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Where do SA’s best interests lie globally? by Richard Calland

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Ukraine shouldn’t have worn such a short skirt. It invited trouble. It’s Ukraine’s fault that it got raped.

Some of the contextual and historical analysis of why the Russian invasion took place blames Ukraine. It shouldn’t have been so independent, so democratic — or, in some absurd accounts, so “neo-Nazi” — nor should it have aspired to Nato or European Union membership.

It’s a thin line between trying to explain why a war has broken out and what could and should have happened to prevent it, and blaming the victim for military aggression that is causing death and destruction to its people and its cities.

South Africa’s foreign policy, and its position at the United Nations, does not cross this line, despite the gnashing of teeth of certain Western diplomats and politicians. What irks them is a belief that Pretoria is appeasing Vladimir Putin or supports Russia.

This is neither accurate or fair, nor reasonable. To say that it does represents a failure to grasp South Africa’s place in the world and to understand what its diplomatic efforts have been trying to achieve.

But it was fuelled by South Africa’s position at the UN last week when two humanitarian resolutions were debated at the General Assembly. A fair analysis requires an understanding of what transpired and why.

As a first humanitarian resolution was drafted, the “pen-holders” were France and Mexico, whose aim was to achieve wide and diverse support. Most humanitarian resolutions are relatively uncontroversial and are dealt with by the UN Security Council. This one could not because it condemned the military action of one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, which enjoys a veto right. So, it went to the General Assembly. South Africa, with the backing of other countries, wanted the resolution modified to maximise support.

Pretoria neither hoped nor expected to persuade Russia to support the resolution — it couldn’t since its proposed modified resolution also spoke to the need to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as to refrain from destroying buildings and infrastructure — in line with Pretoria’s view that Russia is in breach of international law.

The department of international relations and cooperation had spelt this out to the ANC in a briefing days after the start of the invasion, asserting the view that Russia was violating international law by using force without the sanction of the Security Council or without there being a credible and imminent threat of the use of force by Ukraine.

South Africa’s ambassador, Mathu Joyini, was especially busy, encouraged by some EU diplomats to think that there was an opportunity to mould one resolution. Her view was that the best outcome would be a resolution that would attract maximum support and therefore make it harder for Russia to ignore a strong resolution calling for specific action on creating humanitarian corridors.

Pretoria gets that Putin is dangerous; it buys into the idea that Putin would use nuclear weapons if he is pushed into a corner, and recalls his chilling statement shortly after the invasion started that “Why do we need a world if Russia is not in it?” Which is why Pretoria is focusing so much attention on diplomacy that works, rather than grandstanding, and which might succeed in driving Putin towards a peaceful negotiation process rather than more and more dangerous bellicosity.

This may be misjudged, or naive, or may over-reach South Africa’s influence, but it is not ill-intended.

In the event, Ukraine closed the door on further revision of what by then had become its resolution. It wanted wording of condemnation of Russia. It won a clear majority, with 140 in favour, but with 38 abstentions, many of whom might have supported a single resolution that focused on the humanitarian issues rather than on condemning the Russian offensive.

What is harder to understand is why South Africa persisted with its resolution. One answer provided by the department of international relations’ diplomats is that since it had the support of a significant number of countries it was important to table it and have it voted on.

Was this a wise decision, given the blow-back that Pretoria has faced since? Was the harm to its global reputation worth risking?

Probably not, since the argument on the resolution was already lost. It was poor decision-making, perhaps, but not “bending over backwards to serve Russian masters” as some have suggested, and certainly not deserving of any “Mampara” award.

Joyini, along with colleagues such as Ambassador Ndumiso Ntshinga and Zaheer Laher back at HQ, who lead on the UN side, are seasoned diplomats, people of professional integrity.

I wonder how many of those who have passed judgment have looked at the precise wording of the two resolutions, still less troubled to speak to the people at the diplomatic coal-face.

The non-alignment position is consistent with the past two decades of South African foreign policy — with the exception of former president Jacob Zuma’s ex-spook strong-man bromance with Putin. Ramaphosa is still trying to reverse out of the dubious “obligations” that Putin’s embezzlement of Zuma in relation to the unlawful nuclear power procurement process created, and that may have some influence on how Ramaphosa deals with Putin.

But again, I can find no direct link with Pretoria’s UN stance on Ukraine.

It is a question of a difference of worldview, as well as a different set of interests, and it is surprising that so many Western diplomats and commentators cannot recognise this.

It is unreasonable of Western capitals and diplomats, who tend to see Ukraine in binary moral absolutist terms, to expect a country of the Global South, such as South Africa, with a long track record of non-alignment, to jump into line in support of Western unity.

The one time Pretoria did depart from its non-aligned approach in the case of Libya in 2011, it ended in tears when South Africa’s planned abstention on the no-fly zone UN resolution, which led to Western military intervention and the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, was overridden at the last minute by Zuma, putting South Africa on the wrong side of that history. There is scar tissue from that incident, which may also explain Pretoria’s trenchant non-alignment.

Ramaphosa’s instinct is to try to preserve good economic and diplomatic relations with a diverse range of global players — the US, the EU and the United Kingdom; but also Russia, India and China.

Fair enough. But, early in his presidency, in 2018, he went to Saudi Arabia to raise much-needed investment and returned with a $2-billion commitment in his back pocket, along with the memo on Saudi human rights violations in Yemen that the department of international relations and cooperation had prepared for him but which apparently he chose not to open and raise with Riyadh.

Economic diplomacy prevailed. Since then, International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor has returned to Riyadh and has subsequently welcomed her opposite number to Pretoria. This puts the country on thinner ice. South Africa needs jobs and inward investment, hence the interest in a good relationship with the Saudis.

But it weakens Pretoria’s criticism of the West for lack of consistency in the application of international law. Far harder to complain that “European lives matter more” than Yemenite ones when you yourself are doing business with war criminals.

The geopolitical landscape is shaking. Big questions are still to be answered, such as whether Putin will survive, the US will emerge stronger or weaker, Nato’s relevance will be fully restored and renewed or further questioned, and whether a new post-globalisation era of trading blocs built on the back of new strategic political and military alliances will form.

Regardless, the world order will not be the same again, with profound implications for everyone, including South Africa.

Where, thereafter, and in the longer-term, do South Africa’s best interests lie — not in a narrow trading or development aid perspective, but in relation to what sort of global human society it is desirable to have? One in which autocratic bullies have power and dictate the terms of global security, regimes that behead people and barely recognise women’s rights, control the price of fuel, and nationalist fascists undermine multilateral attempts to address the climate emergency?

It may be simplistic to cast the next era as a battle between liberalism and illiberalism, but South Africa needs to think much harder about where its interests really lie and position itself accordingly.

A new, multipolar world order may seem appealing, but governments  must be careful what they wish for.

Strictly Personal

As a continent, we must confront the emergency of our failure to learn, By Joachim Buwembo

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“As a nation, we must confront the emergency of our failure to learn!” well-circulated news clips showed veteran Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga saying, in reaction to the (lack of) preparedness despite accurate warnings of the floods that by the time he spoke had claimed some 200 lives in the country.

Baba, as Raila is popularly known, must have used the words “as a nation” advisedly for, at the time he was speaking, helicopters were evacuating (wealthy) foreigners from flooded sites as the Kenyan citizens continued drowning.

But Baba might as well have said “as a continent” because of the tendency to watch disaster coming and doing nothing happens in other African countries.

The question then is whether African leaders are doing their best to prevent or contain disasters and, second, the accurately predictable ones occasioned by climate change. The third question is if the best by African leaders is good enough.

If not, then the fourth question is what can be done without alarming the leaders who might become defensive and suspicious of those asking legitimate questions about the protection of life, property and infrastructure. The fifth question is how their capacity to learn can be created by the famous (or notorious) capacity-building workshops.

But, before proceeding, we need to answer a sixth question: Whether failure to learn is an emergency. Failure to learn prevails, otherwise we wouldn’t be acting like the hazards of climate change are unknown phenomena.

I spent a whole year at the beginning of the last decade flying into African capitals from my Nairobi base in service of UNDP and the International Centre for Journalism, training journalists on climate change reporting but, more significantly, lobbying and securing the commitment of chief editors to give priority to the menace threatening humanity.

And there were several senior journalists on the programme, ensuring that the major media in all countries on the continent were reached.

So, even if African leaders were occupied with “more important issues” than climatic threats to lives and livelihoods, if the media had kept highlighting the climate issues beyond reporting about big people periodically meeting in fancy venues to talk about it, the public would be demanding more serious preparedness by their governments. Having to endure senseless but predictable deaths and destruction of infrastructure is, indeed, an emergency.

The seventh question is, who will bell the cat? Who will tell the naked emperors (to be fair some are dressed) that they are naked?

A protocol official who was managing a visiting royal’s schedule once whispered his agonising experience when the foreign monarch overslept after sampling some local somethings, and the mere thought of disturbing the royal sleep was considered sacrilege by the royal entourage, yet the host counterpart was waiting and the clock was ticking away past their meeting time.

The protocol officer had to cause some commotion in the many-star hotel, causing a diplomatic incident to prevent a diplomatic crisis. It takes unusual steps to bell a naked emperor.

Yet the answer to the seventh question already exists: The African Union can, and should, bell the cat. The AU was not created to be a social club for naked emperors; it is meant to make Africa work. But Africa cannot work with the prevailing obstacles to its working: our “Emergency of Failure to Learn!” Don’t abbreviate it, those suffering EFL may think you are talking about a European Football League.

Only last week, Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority (Nema) announced to our largely inattentive public and authorities that the pollution over Kampala is approaching crisis level. The Nema boss reeled off some head-reeling data in particulates per million, summarising it by saying the air over Kampala is eight times above WHO’s permissible levels.

The authorities and public continued yawning.But the Nema fellows dutifully put it clearly that air pollution is now the world’s single leading killer, claiming six to seven million lives annually, about the same number Covid killed in two years, and far more than malaria, HIV, road accidents or anything you can think of.

Nema named Uganda’s top polluters that kill 31,000 a year as vehicles, boda boda, and domestic cooking (charcoal and wood).

When we overcome the EFL and start tackling our EFT (not electronic funds transfer but Emergency of Failure to Think), we may direct the huge electricity quantities we generate but don’t consume to free cooking energy for the urban poor and to mass public transport, thus addressing the identified top causes of death in Uganda.

Nema can talk on but, for as long as we don’t handle our EFL and EFT, their alarm bells won’t move us.

Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:buwembo@gmail.com

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Strictly Personal

If I were put in charge of a $15m African kitty, I’d first deworm children, By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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One of my favourite stories on pan-African action (or in this case inaction), one I will never tire of repeating, comes from 2002, when the discredited Organisation of African Unity, was rebranded into an ambitious, new African Union (AU).

There were many big hitters in African statehouses then. Talking of those who have had the grace to step down or leave honourably after electoral or political defeat, or have departed, in Nigeria we had Olusegun Obasanjo, a force of nature. Cerebral and studious Thabo Mbeki was chief in South Africa. In Ethiopia, the brass-knuckled and searingly intellectual Meles Zenawi ruled the roost.

In Tanzania, there was the personable and thoughtful Ben Mkapa. In Botswana, there was Festus Mogae, a leader who had a way of bringing out the best in people. In Senegal, we had Abdoulaye Wade, fresh in office, and years before he went rogue.

And those are just a few.

This club of men (there were no women at the high table) brought forth the AU. At that time, there was a lot of frustration about the portrayal of Africa in international media, we decided we must “tell our own story” to the world. The AU, therefore, decided to boost the struggling Pan-African New Agency (Pana) network.

The members were asked to write cheques or pledges for it. There were millions of dollars offered by the South Africans and Nigerians of our continent. Then, as at every party, a disruptive guest made a play. Rwanda, then still roiled by the genocide against the Tutsi of 1994, offered the least money; a few tens of thousand dollars.

There were embarrassed looks all around. Some probably thought it should just have kept is mouth shut, and not made a fool of itself with its ka-money. Kigali sat unflustered. Maybe it knew something the rest didn’t.

The meeting ended, and everyone went their merry way. Pana sat and waited for the cheques to come. The big talkers didn’t walk the talk. Hardly any came, and in the sums that were pledged. Except one. The cheque from Rwanda came in the exact amount it was promised. The smallest pledge became Pana’s biggest payday.

The joke is that it was used to pay terminal benefits for Pana staff. They would have gone home empty-pocketed.

We revive this peculiarly African moment (many a deep-pocketed African will happily contribute $300 to your wedding but not 50 cents to build a school or set up a scholarship fund), to campaign for the creation of small and beautiful African things.

It was brought on by the announcement by South Korea that it had joined the African Summit bandwagon, and is shortly hosting a South Korea-Africa Summit — like the US, China, the UK, the European Union, Japan, India, Russia, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey do.

Apart from the AU, whose summits are in danger of turning into dubious talk shops, outside of limited regional bloc events, there is no Pan-African platform that brings the continent’s leaders together.

The AU summits are not a solutions enterprise, partly because over 60 percent of its budget is funded by non-African development partners. You can’t seriously say you are going to set up a $500 million African climate crisis fund in the hope that some Europeans will put up the money.

It’s possible to reprise the Rwanda-Pana pledge episode; a convention of African leaders and important institutions on the continent for a “Small Initiatives, Big Impact Compact”. It would be a barebones summit. In the first one, leaders would come to kickstart it by investing seed money.

The rule would be that no country would be allowed to put up more than $100,000 — far, far less than it costs some presidents and their delegations to attend one day of an AU summit.

There would also be no pledges. Everyone would come with a certified cheque that cannot bounce, or hard cash in a bag. After all, some of our leaders are no strangers to travelling around with sacks from which they hand out cash like they were sweets.

If 54 states (we will exempt the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic for special circumstances) contribute $75,000 each, that is a good $4.05 million.

If just 200 of the bigger pan-African institutions such as the African Development Bank, Afrexim Bank, the giant companies such as MTN, Safaricom, East African Breweries, Nedbank, De Beers, Dangote, Orascom in Egypt, Attijariwafa Bank in Morocco, to name a few, each ponied up $75,000 each, that’s a cool $15 million just for the first year alone.

There will be a lot of imagination necessary to create magic out of it all, no doubt, but if I were asked to manage the project, I would immediately offer one small, beautiful thing to do.

After putting aside money for reasonable expenses to be paid at the end (a man has to eat) — which would be posted on a public website like all other expenditures — I would set out on a programme to get the most needy African children a dose of deworming tablets. Would do it all over for a couple of years.

Impact? Big. I read that people who received two to three additional years of childhood deworming experience an increase of 14 percent in consumption expenditure, 13 percent in hourly earnings, and nine percent in non-agricultural work hours.

At the next convention, I would report back, and possibly dazzle with the names, and photographs, of all the children who got the treatment. Other than the shopping opportunity, the US-Africa Summit would have nothing on that.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. X@cobbo3

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