How world sees SA: FT’s Gideon Rachman on meeting with Ramaphosa, SA’s GNU and more

Last weekend, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa broke his ‘no journalist’ norm and opened his home to the Financial Times’s chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman. The London-based columnist was surprised at how relaxed the CEO of SA Inc. was at a very tricky time for the country. Rachman shares insights gained from engaging with Ramaphosa and others during last week’s visit to SA – the country’s rapidly formed coalition government, its position on Russia (and Ukraine), and an outsider’s impression on what lies ahead with BizNews editor Alec Hogg.

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Highlights from the interview

In the interview with Alec Hogg, Gideon Rachman, Chief Foreign Affairs Commentator at the Financial Times of London, discussed South Africa’s international positioning, particularly regarding its stance on global issues like Ukraine and Israel. Rachman highlighted South Africa’s efforts to maintain a balanced approach, engaging with both sides while also acknowledging the risks and challenges involved. He noted that South Africa’s actions have received mixed reactions, with some applauding its leadership role and others questioning the need for such a high international profile given domestic challenges.

Rachman also touched on potential future scenarios, including the impact of a change in US leadership, particularly regarding Ukraine and Israel policies. He suggested that a shift in US leadership could lead to changes in international dynamics, with implications for South Africa’s positions and relationships.

Overall, the interview provided insights into South Africa’s diplomatic strategies, the complexities of balancing domestic priorities with international engagements, and the potential implications of global political shifts on the country’s foreign policy stance.

Edited transcript from the interview ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

00:00:08:12 – 00:00:40:15
Alec Hogg:
Gideon Rachman is the chief foreign affairs commentator at the Financial Times in London. That makes him a very important guy for all kinds of reasons. But what’s also interesting is that Gideon was here in South Africa, having a look at what occurred in the election. After the election, he met with President Ramaphosa and other people. We’re going to find out from him his impressions because this is a man who tells the world what to think of this country.

00:00:40:17 – 00:00:54:02
Alec Hogg:
Gideon. But I suppose the most important thing about all of this is that you have a South African connection. Quite a deep one. Your parents were South Africans, you visited here in your childhood. So I guess there is some affection for the country.

00:00:54:06 – 00:01:12:16
Gideon Rachman:
Oh, completely. Yeah. No, I mean, I think one of the reasons that I’ve ended up doing the job I’m doing was indirectly because my parents were South Africans. And there was, you know, growing up in England, it was normal for most of my friends to talk about politics around the table. But of course, you know, if you’re down in South Africa, it’s my parents.

00:01:12:16 – 00:01:34:05
Gideon Rachman:
And it was a very politicized environment, politics all the time. And that’s a kind of second nature for me. And, yeah, I lived in South Africa for a few years, and I heard of apartheid in retrospect, 67 to 78, when I was like 4 to 7 years old. And then I went back to Britain, but always retained an interest in the country and came back regularly.

00:01:34:06 – 00:01:50:06
Alec Hogg:
We know the BizNews community knows you well from your weekly column that we publish most times. Maybe if you could just unpack for those who are watching this for the first time what it is that you do your job on a day-to-day basis?

00:01:50:08 – 00:02:10:00
Gideon Rachman:
Well, I mean, I have a sort of very wide brief, to put it mildly. I do the Global Politics column for the Financial Times. So in theory, I could write about almost anything that’s happening in the world, but try to sort of focus in partly on what’s going to be of interest to the readers.

00:02:10:01 – 00:02:30:21
Gideon Rachman:
So, we have any sort of big kind of, I think, you know, only 20% of our audience is now in Britain. Maybe it’s 30%, but, so it’s a global audience of people who are internationally minded, usually in business, but, you know, not not not only we have a lot of kind of academics, diplomats, etc. who read us.

00:02:30:23 – 00:02:51:01
Gideon Rachman:
And so I write about what the big global political issues are shaping the world. You know, mainly, I guess, US, China, Europe, because we’re based in Europe. But, you know, whatever. I fancy reading and try to pick out the big trends that will be of interest to readers.

00:02:51:02 – 00:02:54:23
Alec Hogg:
And always look for balance. And that’s, I think, is something that’s much appreciated.

00:02:55:01 – 00:03:27:22
Gideon Rachman:
Yeah. I mean, I think that obviously we’re in an extremely partisan era now. I know, I mean, I write for the opinion pages and I, I’m encouraged to express an opinion, but I’m not naturally a polemicist. I don’t think so. And also, I think that for my audience, they also value analysis. And I think if you’re going to try and analyze things and tell people how events might develop, you have to at least be open enough to other points of view that you can sort of understand how they see the world.

00:03:27:23 – 00:03:54:11
Gideon Rachman:
Because if you don’t understand how they see the world, you’re going to be constantly surprised. So, you know, I’m not I make no bones about it. I’m not a fan of Donald Trump or, you know, vote for him. But I try to understand their arguments and where they’re coming from because I think it’s important partly, you know, for sort of reasons, the political balance and not just having people write you off immediately is, oh, I know where this guy’s coming from.

00:03:54:11 – 00:04:02:17
Gideon Rachman:
I don’t need to get past the first paragraph. You know, I know what the rest is going to be. But also just to try to further understanding.

00:04:02:19 – 00:04:26:00
Alec Hogg:
And you presumably enlarged on your understanding of South Africa in this recent visit. What was fascinating to me from your column that was published a week ago was that you met with Ramaphosa at his home, where he was very relaxed in a tracksuit. So first of all, meeting with Ramaphosa is something that no South African journalist has done for.

00:04:26:01 – 00:04:43:03
Alec Hogg:
I can’t tell you how long. But secondly, the fact that he trusts you enough to have an off-the-record discussion with you also tells us that you’ve certainly got some kind of a relationship with him. Just unpack for us what you can tell us about that on the show.

00:04:43:05 – 00:05:00:22
Gideon Rachman:
Yeah. Well, I mean, it was firstly, an incredibly interesting week to be in South Africa. I was there actually for other reasons. I’d agreed to speak at a conference, but as it turned out, it was an incredibly fortuitous week to be in South Africa because of the election and this sort of historic turning point.

00:05:01:00 – 00:05:21:17
Gideon Rachman:
And I had met Ramaphosa in the past, but I wouldn’t, you know, I wouldn’t say we were friends or even necessarily that he would remember who I was, but it was through mutual contacts that I got to see him. And I think somebody said, you know, the FT’s here, maybe you should talk to them. And I kind of showed up and I did what a journalist would do and said, look, you know, it’d be great to have an on-the-record interview.

00:05:21:17 – 00:05:38:18
Gideon Rachman:
And he said, look, I haven’t spoken on the record to the South African press, so I don’t think I can give my first on-the-record interview to foreign media. But, you know, since you’re here, let’s have a chat. So that’s what we did. And then at a point in the discussion, he actually sort of said, okay, well, actually, why don’t you put this bit on the record.

Read more: South Africa’s new GNU now has five members, ANC says

00:05:38:20 – 00:05:59:19
Gideon Rachman:
which was more or less what he said to the South African media: I’m calling for a government of national unity and why he was doing it. So that was, you know, interesting. But I thought, you know, broadly speaking, and as someone who was more interested in looking back at it in retrospect, I came away thinking, gosh, this guy seems strangely relaxed.

00:05:59:21 – 00:06:21:02
Gideon Rachman:
So somebody, you know, at this incredible turning point, why is it? And I actually wrote in the column, look, I think that, you know, it wasn’t even an insight unique to me, but that he is hoping, well, he didn’t say it explicitly to me, even off the record, that the ANC and the EFF will turn him down.

00:06:21:04 – 00:06:41:05
Gideon Rachman:
And therefore, he will have made the offer. He won’t be excluded. There’ll be, as he put it, people who refuse to take part or excluding themselves. And that was a sort of politically astute way to get to the alliance, broadly speaking, with the DA without seeming to rush into an alliance with the, you know, the white-led DA.

00:06:41:07 – 00:06:47:17
Gideon Rachman:
And that’s what I thought he was up to, even though, as I say, he didn’t quite put it that way. And it seems to be elements that turned out well.

00:06:47:17 – 00:07:01:10
Alec Hogg:
It is a watershed for South Africa. It’s been called the second transition. Your former employer’s 15 years at The Economist say that you can still teach the rest of the world something about democracy. Is that overstating it?

00:07:01:12 – 00:07:36:16
Gideon Rachman:
No. I don’t know whether the world would be watching or taking the lessons, but if you think about it, yes, because what Ramaphosa did, and I know, you know, a lot of the gloss has come off him and a lot of people are disappointed, both on the left and the right, with him. But what he did is unfortunately becoming quite unusual or not, you know, certainly not routine, which is he lost an election and he did not say, you know, that was fraud or I don’t respect the results or, you know, I’m carrying on regardless because, you know, come up with some excuse.

00:07:36:18 – 00:07:53:06
Gideon Rachman:
He actually said, fine, the people have spoken. I don’t like what they said necessarily, but I’ll take it on board and I will respond to it. And that, you know, if you look at the world’s leader of the free world, the US, that is not what Donald Trump did, and it’s not what actually Zuma did.

00:07:53:06 – 00:08:09:18
Gideon Rachman:
And even though he did strikingly well, or indeed people do, you know, unfortunately, in many places around the world now, in places that we had regarded as established democracies, accepting the rules again is no longer something that you can see people will do.

00:08:09:20 – 00:08:29:05
Alec Hogg:
Well, it certainly is something that many South Africans are proud about and very hopeful about, given the results and what has happened in that couple of weeks since. But the other people that you met in South Africa. How many of them did you see and what impressions did you leave here with?

00:08:29:07 – 00:08:57:12
Gideon Rachman:
No, I mean, to be honest, I was at this conference and so I was less systematic than I would have been if I’d been on a journalistic visit. But my impression was that people want, you know, obviously people vary, but there was no sense of panic at all. But there was a sort of strong feeling that it could go either way, you know, that the country was poised between something that could actually be an improvement with new ideas coming in.

00:08:57:12 – 00:09:15:13
Gideon Rachman:
I think most people, even inside the ANC and certainly people who were sort of ANC adjacent, accepted that, or not most people in the ANC, but a lot of people accepted that the ANC had sort of run its course and that it was an exhausted party and that something needed to happen.

00:09:15:13 – 00:09:31:09
Gideon Rachman:
But there’s, you know, even before I came to South Africa, there has always been a group of people saying this needs to happen. The ANC needs to lose its majority in power and we need to move to something new. And then there were others who would say, you know, be careful what you wish for.

00:09:31:09 – 00:10:01:16
Gideon Rachman:
This could go really badly wrong. And I remember when I wrote that on my previous visit to South Africa a couple of years ago, and I wrote what was, again, a fairly standard line of actually, this is what happened. And we need, you know, the ANC to go below 50%. I think Adam Habib, who’s now head of SOAS, wrote a letter to the FT saying, you know, this could actually be a very dangerous moment because it’s quite likely that the forces that come in will be far worse than the ANC.

00:10:01:18 – 00:10:37:12
Gideon Rachman:
You know, I think he’s thinking of the EFF and others. So, you know, I was then back in the country at a moment where it could go either way. And for the moment, it looks like it’s going in the way of sort of moderate reform. But I think, you know, it is a hopeful moment, but I think it’s also important to temper it. One of the people I spoke to, who was a DA supporter and an advocate of strong economic reform, said to me, you know, you’ve got to be at least a little skeptical about how much the DA can achieve as junior partners.

00:10:37:14 – 00:11:05:06
Gideon Rachman:
In an ANC-led coalition. And the example this person gave me was, let’s say you have a DA minister in charge of the education ministry where a lot needs to be done. So what happens if they try to take on the teaching unions? Will they be backed? Probably not. You know, so that might not happen. And then there was another, you know, somebody in business who seemed to think that it was actually unwise for the DA to go into coalition.

00:11:05:08 – 00:11:36:20
Gideon Rachman:
Partly, I think, for that reason. They worry that the DA may not be able to deliver on hopes for real improvement for a variety of reasons: the problems are very entrenched, they don’t have the whip hand in this coalition as junior partners, and therefore the situation won’t improve as much as people hope. It will end up with the DA being discredited or splitting, and the danger of the next thing being actually a lurch to the radical left still being there. So this person was advocating, well, you know, the DA should support a minority government from the outside and not get its hands dirty with government.

00:11:36:20 – 00:11:56:22
Gideon Rachman:
I didn’t really have a sense myself of how those arguments balanced out, but I was certainly interested to hear them.

00:11:57:00 – 00:12:10:08
Alec Hogg:
Coalition governments. You’ve canvassed the whole world. Where should South Africa be learning lessons from to make this coalition government work?

00:12:10:10 – 00:12:36:05
Gideon Rachman:
Well, you know, it’s interesting. I mean, that’s an interesting contrast with the way that South Africa did this so quickly. You know, when you look at, say, in Europe, Belgium and Germany, when they have coalition governments, it can take months, sometimes over a year, to form them. In Belgium, they actually had a sort of caretaker government of 15 months, even went through the war in Libya without an actual proper government.

00:12:36:07 – 00:12:59:08
Gideon Rachman:
And the reason is that certainly in the German model and the Dutch model, they’ve also just formed a coalition government, is that they hammer out very, very precise coalition agreements. So nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So you end up with a whole bunch of commitments, and there’s good and bad to that.

00:12:59:10 – 00:13:20:19
Gideon Rachman:
The good is that you’re less likely to have a sudden breakdown when people say, hang on, I didn’t agree to this. We can’t live with this because they’ve been through the debate beforehand and they’ve said, okay, well, in the coalition agreement, we agree to this, this, and this. The bad is that you have to get to that point.

00:13:20:21 – 00:13:42:09
Gideon Rachman:
You can have this sort of paralysis afterwards. So to give you an example from Germany, the current coalition, to put it together, they had to agree to very, very strict levels of government debt because of one of the demands of a junior party, the Free Democrats, who now run the Treasury, the Finance Ministry.

00:13:42:11 – 00:14:12:12
Gideon Rachman:
Now, I know a lot of people in the Social Democrats, where the Chancellor comes from, believe that this is actually a formula for disaster for Germany. It’s tying their hands. It means that, you know, even things like aid to Ukraine become incredibly difficult, and so on. Therefore, the very meticulous German way of doing it has its minuses as well as its plus sides. Another country that may face incredibly difficult coalition building quite soon is France, which has legislative elections on June the 30th and then July the 7th, and will, a bit like South Africa, have incredible political opposites: the far right, the far left, a diminishing band of centrists, and a centrist president. How do you form a government out of that? So in some sense, I think the efficiency and pragmatism of the South Africans is pretty striking.

Read more: SA: Peace or Revolution?

00:14:12:14 – 00:14:34:18
Gideon Rachman:
I mean, I was astonished when I said to Ramaphosa, you know, this was on the Saturday, you’ve got this unbelievably tight deadline. It’s Friday. Do you really reckon you can get it done? He said, oh yeah, no problem. You know, he was really confident they’d do it. And again, that also left me thinking at the time, is this guy, you know, for real?

00:14:53:18 – 00:15:17:18
Gideon Rachman:
Does he actually, you know, either he’s really in command of the situation or he doesn’t know what he’s dealing with. But it turned out he actually was in command of the situation, at least in the short term. And so, yeah, for somebody who had suffered a big blow, he didn’t seem particularly personally affected.

00:15:17:18 – 00:15:37:16
Gideon Rachman:
You know, he wasn’t somebody who, you know, you often see politicians who have been defeated going over and over again how unfair it was, what could have happened, what couldn’t happen. I mean, Ramaphosa seemed very confident in his position within the ANC and in his ability to get something decent out of this.

00:15:37:18 – 00:15:58:22
Gideon Rachman:
So much so that I even wondered. I mean, this really is speculation and definitely not coming from him. But I did wonder, you know, in some weird way, given that he represents the more business-friendly bit of the ANC, might this actually free him to do some of the things that he couldn’t do when he was leading a pure ANC government?

00:15:59:00 – 00:16:09:04
Gideon Rachman:
Because it shifts the balance of the political forces a little bit to the right. I mean, that’s quite Machiavellian, but maybe that’s some of what’s going on. What do you think? Or are you allowed to say?

00:16:09:06 – 00:16:31:19
Alec Hogg:
Well, I think, you know, I remember once talking to someone from Goldman Sachs who had been the finance minister in the Spanish government, and he said that the Spanish government knew what to do, but they didn’t have an excuse until they joined the EU. Once they joined the EU, they could blame everything on the EU. And perhaps we’re seeing something here, but it could be Machiavellian, as you say.

00:16:31:21 – 00:16:38:19
Alec Hogg:
What should we be looking for now, going forward in the next little while from South Africa?

00:16:38:21 – 00:17:09:05
Gideon Rachman:
Well, I mean, I think infrastructure and just generally business-friendly environments send a terrible signal to foreign investors if they arrive in the country and the lights go out. It’s always like a kind of signal of state failure. Things aren’t working here. And the polls, you know, I was shocked the week I was in SA that this report came out from the World Bank, Cape Town ranked as the worst container port in the world out of more than 400.

00:17:09:05 – 00:17:37:19
Gideon Rachman:
I mean, how did that happen? And, you know, there’s quite a lot of competition for the worst port in the world. You know, it’s not an easy title to win. So, that kind of thing really has to be sorted out. And if they can make progress on it, conversely, I mean, people say if you really like it, shouldn’t, you know, it should be quite minimal improvements to actually start going up those kinds of rankings and showing to the world that actually this isn’t a one-way street.

00:17:37:19 – 00:18:01:12
Gideon Rachman:
And the terrible burden that South Africa faces is, you know, people sometimes are too polite to say it, but they say, well, you know, we’ve seen this in the rest of Africa. We’ve seen it in Zimbabwe. Once it starts going south, it doesn’t turn around. So if you can actually convince people, well, you know, the country has been through a bad phase associated with Zuma, things are in a bad way, but actually, you know, we can start improving things. They don’t have to always get worse; they can also get better. That’s really important.

00:18:01:12 – 00:18:30:14
Gideon Rachman:
I think there’s some hope. I gather people say the energy crisis is not as bad as it was a couple of years ago. Crime, obviously, you know, again, it’s shocking to an outsider to be told to arrive and be told, look, you know, don’t cross the street without a car.

00:18:30:14 – 00:19:07:04
Gideon Rachman:
And maybe people are exaggerating the fears and it would all be fine. But the very fact that people advise you not to go, yeah, don’t go that drive, that’s, you know, that’s actually worse than real. It’s it’s really not good in terms of a signal. So again, I don’t know how you fix it, but if they can somehow make the environment feel safer and the infrastructure feel better, then that’s obviously good for investment, but it’s also poor South Africans who are the biggest sufferers from crime and from collapsing infrastructure.

00:19:07:04 – 00:19:19:08
Gideon Rachman:
You know what? It’s not being able to get to work or rely on having safe water. So it’s not just for businessmen and investors, but actually, this is something everybody has a stake in bringing.

00:19:19:10 – 00:19:46:03
Alec Hogg:
The point you made there about the lights going off and the load shedding that we’ve had for so long. But the good news is we haven’t had it for a few months now. And even after the elections. Oh, no load shedding. So it does appear as though we’re making progress in the right direction. Before we go, the meeting that Zelensky had from Ukraine, the Ukraine peace summit, South Africa didn’t sign the pledge to isolate Russia.

00:19:46:05 – 00:19:58:06
Alec Hogg:
Is this something that is going to weigh on the country’s international reputation? I’d love to get your insights into how the rest of the world sees the way that South Africa is playing this.

00:19:58:08 – 00:20:20:07
Gideon Rachman:
Yeah. I mean, again, I actually this was off the record, but I don’t suppose Ramaphosa minds because I think it’s stuff he said publicly. I did talk to him about it. South Africa’s positioning not just on Ukraine but on Israel. And he said, look, on Ukraine, we’re not pro-Russia, as global trade. But we try to say, you know, talk to both sides.

00:20:20:07 – 00:20:46:14
Gideon Rachman:
He continues to talk. I thought he was slightly, you know, as he would with a foreign visitor obviously sympathetic to Ukraine, trying to pretty up the South African position and to make it clear that as he sees it, they’ve been unfairly portrayed. And I think he is saying it is important that the South Africans went even if they didn’t sign the decree.

00:20:46:14 – 00:21:08:15
Gideon Rachman:
And I think the fact that they’re not alone in not signing it gives them some cover, you know, that the Brazilians didn’t sign, Saudis didn’t sign. So there’s a kind of emerging global South thing, which is a position of regret in the West, where we ultimately blame ourselves for not having made the case sufficiently.

00:21:08:15 – 00:21:33:14
Gideon Rachman:
Well, so kind of annoyed with the global South, if I can use that. But it’s sort of. No now and South Africa is it’s an important country, you know, it remains the African country that’s invited to these things, to the G20, to the G7. You know, not because it’s. Yeah. So it’s it’s probably the most prominent African country on the international stage.

00:21:33:16 – 00:22:05:10
Gideon Rachman:
So Ramaphosa, South Africa halfway, the positions are noted, but they’re not that isolated. And similarly, South Africa has led on the ICC ICJ genocide case. And I do think that presents some dangers to South Africa. You would have followed the whole question of the trade privileges with the U.S., and Congress is pretty punitive on Israel, on anything that can be characterized as anti-Semitism, whether that’s fair or unfair.

00:22:05:12 – 00:22:28:10
Gideon Rachman:
And so I think it does potentially threaten South Africa’s trade privileges. But, you know, for now, they seem to have blunted that. And I think South Africa is helped a little bit by the fact that other case countries, including Western countries, you know, are joining the ICJ case. So the Spanish, the Irish, the Slovenians, have also signed up.

00:22:28:10 – 00:22:45:22
Gideon Rachman:
And again, that gives South Africa a bit of cover in the West for those who say, “Look, why are you doing this?” And of course, you know, it’s not just the West that exists because in other parts of the world, I think South Africa has been applauded for taking the lead and sticking its neck out on this issue.

00:22:46:00 – 00:23:10:15
Gideon Rachman:
So, yeah, you know, I think you could argue, well, the country’s got quite a lot of problems on its own to be getting on with. Does it really need to be taking this very high international profile? But that’s something for the political leadership to decide on. I think it’s not, as I say, without risks, but at the moment, I think it’s kind of balanced for the South Africans.

00:23:10:15 – 00:23:38:07
Gideon Rachman:
And one wonders what happens if and when Donald Trump comes to power. I think on Ukraine, actually, he will probably cut the Ukrainians off. So, you know, maybe the global South will get to say, “Told you so, you know, this was not a sustainable position.” On Israel, however, I think you’ll become much more militant. And I think the Republicans will be let off the leash in taking on people that are seen to be unfriendly to Israel, so that could become a more difficult position, so.

00:23:38:09 – 00:23:48:23
Alec Hogg:
Well, there are some big red flags waving there. Gideon Rachman, who is the chief foreign affairs commentator at the Financial Times of London, and I’m Alec Hogg from BizNews.com.

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