South Africa must woo Lula's successor

Brazil’s presidential election on October 3 marks the beginning of a new era for Latin America’s biggest nation. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula in Brazil, steps down after eight years in power.

His presence in Brazilian politics is as old as Brazil’s democracy itself: the former union leader has participated in every direct presidential election since democratisation in the late 1980s. Lula became president on his fourth attempt, in 2002, and shaped Brazilian politics like no other in recent decades.

He also travelled to Africa more than any other Brazilian president in history and a cornerstone of his foreign policy has been stronger ties to developing countries. Brazilian exports to Africa more than tripled (to $8,7-billion) in 2009 and South Africa is one of Brazil’s most important African trade partners. During Lula’s time in office, Brazil doubled its number of embassies in Africa to 34. South Africa has been the major beneficiary of Lula’s South-South diplomacy, which helped Africa’s most prosperous nation to strengthen its international standing and strategic weight.

Yet Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, an uninspiring technocrat, is unlikely to focus on Africa as much and may neglect it altogether as she faces formidable domestic challenges, such as urgent tax and pension reform. As the continent’s leader, South Africa’s president must thus be more proactive and reach out to Brazil’s future president if he wants to prevent relations falling back to the low level of the Nineties.

Ties between South Africa and Brazil have traditionally been insignificant. During apartheid Brazil preferred to engage with Africa’s Portuguese-speaking countries, principally Angola and Mozambique. Brazil supported the ANC and, after South Africa’s first free elections in 1994, Brazil’s then-president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, became the first Brazilian head of state to visit South Africa.

Brazil and South Africa began to collaborate on the issue of HIV-drug patents during the Cardoso administration, but relations intensified after Lula took office in 2003, finding their high point in the creation of Ibsa, a trilateral alliance of India, Brazil and South Africa, in which governments and civil society can exchange expertise in areas in which they face similar challenges. Meaningful collaboration is now taking place in the fight against HIV/Aids, cash-transfer programmes to combat poverty and ways to foster social mobility.

Having grown up in poverty himself, Lula cares about development issues, particularly in Africa. He tirelessly points out that Brazil has the second-largest black African population after Nigeria, justifying the special relationship between Brazil and Africa. Trade between Brazil and South Africa increased to nearly $1,7-billion in 2009 and further agreements were made this year, including annual political consultations.

While the Brazilian-South African friendship has grown stronger in the past eight years, there is still upward potential.

Brazil has been the motor behind the idea of South-South diplomacy, most visible in Ibsa, which has boosted South Africa’s international stature significantly. But more can be done jointly to tackle the domestic challenges both South Africa and Brazil face—urban violence, the need to improve education and the promotion of economic growth to lift millions out of poverty.

In addition, their geostrategic position is similar in that both countries are emerging but not yet well integrated into international structures. Most importantly, both countries’ objective of obtaining a permanent seat on the UN Security Council has yet to be fulfilled. In this quest Brazil and South Africa would be well advised to collaborate—a joint bid (possibly with India) is likely to enhance chances for success. It is only in alliance with other emerging powers such as Brazil that South Africa will be able to influence the global agenda in coming decades.

Oliver Stuenkel is a visiting professor of international relations at the University of São Paulo and a fellow of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin

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