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South Africa’s Sub-Imperial Seductions

by PATRICK BOND

Durban, South Africa.

Thanks are due to an odd man, the brutally-frank Zambian vice president Guy Scott who last week pronounced, “I dislike South Africa for the same reason that Latin Americans dislike the United States”, and to our own president Jacob Zuma for forcing a long-overdue debate, just as the World Economic Forum Africa summit opens in Cape Town: is Pretoria a destructive sub-imperialist power?

Two positions immediately hardened on Monday at the spiky, must-read ezine Daily Maverick, as Zuma declared the need for a “decisive intervention: an African Standby Force for rapid deployment in crisis areas.” One stance – that of veteran US State Department official and now DM columnist Brooks Spector – encourages the extension of Pretoria’s power footprint for the sake of economic self-interest; the other – by health and human rights activist Sisonke Msimang – favours the revival of a Mandela-era rhetorical passion for continental human rights.

First though, some context:

* The call for a rush deployment force Africon-style comes the week after Ernst & Young’s Africa Attractiveness Survey recorded how thanks to predictable mining houses and MTN cellphone service, Standard Bank, Shoprite retail, and Sanlam insurance, SA’s foreign direct investment in the rest of Africa had risen 57 percent since 2007; indeed, “when one strips out investment from other countries into South Africa itself, [SA] was the single largest investor in FDI projects in the rest of Africa in 2012” – and SA finance minister Pravin Gordhan’s recent budget statement promises to “relax cross-border financial regulations and tax requirements on companies, making it easier for banks and other financial institutions to invest and operate” up-continent, making the re-scramble for Africa that more frenetic.

* The call comes shortly after 1500 more SA National Defense Force (SANDF) troops were deployed to the resource-rich eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – where not only is petroleum being prospected by Zuma’s catastrophe-prone nephew Khulubuse, but where coltan for our cellphones is mined, where Africa’s biggest conglomerate, Johannesburg-based Anglo, was caught working with murderous warlords a few years ago, and where more than five million Congolese have lost their lives over the last fifteen years.

* It comes five and a half weeks after Pretoria declared itself the “gateway” to Africa for Brazilian, Russian, Indian and Chinese investors at Durban’s BRICS summit.

* It comes six weeks after 13 SANDF troops returned home in coffins from the Central African Republic capital Bangui in the wake of their mission to protect South African “assets” which were initially said to be merely SANDF’s toys – yet just as they fell, those soldiers were termed “mercenaries” by the Seleka rebel group now in control. As a SANDF survivor told Sunday Times reporters Graeme Hoskins and Isaac Mahlangu, “Our men were deployed to various parts of the city, protecting belongings of South Africans. They were the first to be attacked… the guys outside the different buildings – the ones which belong to businesses in Joburg.” According to the Mail & Guardian, businesses set up in Bangui in recent years include several owned by African National Congress bigwigs.

Looking out from this fog of war, Brooks Spector argues that Pretoria’s “foreign policy efforts should also be geared to promoting the country’s economic and commercial prospects. These would include deliberate efforts aimed at opening foreign markets for South African product exports, encouraging foreign investment domestically, and supporting innovation and opportunities for international business ventures.”

What of higher-order interests at stake? Spector quotes local commentator Xolela Mangcu, writing for the Brookings Institute in Washington: Zuma’s predecessor “Thabo Mbeki also took it upon himself – through the foreign affairs department – to stand up for the continent both in fighting the superpowers but also in determining the terms of the world’s involvement with Africa. Mbeki’s pet projects, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), came under criticism in other parts of the continent precisely because of this ‘big brother’ role.”

Fighting the superpowers? The bulk of evidence suggests Mbeki repeatedly bolstered their neoliberal agenda even though he tossed around phrases like ‘global apartheid’ to throw observers off the scent. More honestly, Nepad was termed by a Bush Administration official “philosophically spot-on” with Bush giving Mbeki “point man” duty on Zimbabwe, for example.

In opening African markets for SA, as Spector desires, and in facilitating massive new African infrastructure investments along old colonial lines, even worse US penetration is likely (not just the oft-remarked flood from China). Mbeki’s pro-West orientation was a central reason why the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (the continent’s leading intellectual body) condemned Nepad, since “big brother” was actually more of a mini-me looking up to the imperialist powers: “Nepad will reinforce the hostile external environment and the internal weaknesses that constitute the major obstacles to Africa’s development. Indeed, in certain areas like debt, Nepad steps back from international goals that have been won through global mobilisation and struggle.”

Nepad’s “most fundamental flaws,” according to the continent’s sharpest thinkers, include “the neo-liberal economic policy framework at the heart of the plan… Its main targets are foreign donors… The engagement that Nepad seeks with institutions and processes like the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, the United States Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, the Cotonou Agreement, will further lock Africa’s economies disadvantageously into this environment.”

Instead of encouraging Joburg capital’s venal economic greed, Pretoria should indeed intervene, but with a rather different agenda, insists Msimang: “Much to the chagrin of those of us who had hoped we would be more muscular in our approach, SA has elected to play a softly-softly role in matters of human rights, good governance and democracy on the continent.” (To be sure, the same softly-softly role was also witnessed in Marikana and so many thousands of other South African sites of corruption, neoliberal service non-delivery, malgovernance and police brutality.)

What lies behind these grievances? For Spector, it is that Pretoria’s “foreign policy has been bedevilled by what could be termed a slow-growing, ad hoc amateurism; a too-easy reliance on the formalism of international organisations as a substitute for concrete results; and a growing confusion between supporting economic and commercial goals as a whole – as opposed to acting for the benefit of individual business profits.”

The lamentable result? “South Africa, today, resembles more and more that ‘pitiful, helpless giant’ of Richard Nixon’s late night fears about America caught in the midst of the Vietnam War than it does the view of a colossus that bestrides a continent existing in popular sentiment here.” (That sentiment includes Zuma’s National Development Plan, by the way, which concedes “the perception of the country as a regional bully” because “SA policy-makers tend to have a weak grasp of African geopolitics.”)

To bestride Africa is a regrettably cheeky image, because as you know Brooks Spector, “The Rhodes Colossus” was an 1892 cartoon in Punch magazine celebrating the Cape-to-Cairo agenda of Britain’s sub-imperialist partner. Ten years ago, a similarly misguided speechwriter for Mandela had him utter these words at the ill-advised launch of the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation: “I am sure that Cecil John Rhodes would have given his approval to this effort to make the South African economy of the early 21st century appropriate and fit for its time.”

Rhodes cartoon

But today, suffering his perpetual crises, how might a Zuma-Colossus continue bossing disillusioned SANDF soldiers into coffins? (Nixon couldn’t do so after around 1973, Spector needs no reminding.)

After all, the expectations are high, if we are to judge by a private-sector arbiter of sub-imperial cooperative capacity, the Stratfor consultancy. Thanks to Anonymous and WikiLeaks, we know that “SA’s history is driven by the interplay of competition and cohabitation between domestic and foreign interests exploiting the country’s mineral resources. Despite being led by a democratically-elected government, the core imperatives of SA remain maintenance of a liberal regime that permits the free flow of labor and capital to and from the southern Africa region, and maintenance of a superior security capability able to project into south-central Africa.”

That, at least, was conventional imperialist wisdom until the Bangui rebels forced a bloodied SANDF into rapid retreat on March 23. Here the danger of Msimang’s position becomes apparent: seducing Pretoria to once again talk left so as to invade right. “Post-Apartheid SA has elected to do the diplomatic soft-shoe shuffle in matters of human rights, good governance and democracy on the continent. On the continent, the lowest-common-denominator approach to diplomacy and foreign policy is perceived as weak. It is time South Africa spoke softly and carried a big stick,” says Msimang.

Like Spector recalling Rhodes, the problem with Msimang’s latter quote is that the man who first uttered it, at the turn of the last century, was US president Theodore Roosevelt, one of Washington’s most aggressive interventionists. Notches on his belt ranged from consolidating power in neo-colonial Cuba and the Philippines , to rendering the Panama Canal “a major staging area for American military forces, making the US the dominant military power in Central America,” as one biographer remarked. Moreover, Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine was that “the United States would intervene in any Latin American country that manifested serious economic problems,” and serve as the Western Hemisphere’s main cop.

Some say that by now taking a similar gap as chief cop in Southern and Central Africa, SA becomes imperialist, a case that would be stronger were it not for the vast drain of mining and financial profits into those dozen overseas-listed corporations that were once SA’s largest, whose financial headquarters are now mainly in London. The current account deficit from profit and dividend outflows has ratcheted the foreign debt to $135 billion, a potential crisis catalyst in coming months.

Such vulnerability to the whim of capital means that while zigzagging across Africa between service to the West and to new BRIC allies (especially China) one day, and to Joburg/family businesses the next, with a military unable to service such a long supply chain, what Spector terms a “muddle in the middle” is better alliterated as schizophrenic sub-imperialist SA.

Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society, which co-hosted the brics-from-below counter-summit and in early June he debates the sub-imperial thesis at the Left Forum in New York.

Patrick Bond has a joint appointment in political economy at the Wits University School of Governance in Johannesburg, alongside directing the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society in Durban. His latest book is BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique (co-edited with Ana Garcia), published by Pluto (London), Haymarket (Chicago), Jacana (Joburg) and Aakar (Delhi).

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