Non-state diplomats needed

Heinrich Matthee says there is the need for SAns to step in here too, to counteract another ANC state failure

South African organisations should empower non-state diplomats for more fruitful interaction with a re-polarizing world. The ANC has spectacularly wasted the goodwill it enjoyed among EU and US trade partners in 1994.

The recent visit by Western Cape premier Alan Winde of the Democratic Alliance to the USA sent a welcome message that non-ANC actors can chart their own paths to promote their international interests. The provincial delegation’s priority, in Winde’s words, was to meet US legislators to put forward their reasons why the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) should be reauthorised.

It was a case of corrective diplomacy after the ANC’s policy towards Russia and China antagonized US actors. Too many prominent leaders in the ANC and EFF believe that the “China card” will save them, regardless of signs of Western disapproval. They are bound to create new diplomatic crises and to continue damaging the trust of foreign investors in future.

Geo-economic competition and opportunities

Meanwhile, major and medium-sized non-state actors in South Africa operate in a volatile world. Geopolitical shifts and economic competition, technological races and complex challenges are generating rapids and inflection points.

Some examples are illustrative: US moves closer to India may widen the cracks in BRICS on some issues. The US CHIPS and Science Act of Augustus 2022 allocated $52 billion to contain China’s supremacy in strategic sectors, and the Inflation Reduction Act fund green industrial development with a massive $342 billion.

Green industrial development in the US and European Union (EU) depends on better access to 17 rare minerals. These actors want to secure their access to such minerals and their supply lines in other goods through new “onshoring” and “friendshoring” policies.

The ripple effect is already notable. Minerals and mining in Canada and Australia, both countries with substantial communities of South African expatriates, are attracting new attention. European countries are reviewing their previous resistance to some forms of mining. From Chile and Indonesia to Zimbabwe and South Africa the mining sector is subject to moves by governments to increase their share of benefits and control.

In South Africa, geopolitics and mining will remain entangled between political faction fights, self-enriching networks and corruption, land claims and the demands of traditional authorities. In provinces like the Northern Cape and Western Cape, the presence of such minerals may result in interesting turns in local politics for more autonomy. Chinese concessions and the ambitions of other international actors will remain an issue. New mining operations may continue for 12-16 years between discovery and exploration.

China is ahead of the US in 37 of 44 key technologies, according to a recent study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The US and European powers are trying to close the gap and to maintain their advantage in some dimensions.

A number of South Africans inside and outside South Africa are already playing a role in the geo-economic competition. The braindrain of dynamic business people and highly-educated professionals from South Africa is saddening but noticeable. Many millionaires are leaving South Africa or shifting their investments abroad. The quality of ventures by several successful South Africans overseas is notable. From Washington to Riyadh, South African experts in cutting edge technologies are successfully headhunted.

Non-state diplomats needed

Many non-state organisations in South Africa already have international interests and links. They range from major corporations, universities and agricultural groups to Sakeliga, the Solidarity Movement and major private security providers. Will they be able to navigate this world by depending on DIRCO, the pro-Russian and China-centric ANC cadres and a national government with a world-class record in local value destruction?

RW Johnson’s observation in Biznews of 26 June is accurate: “The problem lies in the caliber of spokespeople and advisors within the presidency, as well as the shortcomings of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO). Our ambassadors, on the whole, are often individuals with political affiliations rather than experts in their fields. Consequently, the necessary framework of advisors and expertise that should be in place is lacking.”

Undoubtedly, there are patches of professionalism among South Africa's diplomats. However, Western stakeholders refer to too many incidents where ANC cadres are late for appointments, are unprepared, exude unfounded arrogance or remain all too passive during crises. Which organization with important international projects want to take the risk that its rare opportunities and unique value depend on such actors and their factional infighting?

As Robert Kelley explained, since the 1990s, the state monopoly on diplomacy has been steadily declining because of ‘expanding perceptions of international agency to include firms and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)”.

Some of the bigger non-state actors already prefer to subscribe to the in-depth reports of the London-based Economist Intelligence Service and other Western outlets. They employ the services of public affairs companies for lobbying in Texas or Paris, or they engage personally with local government bodies and organizations from Munich to Mumbai.

These actors need to empower their dynamic capabilities, as David Teece called them. The capabilities to sense international shifts, seize opportunities and reconfigure their organisations accordingly, can only be developed with a longer-term effort. Solid applied research states that four important components of actors’ capabilities will be expertise and innovative problem-solving, a solid reputation to represent interests and constituencies, credibility due to long-term relationships, and resources and alliances.

Whether organizations develop them internally or through partnerships, the need for such a response will re-merge regularly. The impact of international competition over spheres of influence in Southern Africa and of local politics on business will remain huge. Those who rely on the ANC cadres are going to miss their own appointment with this wave of history.

Dr. Heinrich Matthee is the honorary chair of security studies at Akademia (Centurion) and a Netherlands-based political analyst for business in the Middle East.