Understanding the Zuma-Putin alliance

Shawn Hagedorn says the RET and WMC slogans are like self-imposed economic sanctions

Can the Putin-Zuma bromance survive? It’s complicated

Considering President Zuma’s partnering prospects from Russian President Putin’s perspective helps to explain SA’s complicated, and largely dysfunctional, economic and foreign policies.

Neither Putin nor Zuma should be underestimated in terms of political cunning. Yet both men have worldviews and economic notions which are irreconcilable with today’s key global trends and commercial success drivers. 

Notwithstanding SA’s anti-Western stance being routinely attributed to colonialism by the country’s ruling party, partnering with BRIC nations mostly appeals to Zuma because many Western nations are openly critical of cronyism. However, none of the BRIC nations is a good fit as a strategic economic partner for SA. Russia is an awful candidate.

As the pace of innovation further accelerates and commerce becomes increasingly indifferent to borders, economic success requires ever greater international integration. Zuma’s and Putin’s patronage networks preclude the fervent commitment to competitiveness that meaningful integration into the global economy requires. This undermines both countries’ attractiveness as strategic partners.

Putin isn’t looking to gain favourable access to natural resources. Instead, Russia appears to be seeking influence through controlling much of SA’s electricity production and as a co-paymaster amid its patronage network. In a 21st century twisted salute to traditional colonial strategies, this project is to be funded through tapping National Treasury’s borrowing capacity.

Putin has said the breakup of the Soviet Union was among the greatest geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century. Imagine a British leader similarly bemoaning the downfall of the British Empire.

Putin wants to re-establish an empire in opposition to the West. This is blatantly undoable economically. Nor is there a sane military path. China isn’t going to meaningfully re-align with Russia. The shrewdest move China has made in its two thousand year history was to break with Moscow. 

SA’s ruling party sees the West as a source of investment capital. Asia’s amazing successes trace back to recognising Westerners as customers. Japan led by becoming an export superpower supported by profound geopolitical tailwinds.

In sharp contrast to the rest of the world, the US economy benefited from the Second World War. It then responded to the Cold War by fostering growth through trade with its allies, particularly in Europe and Asia. Soon after Mao died China pivoted decisively toward the West, to access the purchasing power necessary for China’s upliftment.

Having a resource base is useful if it funds investments leading to exporting value-added goods and services. The US and China managed such transitions. Russia and SA are stuck as the global economy shifts decisively toward services and information-led growth.

The price of oil and natural gas will vacillate but, as with coal today, technological advances will lead to the value of many such deposits becoming economically unharvestable. Economists use the term “stranded assets”.

Alternatives to extraction are gaining momentum. Last week the world's most valuable, Apple, vowed to use only recycled materials. 

Putin’s geopolitical manoeuvres are undermining Russia’s top economic objective: to develop competitive sectors beyond resource extraction. His invasion of Ukraine was a hasty response to unanticipated events. 

Seeking leverage to have sanctions removed, he sought to improve his negotiating position through applying his expertise in exploiting divisions and weaknesses. Hence Russia’s involvement in Syria. Then, early this month, US President Trump’s decisive turn against Putin in Syria was broadly applauded internationally. Putin had been counting on dividends from relationships with Syria, Trump, and SA.

The long-term trajectory of Russia’s economy has taken a huge knock. As in SA, this reflects the declining importance of commodity endowments and an unwillingness to integrate adequately in the global economy through adding value to goods and services. Corruption, economic mismanagement, and alienating western powers are also proving very damaging to both countries.

Selling technological expertise is prudent for a country as over-reliant on resource exports as Russia. Yet selling nuclear reactors is a weak form of diversification as technological advances and public opinion favour renewable forms of energy.

Within about three years, SA will almost certainly achieve the dubious milestone of a decade with flat per capita income growth. As prospects for substantial long-term growth unravel, the case for SA investing in nuclear reactors becomes ever more suspect. To justify new nuclear plants strictly as replacements for aged facilities, is to aggressively deny a meaningful role for renewable energy.

When Putin and Zuma hatched their plans the public was far less aware of the dimensions and implications of Zuma’s patronage machine. Putin might believe that South Africans can be forced to relinquish constitutional protections and expectations of rising prosperity - and he might be right. But he no doubt was surprised when he learned just how destructive SA’s patronage system is. 

SA’s economy is now seriously hobbled and at risk of being crippled for a generation or more. To quickly close a controversial mega commitment as SA’s financial wherewithal slides, risks harsh political repercussions. 

SA’s 1994 regime change led to sanctions giving way to fanfare. Last year, SA joined anti-western nations such as Cuba, North Korea, and Russia whose citizens are barred by the US from visiting friends on US military bases. This attracts little attention, unlike the recent challenge by the International Criminal Court regarding the Sudanese president’s SA visit. SA’s reputation is being sullied. The Zuma-Putin alignment isn’t helping. 

The global economy is hurtling into the future with the benefits accruing firstly to those with the most advanced and updated skills. Less developed countries and less skilled workers need to progress through selling value-added goods and services to those with high incomes. There is no way around this. 

Cries of “White Monopoly Capital” and “Radical Economic Transformation” are the equivalent of self-imposed sanctions whose devastating effects could last for decades. That is, Zuma’s response to declining economic prospects has been to double down on propaganda and dysfunctional relationships. Ditto for Putin.

What Zuma and Putin offer each other is a mirror image. It reflects the twisted ways of thinking they share.

Shawn Hagedorn is an independent strategy adviser