Unless the United States-Iran conflict flares up again or some other international crisis prevents her from coming, Angela Merkel is set to meet President Cyril Ramaphosa on February 6. The German chancellor has entered her final lap as a major political figure. Last year she announced that she will not run as chancellor again in the 2021 German elections.
Merkel is one of the few global leaders left who are actively trying to secure the principle of multilateralism and the international rule of law, both of which have come under sustained attack from ultra-populist, nationalist leaders such as Donald Trump in the United States and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
Importantly for Merkel and her agenda, Germany will hold the European Union presidency during the second half of the year. Meanwhile, President Cyril Ramaphosa will chair the African Union for the whole of 2020. Both will be serving the second year of their respective two-year terms as two of the 10 temporary members of the United Nations security council alongside the five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the US.
The points of intersection are obvious. It is an interesting conjuncture with intriguing possibilities. This is a year in which South Africa and Germany can achieve a great deal by working together and strengthening their relationship on a long-term basis — if they can find sufficient points of strategic weight and common interest to collaborate effectively.
The basis for a common platform already exists. Domestically and on an international level, both countries have a strong orientation towards human rights principles and democratic values.
Both now are G20 countries and in similar respects punch above their weight in their respective hemispheres — South Africa as one of the two largest economies on the African continent, and Germany as one of the three (very soon to be two) biggest economies in the EU.
Is it possible to discern a common approach or pattern after a year on the security council together? The voting record of the two countries suggests that their points of convergence are plenty. Both countries voted in a similar way in most of the cases the security council dealt with. Fifty-one resolutions were adopted last year. In three of these resolutions — two on the Western Sahara and one on Sudan/South-Sudan — South Africa abstained while Germany voted “yes”.
South Africa also abstained from a draft resolution from China and Russia on the Middle East (a ceasefire resolution for Idlib in Syria’s northwest), in which Germany voted “no”. The resolution wasn’t adopted.
Opposing voting behaviour appeared only once — on Venezuela. South Africa voted against a US draft resolution, which Germany supported; South Africa supported a Russian draft resolution. None of the resolutions on Venezuela were adopted.
The question is whether the two countries’ voting patterns imply deeper similarities in approach to international relations and to the most pressing issues of the day.
It is clear that there is a lot of goodwill and a growing interest in deepening co-operation. Since the inauguration of Ramaphosa it seems that the official diplomatic relations have increased. He visited Germany in 2018 and attended a meeting on the G20 Compacts with Africa initiative. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier came to South Africa in November 2018 — a clear signal that Germany was keen to understand Ramaphosa’s promises of a “new dawn”.
A Merkel visit is another signal that shows the interest in strengthening co-operation.
For the German government, the current international climate is not easy. With Trump in office, the transatlantic relationship between Germany and the US has deteriorated. Brexit poses a challenge to co-operation in Europe. Germany, France and other middle powers were on the lookout for recruits to their Alliance for Multilateralism, which was subsequently launched in September last year.
This was good timing: the Ramaphosa administration was seeking to “reset” its foreign policy radar, which had become skewed during the years Jacob Zuma was in power, to reconnect with the principles of multilateralism, human rights and the international rule of law that had underpinned Nelson Mandela and then Thabo Mbeki’s foreign policy when they were president.
The speeches of Ramaphosa or Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Naledi Pandor at the security council were an important signal for Germany and other countries that South Africa is an ally with its commitment to multilateralism.
Other emerging issues of common interest included security council reform. South Africa and Germany support the re-structuring of the body, to renew legitimacy and rebuild credibility given the huge changes in geopolitics and economic wealth and distribution of the 75 years since it was established in 1945.
Another issue for both countries is to strengthen AU-EU co-operation. South Africa could become a strong partner for Germany, which has shown a greater interest in the developments on the African continent. South Africa has an “historic mission”, says one of the country’s leading diplomats: “We have a responsibility to be a progressive agent for the transformation of Africa and indeed for the transformation of global power relations’.”
South Africa sees itself as a “bridge-builder” committed to always promoting political dialogue. To play that role it must necessarily adopt an independent stance while ideally uniting the African voices in the security council. It is this notion of principled independence that characterises South Africa’s positioning on the security council — a notion that it prefers to the view that it is a “swing state”.
On the women, peace and security agendas, South Africa was able to walk this talk. It played a crucial role behind the scenes to bring China and Russia onboard and prevent them from vetoing resolution 2493. This was appreciated by Germany and has no doubt helped to advance their co-operation with South Africa.
But the relationship is still evolving, just as the two countries’ strategic priorities are still to be fully clarified. And there are points of disagreement. For example, Germany holds the view that the climate emergency is a security matter and should be on the agenda of the security council. But South Africa takes a more traditional view and is anxious not to dilute the security council’s core focus on war and peace.
On this issue, there are good arguments in both directions.
At times, there is still room for misunderstanding. For example, German diplomats are still confused by South Africa’s stance on Venezuela — a lightning-rod issue during the past couple of years. Berlin may be inclined to regard it as evidence of South Africa’s “post-colonial, anti-West” reflex, whereas Pretoria is eager to point out that its stance should not have been understood to have been pro-Maduro, but rather as pro-political dialogue, which it saw as the point of principle at stake.
With a year to go there are opportunities to iron out these misunderstandings and nuances, and to work in a focused fashion on the practical details of a common agenda — even beyond the joint membership in the security council. And a bi-national commission is planned for late summer in Pretoria.
Merkel and Ramaphosa will no doubt have much to talk about. Their discussions could include:
* How could Germany and South Africa work together to support peace efforts on the African continent and to “silence the guns”?
* The Berlin Conference on Libya was held on January 20 and the AU High Level Committee on Libya (established in 2011) is due to meet this week in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. Is it possible for the EU and AU to work more closely to support a process to end the conflict?
* What is the strategy of both countries to deal with the US, especially after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani?
* What to make of Russia’s growing influence in security affairs globally and on the African continent?
* What effect does the trade war between China and the US have on both countries and their continents and how could South Africa and Germany work together to help to prevent it?
Ramaphosa may not yet have attained Merkel’s stature in international relations, but his instincts are similar and he is respected by the other multilateralists in the UN Security Council, such as Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and France’s president, Emmanuel Macron.
This, in turn, can serve Ramaphosa’s economic diplomacy and foreign investment strategy.
At a time of global insecurity and political uncertainty, South Africa and Germany have a rare opportunity to build a common platform that can be a springboard for advancing a range of significant issues. A meeting between the two leaders will be an important staging post in this process.
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group. Dr Melanie Müller is a researcher with a focus on South Africa and the Southern African Development Community at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. The authors are collaborating on a research project that explores the potential for a common South African-German foreign policy agenda