Redefining South-South Cooperation: Africa on the Centre Stage

Speech given by Professor Karen Smith, from the University of Cape Town, on May 17, 2013 at CAENI-USP

Workshop IBSA: experience and perspectives of South-South Cooperation

Even though the IBSA has pragmatic interest-driven motivations, it also seems that there is still a strong ideological current that underlies the grouping as well. If we look at the pragmatic motivations, the IBSA started off trying to engage within the context of the WTO – so it is very pragmatic in that sense. But at the same time these three countries still have a very strong discourse and rhetoric about wanting to change the world and making the world fairer in terms of global redistribution and etc. This has to do, of course, with the histories of these countries and their history of southern solidarity from which they cannot really get away. There is one quote in which Mbeki summarizes this. He says: “Although states are purposive calculators trying to achieve clearly defined national interests, the actual perception of those interests is rooted in an intricate process of identity building which goes far beyond rational calculations and purely materialistic interpretations”. There is talk about global change, there is talk about reforming the global system, but, very importantly, they say that “It is not just for us, it is for the rest of the global South. It is for everybody in the developing world.”

This creates a tension because when we look at the actions of the IBSA states, they seem to be very much driven by self-interest and pragmatism, but, when you hear the policy-makers, the heads of states and the foreign ministers’ speeches at the IBSA events – and I am sure we will hear a lot of this again now in Delhi [referring to the sixth IBSA forum] coming from the three presidents – it sounds wonderful: they are going to change the world and make it better for all of us (not just for the three countries). It is important to recognize that this tension reflects a tension within the foreign policy of these three countries as well.

In all the cases – and of course I am most familiar with the South African case – there is always this criticism that South Africa’s foreign policy is ambiguous. What this basically means is that on the one hand you are promoting human rights, and on the other hand it does not always seem that you are doing that in practice. That is very much reflected in the IBSA agenda as well.

I want to very quickly look more into the role that the IBSA has tried to play in terms of reforming global governance. Even though the IBSA has been most successful in areas like sectorial cooperation and in all these different working groups and intra-IBSA trade, etc., the most interesting thing is what they are doing or what they can do in terms of reform of multilateral institutions. The first issue that this raises is: despite the proclamations of a shared identity and common foreign policy views, which the representative from the South African government mentioned as one of the driving forces behind IBSA, in fact there are lots of political differences between these three states. I am going to mention a few of them.

Brazil is not a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, an organization which still remains at the core of a kind of broad-based South-South cooperation and which still is integral to the foreign policy of South Africa and of India. In regards to the Security Council reform, we know that Brazil and India form part of the Group of Four, together with Germany and Japan, whereas South Africa has not joined that group because its loyalties lie first and foremost with the African Union. Therefore, even though the IBSA says it wants to reform the Security Council, the three countries cannot agree on how they are going to do that, because, of course, the G4 and the African Union have put together different proposals in terms of what they want the new Security Council to look like. Another difference is of course the nuclear issue, which remains a “hot potato”. South Africa and Brazil are non-nuclear powers. India has nuclear weapons, although at the same time it is calling for disarmament.

If we look at the overlapping votes of the three countries when they served as non-permanent members on the UN Security Council, their voting did not always coincide. One case in point was South Africa’s vote on the intervention in Libya, where it voted in favor, and that was in direct opposition to the other two IBSA members. A study was also done by a South African scholar, where she looked at voting in the General Assembly, specifically in the committees since 2003. She wanted to find out to what degree the voting patterns of these three states coincided. She found out that there was a slight increase since 2003 in terms of the alignment of votes between South Africa, Brazil, and India. There was 31% disagreement in 2003, but in 2008 – when she did the study – there was 23% disagreement, so there seems to be more alignment.

But if we break down the votes according to committees, not surprisingly the greatest divergence is in the Disarmament and International Security Committee. That is an area where there is still a lot of disagreement between the three states.

I want to get back to the Security Council issue because I really think it is integral to the whole IBSA programme and agenda. The IBSA released a lot of statements saying: “We want to reform the Security Council,” but there has been no concrete action so far. One of the reasons why this happens comes from the tensions between wanting to promote their own interests, and at the same time wanting to promote (or saying they want to promote) the interests of the rest of the developing world. The G4 – India, Brazil, Germany and Japan – base their claims for seats [in the Security Council] on their economic power. They basically say: “We are strong economies, and that is why we should have Security Council seats”. This is very different from the argument that the IBSA uses, which is that the developing world should be better represented in the Security Council, and that these three states are best placed to represent those underrepresented regions. South Africa has to take into account the African Union position on these issues, which makes it more complicated.

This particular tension about Security Council reform also reflects a broader contestation around the assumed leadership that these countries have taken up when they claim to speak on behalf of Africa, of Asia, of Latin America, or of the developing world in general. They have been labeled as regional powers and emerging powers by the North, and they are increasingly regarded by the North as the legitimate representatives of these particular regions. However, at the actual regions there is no consensus about whether Brazil is the legitimate representative of South America, whether South Africa is the legitimate representative of Africa, and etc. This, then, raises a lot of questions that need to be further investigated. The Security Council issue and this issue of legitimacy, of claiming to be the spokesperson for the rest of the developing world, are problematic.

The last thing that I briefly want to discuss is how the IBSA agenda often contradicts with other foreign policy priorities of these states. I will look at the South African case because I am most familiar with it. If we look at South Africa’s foreign policy identity, since 1994 there has obviously been a change (although some people say not as much of a change as we perhaps expected). Since we became a democracy – at least on paper – our foreign policy has been one of promoting human rights, global governance reforms and democracy because, of course, after Apartheid, it was expected of us to do so.

If you think in terms of what is expected of states, you realize that states play certain roles in the international system. It was expected of South Africa to play this upstanding, moral, good citizen type of role, and it tried very hard to do that. It said it wanted to address global inequalities, advance the plight of the world’s poor etc. Recently we have seen this moving towards a much more interest-driven pragmatic foreign policy and yet, it is very difficult for South Africa to shake off its all-normative foreign policy. I think for India, the issue is very similar as well.

There is a quote that I want to read from an article written by Black and Wilson where they say: “The ruling party, the ANC, is struggling with the demands of a historical identity forged and struggled and bound to a commitment to human rights and social justice for the poor and underprivileged.” This is so integral to South Africa’s identity that the country is finding it very difficult to shake it off and say: “Let’s just pursue an interest-driven pragmatic identity”. This may be why South Africa is often criticized for being ambiguous in its foreign policy identity.

As was stated by the representative from the South African consulate general, Africa remains at the centre of South Africa’s foreign policy. Thinking in terms of South-South cooperation, various authors have said that we have to look at it in terms of layers, almost concentric circles.

First we must look at South-South cooperation with the region (in South Africa’s case, it could be the southern African region, but also the continent more generally). The second layer would be the cooperation with what you could call strategic partners in the global south (and the IBSA grouping would form part of that axis of South-South cooperation: South Africa, India and Brazil). The third axis is South-South cooperation more generally (with other parts of the developing world).

What makes South Africa different is that it does not really engage in that third axis. It focuses on Africa, its region, and then it focuses on Brazil, India and China only, with very few exceptions. In that sense, it is very much a regional power. It does not have those kinds of aspirations of being a great power that perhaps Brazil and India have. This can be seen in the influence that Brazil and India are trying to extend to Africa, for example. South Africa is not trying to move into South America or Asia – at least not outside of Brazil and India cooperation, as far as I know (although this might be changing). Also, virtually all of South Africa’s development assistance goes to Africa – it is not engaged elsewhere in the developing world.

The South African Department of Trade and Industry, in 2001, used the metaphor of the butterfly strategy, which is still quite applicable today, to explain South Africa’s South-South cooperation. Africa is the body of the butterfly, and its wings extend mainly towards India and Brazil. These two aspects of South-South cooperation – Africa (the region) and groupings like the IBSA or even the BRICS – often come into conflict with one another. South Africa wants to promote the African agenda first and foremost, but at the same time it is trying to promote the IBSA agenda as well. This can become a problem because, often, these parties are at odds with one another.

In regards to trade agreements, for example, South Africa is committed to the Southern African Customs Union, which is a regional grouping that actually prevents it from developing strong bilateral trade linkages with India and Brazil. Some scholars have pointed out that there is a danger that South Africa might find itself facilitating the African agendas of its IBSA partners, India and Brazil, in a way that actually might undermine its own interests – and the same applies to BRICS.

South Africa loves to position itself as the bridge between India and Brazil, and the “Gateway to Africa” is another favorite line that they use. But if you are the gateway to Africa, you are allowing these other countries to come in and gain a foothold. While this takes place, what is happening to your own interests in your own region? That is a huge problem.

Another big problem is the overlapping membership with the BRICS. I do think that the South African government has made a wrong strategic decision in prioritising the BRICS. In terms of hedging your bets, I believe that the IBSA is a much more solid grouping, and the government should be putting a lot more resources into promoting the IBSA agenda. I would like to quote a statement from our foreign minister’s budget speech last year, when she said that “The holding anchor of South-South cooperation strategy is the BRICS partnership mechanism”. That makes it very clear. With the added strength that China brings in, the BRICS is simply regarded as a more powerful and influential grouping, which the South African government thinks is better placed to advance the interests of South Africa. I think they are wrong.

In conclusion, I would like to end off by saying there obviously is a lot of tensions within the IBSA that need to be ironed out. Maybe this is what its members are going to spend the next 10 years doing. On the other hand, the IBSA has been described as a gathering of friends, and as we know it, it is a characteristic of friendship that friends can “agree to disagree.”

Thank you very much.

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