the continent and seek its economic future elsewhere. This recognised that South Africa, more than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa, could still integrate into a global economy, independently. South Africa's 2000 Agreement with the European Union saw their exports to the EU rise 35 per cent in the following twelve months.

South Africa is also negotiating with the Mercosur countries of South America; it is looking at possible free trade agreements with India and China; and it is one of the countries that qualifies for preferential access into the US market through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). This is a formidable collection of global opportunities for the nation.

History, language and location have conferred on South Africa a unique set of circumstances, which enable it to be a key actor in many places.

First and foremost it is tied to Africa, both as a regional powerhouse and as a key political player. This will be a critical role as the NEPAD initiative begins to unfold in practical terms, as it must if the continent is to stand any chance of getting even close to the targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Equally, South Africa has made its presence felt as one of the leaders of the G20 Group of countries. Perhaps even more significantly, South Africa is engaging with Brazil, India and China. With the power blocs of the European Union and North America already in existence, it was inevitable that sooner or later new groupings of other countries would come to the fore. That we may now be seeing. Yet, in an increasingly interdependent world, multilateral negotiations, complex though they are, are still preferable to a return to a world of discrete, bi-lateral agreements. South Africa, with its connections, may prove to be both a leader and a bridge.

As South Africa prepares for its third general election since starting on its new road ten years ago, the past decade is rightly being celebrated around the world. South Africa holds a position of leadership in the continent and across the world. The coming decade will present new opportunities, and also many new challenges for the 'Rainbow Nation'. It will require a continuing sense of openness and debate within the country - government, business and people - to ensure that the gains of the last ten years are not diluted, and that progress is maintained towards a more stable, secure and prosperous future for all South Africa's people. It is in the interests of the international community, too, that this progress is maintained.

Differences will arise, as is inevitable in nation-state relationships. Nevertheless, the long-term future of Africa and the global economy requires that the continent is anchored by a strong, stable and democratic South Africa. The idea that South Africa would not play any part in future political and economic deliberations is now unthinkable. That, perhaps, is the measure of how far the country has come.

  • Lynda, Baroness Chalker is Chairman of 'Africa Matters Limited' a commercial organisation which assists companies develop long-term profitable business in Africa that meets global best practice and supports the continent's economic and social development. A former UK Government Minister for Africa and Overseas Development, Lynda Chalker is also an independent adviser on Africa and Development to the World Bank and a non-executive director of several international companies.

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