Derek Hook,
South Africa focus

When does the pivot state’s pursuit of strategic and economic gains eclipse the interests of regional stewardship? How, in other words, will such states behave towards their neighbours?


South Africa, international tourist destination and Africa’s burgeoning business hub, has long connected the continent and the world. A halfway station on east-west trade routes, the land became a beachhead to Africa for imperial powers and the site of multiple colonial conflicts. In the twentieth century, the neo-colonial system of apartheid made the country a focus of the global fight for freedom from oppression. Re-entering the international community in 1994, after 46 years of apartheid rule, it was for a time the recipient of the world’s projected optimism. Mounting domestic problems – among them poverty, crime, HIV – and the waning of the Mandela generation have led to the decline of South Africa’s special status in the eyes of the world. Nonetheless, the country’s economic stature and leadership role in Africa ensure that it remains of considerable significance to the question of global governance in the twenty-first century. For many governments and international investors, South Africa holds the key to unlocking the continent and channelling its potential.

The country has successfully negotiated a prominent diplomatic profile. The current head of the African Union, it is also an influential member of the Southern African Development Community, an intergovernmental organisation that includes Angola, the continent’s second largest oil producer; Botswana, one of the world’s largest diamond producers; Zambia, Africa’s biggest copper producer; and Mozambique, which holds vast untapped reserves of coal. With Africa’s largest economy and strongest mix of public infrastructure and governance institutions, South Africa has taken on the leader’s mantle for the continent. It may be excluded from the G8, but the country’s importance on the global stage is acknowledged by its inclusion in the G8+5 and G20, in which forums it assumes the role of representing Africa. It is also strongly campaigning for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

South Africa’s importance in shifting patterns of global power cannot, however, be reduced to its role as intermediary between Africa and leading northern-hemisphere nations. As Ian Bremmer has argued in Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, South Africa is a ‘pivot state’, able to build profitable relationships with a range of countries without remaining beholden to any one of them. Like other pivot states, such as Brazil and Turkey, it is crucial to a number of newly emerging political and economic relations. Alliances such as BRICS, in which South Africa joined its interests with those of Brazil, Russia, India and China in 2010, have enabled networks of trade and development that bypass US and European financial institutions and markets. This is especially significant for Africa, where countries in need have historically had little option but to turn to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and western governments for assistance, which could then dictate the terms of aid.

Today the situation is different. Africa’s natural resources and growing economic and consumer potential represent huge possibilities for many of the world’s fastest-growing emerging markets. China’s rapidly expanding trade relations with the continent are a case in point. Trade between China and Africa grew by more than 43 per cent in 2010, and China overtook the US as Africa’s largest trading partner. Africa, as a ‘pivot continent’, now has a variety of trade options. It can expect multinational and state-owned companies from emerging markets to compete for African consumers and favourable investment terms.

How will South Africa deal with the new flows of capital, resources and people, and the shifting global order, frontiers and identities that follow? The alliances forged by pivot states are not unwavering, forming long-standing blocs of power, but pragmatic and flexible, allowing for a number of one-on-one relations with other governments. This poses a dilemma: when does the pivot state’s pursuit of strategic and economic gains eclipse the interests of regional stewardship? How, in other words, will such states behave towards their neighbours? Are we to expect South Africa’s relationship with other Southern African states to be characterised by ambivalence or expediency? Might history repeat itself? The potential struggles are familiar, albeit with new players and rules of engagement. How South Africa navigates the competing agendas of various nations and exercises its leadership role within the Southern African region and beyond will have a direct impact on a far broader global network of political and economic interests. For these reasons, the dialogues of the forum Global Citizenship will draw on and be grounded in the realities of this country.

  • Dr Derek Hook

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