Ramaphosa’s foreign policy

The summit of the Brics nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA), which concludes on July 27, has offered tantalising glimpses into how foreign policy could evolve under President Cyril Ramaphosa.

It is intriguing to speculate what might have happened had Ramaphosa accepted then president Nelson Mandela’s invitation to him in 1994 to serve as foreign affairs minister, a consolation prize for being passed over for the deputy presidency. Ramaphosa declined that offer.

He was then on the left of the ANC, once spending days on a boat off the coast of Cuba waiting for an opportunity to pay homage to Fidel Castro.

Ramaphosa’s years in business remade his understanding of international affairs. As chairman of MTN he helped smooth the cellphone giant’s growth on the continent. His stake in Standard Bank immersed him in the complex politics of Chinese-South African economic co-operation. He went out of his way to interact with broader global elites, serving on the Commonwealth Business Council, the Coca-Cola advisory board, Unilever Africa advisory council, Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS and the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.

He has mingled with the great and the (sometimes) good of our times: US diplomat Richard Holbrooke; former Mexican finance minister Ernesto Zedillo; Italy’s Renato Ruggiero; “Ben” Makihara, the legendary chairman of Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation; James Bolger, transformative prime minister of New Zealand; Petronas baron Tan Sri Dato’ Mohd Hassan Marican; space and gym entrepreneur Richard Branson; Lakshmi Mittal, chairman and CEO of Mittal Steel; and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Ramaphosa eschews conflict on the basis of ideology. His support for a “rules-based” international order — reiterated this week at the Brics summit — is fully consistent with his actions as union leader, political organiser and businessman.

SA’s trade relations are complex, with China and the eurozone key to our prospects. The US African Growth and Opportunity Act underpins major export industries.

Investment sources are equally differentiated. International investment targets Ramaphosa set this year — $100bn over five years — recognise the centrality of international investment to domestic prosperity. SA needs to maintain investment rates at 25% of GDP or higher. Only international investors can compensate for our low levels of domestic saving and provide access to new technologies, managerial capacity, financial markets and international distribution networks.

SA’s investment partners — whether in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, China, the EU or the US — are not going to be uniformly appealing to every citizen. But a crisis-ridden medium-sized economy in a turbulent world cannot afford to shun partners, whoever they may be.

In the longer term, SA may be able to “punch above its weight” in international affairs or even adopt a foreign policy founded on moral values. But this will occur only if objective and remediable obstacles to doing business in SA — structural weaknesses, uneven infrastructure, unskilled and expensive labour, crime, corruption and a host of other impediments — are removed, and a dynamic economy becomes a magnet for investors.

Ramaphosa sent out one clear signal of intent. He flagged what might become his signature contribution to SA’s continental politics: the creation of an African Continental Free Trade Area to provide access for international investors to a market of 1-billion people plus. This is a deeply ambitious but potentially historic project.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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