/ 15 September 2009

Brazil eyes SA’s rivals

Confidential ANC document reveals doubts about the country's position as Africa's powerhouse

South Africa’s place among big developing countries has been questioned by Brazil, sparking jitters in the governing ANC. This concern is expressed in a confidential discussion document that formed part of the ANC’s national working committee (NWC) report to the party’s national executive committee (NEC) in July.

A Brazilian delegate at a meeting of social democratic parties in São Paulo in July expressed doubt that South Africa is the continent’s leading economy. This has led to a confidential ANC re-examination of the country’s relationship with Brazil. ‘South Africa has not asserted itself enough, or a vacuum has been created for Brazil to lobby other countries in the continent,” the report reads.

Said to have been presented by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, the report states that Brazil has questioned whether South Africa is ‘uncontested” as a leading economy on the continent and has demanded ‘justification for why South Africa should be included in a forum of leading economies in the respective regions”.

Libya invited Brazilian president Luiz ‘Lula” da Silva to the 13th African Union summit of heads of states that took place in Tripoli in July.

By contrast, South Africa was excluded from a June summit of major emerging economic powers convened by Bric — the acronym for Brazil, Russia, India and China –as the key players among the emerging powers.

The exclusion raised concerns among local economic analysts that there was no African voice at the summit, held in Russia, to articulate the continent’s interests in the Bric group.

The ANC report expresses concern about the possibility of Bric’s competitive threat to the trilateral forum of India, Brazil and South Africa (Ibsa). It proposes that the two structures be ‘brought together” to avoid losing Brazil and India to Bric.

The ANC NWC recommends that the party evaluate the effect of South Africa ‘punching above its weight” in international forums and ‘the attitude of our supposed friends towards us”.

‘It is in our interest to ensure that friends regard South Africa positively,” the report states. ‘However, we must avoid extremes, being seen as arrogant or being overly humble to a point of not asserting ourselves.”

Two NEC members confirmed to the Mail & Guardian that Brazil had indeed questioned South Africa’s economic predominance on the continent.

But Ebrahim Ebrahim, the international relations deputy minister, said he had ‘no recollection” of the matter. Ebrahim is head of the ANC’s sub-committee on international relations.

Mohau Pheko, an independent political and economic analyst, said Brazil was asking a ‘legitimate” question. ‘We are a hero only in Africa — and even that is debatable. Who really feels our presence on the continent, economically? Can we use our economic power to bring change to Zimbabwe?” she asked.

ANC spokesperson Ishmael Mnisi said the ANC had not attended the São Paulo meeting because the invitation had arrived late, but the party
had received a report on discussions at the event. He declined to answer any further questions.

Pheko said the ANC’s refusal to talk about the Brazil question was an indication that the party was uncomfortable with it. ‘Brazil is planning to conquer Africa and is using South Africa as an entry point,” she said. ‘We are not an important player and the sooner we wake up to that the better.”

She added: ‘There is a crisis in our country and we don’t want to talk about it because we fear the market’s reaction, but at the end of the day we have to talk about it.”

Brazil’s ambassador to South Africa, José Vincent de Sá Pimentel, told the M&G that it was his country’s foreign policy priority to strengthen ties with South Africa.

Although he did not deny that Brazil questions South Africa’s position as an economic powerhouse, he said the country had the ‘credentials” and the ‘resulting responsibility to exercise an important role on the continent”.

Concerns about Brazil neglecting Ibsa in favour of Bric were unrealistic, he said. ‘Ibsa, for Brazil, is irreplaceable. We are 100% committed to strengthening it, as the exemplary instrument of south-south cooperation.”

Pheko said because of the global financial crisis mistakes South Africa had made in the past — including poor articulation of international policy — would ‘come out glaring — Unfortunately, the job of this administration is to fix those mistakes.”

In the World Bank’s 2010 report on business dealings released this week, South Africa fell two places — from 32 last year to 34.

President Jacob Zuma is scheduled to make a state visit to Brazil next month, marking what De Sá Pimentel called ‘the beginning of a new era of Brazil-South Africa relations”.