🔒 RW Johnson: (Re)Structuring SA’s national interest post-ANC – a rational proposal

Oxford don, political scientist and the BizNews tribe’s favourite columnist, RW Johnson, provides a rational proposal for the structure of a post-ANC South Africa.

Sign up for your early morning brew of the BizNews Insider to keep you up to speed with the content that matters. The newsletter will land in your inbox at 5:30am weekdays. Register here.

By RW Johnson

In an article published on the Brenthurst Foundation website (“Here’s what a South African foreign policy should look like”, 19 February 2024), Greg Mills and Ray Hartley rightly ridicule Fikile Mbalula’s absurd attendance at the conference in Russia about how to combat Modern Practices of Neocolonialism. To be sure, this was a pointless festival of anti-Western rhetoric. Russia’s objective is to fold countries like South Africa in their embrace and make sure they remain willing clients of Russian neocolonialism. Anyone smart enough to read the present situation knows that, but Mbalula is not smart. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Mills and Hartley contrast South Africa’s current foreign policy with what it might have been had the ANC lived up to the assumptions of the new Constitution. Essentially, what this means is that foreign policy should have been premised on the rhetoric about democracy and human rights which enveloped the introduction of that Constitution. They talk of the way that South Africa’s foreign policy has “drifted” away since then so that now the government lines up with all manner of authoritarian and anti-democratic powers. This is a fundamental mistake. The ANC hasn’t drifted anywhere. It has always lined up with those sorts of governments. Look at its fetishism of Cuba – a country which has not allowed a free election in over sixty years, which was wont to imprison gays on principle, which allows no freedom of the press – and so on.  If you knew the ANC in exile, none of this could be a surprise. I remember ANC students in Britain telling me how wonderful their vacations had been, for thanks to the ANC they had been to international conferences with people from all over the world – Cuba, North Korea, Bulgaria, Belarus, Russia, China etc. Often these students were so naive that they didn’t even realise that they were being sold an ideological bill of goods.

But there’s a larger point. Mills and Hartley prescribe a foreign policy based on democracy and human rights. This is all very nice but it is painfully naive. As anyone who has studied international relations knows., many governments of the Left have been elected promising such things, but it’s not real and it doesn’t last because it quickly runs into the protean force of national interest.  I remember the Mitterrand government promising a foreign policy based on democracy and human rights, yet within a few years it was sending secret agents to sink the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand, killing one of the crew. Why? Because the Mitterrand government saw the continuation of French nuclear testing in the Pacific as a vital matter of national interest. I knew the Defence minister who ordered that, Charles Hernu, and I still have the (autographed) book he gave me entitled Nous, les grands (We, the Great Powers), proudly featuring a picture of a French nuclear submarine on its front cover.

Read more: Eskom’s $2.5bn loan snub halts climate pact, fuels coal reliance

So there’s no point, other than a rhetorical one, in contrasting current practice with a foreign policy based on democracy and human rights. That was never going to happen. But at least one might have hoped for a foreign policy based on national interests with some inflections towards those ideals. However, for that to happen one must first have a really sober discussion of exactly what one’s national interests are. It is pretty clear that the ANC has never had such a discussion and doesn’t really know what South Africa’s national interests are. I know, that is fantastic after thirty years in power – but the problems are as basic as that. The question is, though, whether Mills and Hartley have really reflected on what those interests are. That discussion is by no means self-evident.

If one considers the situation as of 1994 the situation then was that South Africa had a number of advantages. It was the most developed economy in Africa and even despite formal boycotts and sanctions many African states were eagerly importing South African goods. The potential for South African exports to Africa was enormous. Secondly, South Africa enjoyed almost universal goodwill – not just from the former Soviet bloc and what is now called the Global South but from the whole Western world. Britain had generously allowed the ANC to set up its headquarters in London (a unique case of allowing a movement bent on armed action against a nation friendly with Britain to operate from British soil) for many years and ultimately it had been US sanctions and their threat of further action which had brought apartheid down. Thirdly, South Africa had the strongest armed forces and intelligence services in Africa. It also had a well trained and reasonably competent civil service on which the state utterly depended. National interest began with preserving all those advantages and building on them.

No other African state had South Africa’s advantages and although it had to be careful not to throw its weight around, South Africa’s interest was effectively to become the capital, or at least the leading state, of Africa. With all boycotts and sanctions disappearing this was at last a realistic objective. Previous white governments had always boasted that South Africa should be seen as “the gateway to Africa” and it was clearly in the national interest to maintain and increase that status. For national interest transcends political regimes so it should be no surprise that many of the national interests pursued by the apartheid government should have been equally central to a black majority government. 

It was obvious that far too many Africans from elsewhere would now want to migrate to South Africa, and that had to be controlled and restricted, but acting as a magnet for talent was clearly to South Africa’s advantage. Its universities, already the best in Africa (though only so-so in international terms), could clearly attract high calibre students and academics from all over the continent. The same was true of South Africa’s top schools, hospitals and many other institutions. It would be crucial, however, to maintain and indeed improve the standards of all these institutions and not surrender to populist pressures to lower standards. In particular it was essential that South Africa should house the top African Studies Centre in the world as well as lead research into African diseases, biology, geology, oceanographic studies etc, so that South Africa became the inevitable go-to hub for anyone wanting to study or research anything to do with Africa. South African universities would also have to institute strong courses in modern African languages – French, Portuguese, Arabic and Swahili.

Compared with the rest of Africa South Africa’s greatest economic disadvantage was that its wage rates were far higher and that was not entirely compensated for by higher productivity. That meant that some South African industries such as textile manufacture could not hope to be competitive. On the other hand, South African wage rates were still lower than European ones which meant that South African manufactures in many other fields were competitive in African markets with the goods those countries were importing from Europe. So African free trade was much in South Africa’s interest. Most other African states were food importers and an enormous opportunity yawned before South Africa as a large food exporter. So growth was everything: the more food South Africa could produce, the better. Rather than sponsor land reform programmes which saw failure rates of 90% or more among new farmers, the stress should have been on increasing agricultural production by bringing large new acreages into production with large-scale land conservation programmes plus conversion to individual title land ownership in the former homeland areas. Virtually all these new farmers would be black and they would need extensive help and advice from agricultural experts.

However, South Africa’s greatest competitive advantage by far was its possession of a well educated white and Indian population of some six million people, providing a reservoir of managerial, technical and entrepreneurial skills which no other African country could match. This required a careful balancing act by the new government: on the one hand black majority rule was the non-negotiable basis of the new order and black voters naturally wanted more jobs and opportunities, but nonetheless it was strongly in the national interest to retain and maintain that reservoir of skills provided by the racial minorities, particularly since they also paid most of the taxes. 

Read more: Moeletsi Mbeki foresees another five years of ANC’s five deadly sins

Mandela was conscious of this and from the first pleaded with whites not to emigrate. Words alone were nothing like enough to achieve that, however, and it was obvious that squaring this circle would require two other things. First, South Africa had to go all out for economic growth. If it could achieve consistently high growth rates the booming economy would help retain the skilled whites and Indians and at the same time generate enough opportunities and jobs for blacks. Only rapid growth could square that circle. Achieving that meant that the country had to attract consistently high levels of foreign investment. That was an absolute priority and it necessitated economic policies which were not only devoted to maximising growth but which were stable and reliable. Secondly, there had to be a concerted effort to produce as many well-educated and highly skilled blacks as possible in order to broaden the skills reservoir and ensure that more and more blacks benefited from growth. 

Achieving those objectives would be popular but they would mean cracking down on various vested interests. There would have to be wholesale privatisation in order to spur economic growth. In order to preserve employment in poorer rural areas it was essential to resist national wage bargaining. The “border industries” created by apartheid had brought employment to the country’s poorest areas and to preserve that employment those industries had to continue to be able to pay lower wages than applied in the big cities. And to maximise the number of well-educated blacks the powers of teachers’ trade unions would have to be reduced and there would have to be an entirely meritocratic educational system at every level. Higher standards were the key, so affirmative action in educational appointments had to be resisted. This would doubtless lead to some grumbling but if the economy was growing at a steady 5%-7% this would soon be drowned out.

South Africa would thus aim at increasing its exports both to Africa and the wider world and would encourage as much foreign investment as possible. This in turn would largely determine its foreign policy. It would do all it could to maintain friendly relations with as wide a number of countries as possible but – since maximal economic growth was an over-riding objective – in particular with its major trading partners and sources of investment. 

Within Africa the post-1994 government would inherit the traditional ambitions of its predecessors. South Africa was so named because Rhodes, Smuts and even Verwoerd had looked to its outward expansion to include more of Southern Africa – a vision which initially assumed the incorporation of all the countries as far north as Kenya. The days of simply taking over other countries were gone but the central idea remained of South Africa as the economic powerhouse which would thus drive an ever-expanding area of African development. In the first instance Pretoria would propose to all its SADC partners that they join a southern African free trade zone (Namibia, eSwatini, Lesotho and Botswana are already part of that). But this would have to be a free zone in every respect: only functioning democracies would be admitted. This would effectively put a gun to the heads of the autocrats ruling Zimbabwe and eSwatini: allow full democracy or be excluded from a booming free trade area. It goes without saying that this approach would be warmly supported by many of South Africa’s international partners. SADC would thus become the basis of a thriving common market which would bind the SADC countries more closely together and which could gradually be extended northwards. This is the only realistic way of ever achieving any degree of African unity. Germany was built as a single nation on the basis of a customs union of all the German states, and the EU was built similarly on the basis of a common market. African unity has to be built the same way. It should be fully apparent by now that simply having African political leaders sitting in Addis Ababa at the OAU/AU leads nowhere.

It may be noted that this vision makes no mention of South Africa’s role vis-a-vis Israel, Ukraine, membership of the UN Security Council etc. None of these things are more than tangential to South Africa’s interests. The notion that South Africa can mediate major international crises or become a permanent member of the Security Council – these are just self-important fantasies best left out of account. In any case the real work – like charity – needed to start at home.

It is a remarkable fact that the ANC – a nationalist party after all – never in all its years of exile reflected on South Africa’s national interests but, in truth, the ANC did little serious thinking about anything. Instead it was content to repeat well-tried mantras and ideological slogans. Frank conversations about the national interest are not easy for such a party, for national interest largely depends on factors such as geography, demography, and institutional and economic development. Such factors are not amenable to ideological re-interpretation, they just are.  

In fact, of course, the ANC government has been highly destructive of South Africa’s national interests. There is, however, no need to recite yet again all the damage done by incompetence, corruption and ideology. The real point is that national interests are long-term. Most of them will survive even the devastation wrought by the ANC. But ANC mis-government will end at some point and, one hopes, will be replaced by something more enlightened. With that in mind we need to continue to think carefully about where exactly our national interests lie.

Read also: