SA minister may be destined for glory

South Africa’s Minister of Trade and Industry, Alec Erwin, has been tipped by an influential American journal as the favourite candidate for the director general’s post at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which becomes vacant in September 2005.

Erwin’s ministry has poured cold water on the speculation. Nevertheless, conjecture is rife in parliamentary circles that Erwin may ultimately be replaced as trade and industry minister by Minerals and Energy Minister Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

But President Thabo Mbeki may only do this nearer the time that Erwin moves to a new post, rather than immediately after the coming national election in South Africa, expected no later than April.

The current WTO director general is Thailand’s Supachai Panitchnakdi who is expected to retire from the post after his three-year term next year. Significantly, Supachai was elected director general three years before taking office in September 2002 for a three-year term.

A spokesperson for the Department of Trade and Industry, Pamela Moeng, said she had received a response from the minister’s office “indicating that he has not been contacted and this was not true”.

But the authoritative journal Foreign Affairs, published by the Council for Foreign Relations—a non-profit and non-partisan membership organisation which its website described as “dedicated to improving the understanding of United States foreign policy and international affairs through the free exchange of ideas”—describes Erwin as “a favourite to become the next director general of the WTO”.

The Council for Foreign Relations’s website says that its 3 400 members includes “nearly all past and present presidents, secretaries of state, defence and treasury officials and other senior US government officials”.

Erwin is mentioned in the council’s journal in an article titled “Don’t Cry for Cancun”, authored by Jagdish Bhagwati, a professor at Columbia University, and Andre Meyer, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in its January/February 2004 edition, which describes the WTO talks in Cancun, Mexico, last year as both a failure and a success—a failure because no agreement was reached.

In arguing that Cancun was “a stepping stone” for a successful conclusion of the Doha round of trade negotiations, the article notes South Africa’s strong stance on agricultural subsidies in Europe and the US and Erwin’s detailed account of the failure of Cancun.—I-Net Bridge

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