SA's stature grows on world stage

Like a small political party becoming the kingmaker in a hung municipality, South Africa has become a key geopolitical broker since the country’s elevation to the United Nations Security Council and an invitation to join Brazil, Russia, India and China in the enlarged Brics.

President Jacob Zuma is emerging as something of an international statesman after shifting his focus in 2010 to world affairs. He spent a significant chunk of the year jetting around the world to woo presidents and power brokers.

Late last year South Africa received a formal invitation from China, which made good on its promise to include South Africa in the Bric formation, to attend the Bric summit hosted by Beijing in April this year.

This is the high point of a relationship that has become stronger and more intimate since Zuma took power. The Chinese like the fact that Zuma seems to speak for the people and not just for elites.

“He’s of the working class, which makes him very popular with people on the ground. This is important to be a good leader,” one Chinese government official said.

Serious about world affairs
The Chinese are also impressed by the vigour with which Zuma has tackled diplomatic issues since signalling that he is a head of state who is serious about world affairs. He visited all the Bric countries in a single year.

Stronger links meant that a number of ANC leaders were sent to China last year for mentorship in the Chinese system of governance.

The Chinese government sees South Africa as a gateway to Africa, especially African states where infrastructural development is needed.

In South Africa itself China plans several large-scale investments—it recently arranged a R140-billion credit facility for the development of renewable energy. However, the Asian superpower’s sights are set mainly on the rest of Africa, where bigger projects and contracts loom.

The rapprochement between South Africa and China also appears to be of growing interest to the developed world. French President Nicolas Sarkozy hastily tried to arrange a working visit to South Africa shortly before Christmas last year to get Zuma on his side. Sarkozy backed down only once Zuma promised to go to Paris on a state visit in March.

France, as the incoming president of the G20, wants South Africa to help to convince China to allow the sticky issue of climate change to be placed on the agenda of the G20.

Diplomats say China insists that climate change should be dealt with only by the United Nations, which created the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Its next meeting will be in Durban at the end of the year. France believes that consensus on climate change in the G20 will help to make the Durban summit a success.

Tit-for-tat business
But diplomacy is a tit-for-tat business. The Bric countries will dominate the Security Council this year—Brazil, India and South Africa are serving as non-permanent members, while China and Russia have permanent seats—and South Africa wants to kick-start the UN reform agenda.

In 2008 China said it would support the inclusion of more developing countries on the council. Liu Zhenmin, China’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, said that these should particularly encompass African states. South Africa is the obvious choice and the expectation is that China will throw its weight behind South Africa’s campaign for a permanent seat.

At a press briefing this week, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the international relations minister, made it clear that South Africa expected the current configuration on the council to give UN reform a significant boost. A confident Nkoana-Mashabane told reporters: “If we had our way it would have been done yesterday.”

But European diplomats have warned that South Africa’s weak stance on the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire—South Africa refused to confirm the winner of the election, Alassane Ouattara, as the president of the country—will complicate the push for reform, as will South Africa’s refusal to push for further sanctions against Iran for stonewalling on its nuclear programme.

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