/ 19 May 2023

Non-alignment SA’s only political and economic choice, but we must condemn the war

Night economy recovers in Xixia District, Yinchuan City, northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, 15 January, 2023. (Yuan Hongyan / ImagineChina / Imaginechina via AFP)

What is in the best interests of South Africa in the economic “Cold War” between the United States, Europe and China? China has, over the past four decades, become the world’s factory and eaten away at the US and Europe’s industrial strength. 

It’s a shift that has affected this country, as much as we rightfully cast blame on the government for its inability to implement the many well-laid plans to protect industries such as sugar. It’s near impossible to compete with the population advantage that Asia has over every other continent. A large population means cheap labour, the biggest input cost for the world’s major corporations.

The South African economy is dominated by consumption. The weakness is that manufacturing remains the biggest jobs multiplier, which means the de-industrialisation we’ve seen since the late 1970s has resulted in a rise in joblessness, feeding into our political instability. Work at a McDonald’s cannot compete in terms of stability with work at the factory floor, no matter what some of Johannesburg and Pretoria’s big-name economists tell you. 

So we’ve been as affected, if not more, by China assuming the mantle of the world’s factory. We too have — or rather should have — a gripe in the economic “Cold War” being led from Washington, London and Brussels.

But South Africa has something in its bowels without which China and its Asian neighbours, which have also become industrial giants in their own right, cannot live — our mineral and agricultural exports. Although making up a much smaller part of the overall GDP today, these sectors are the country’s biggest employers and soak up the “unskilled” segment of the labour force. 

So as this “Cold War” is getting warmer and is further fuelled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February — which hasn’t received as much condemnation from emerging market nations as it has in the developed world — which side South Africa takes in it does matter. 

China, in particular, has remained a close ally of Vladimir Putin, who is now reviled in the West. As much as South Africa’s battle against apartheid has given the country moral weight on the international stage, in the real world, diplomacy is driven by economic interests. It drives the US in all its diplomatic efforts around the world. How else would you explain its continued relationship with Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, after ample evidence of the state’s role in the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi?

So if our stance in this “Cold War” is premised on economics, we have no other choice but to hold fast and be clear in our expression of a non-aligned stance. It’s a political statement, but it’s our economic reality. 

Still, our moral authority in the world — however diminished — demands that we condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine and we cannot waver.