It is one of the many anomalies of the Zuma administration’s foreign policy that it evidently enjoys better political relations with its chaotically governed northern neighbour Zimbabwe than its far better governed western neighbour, Botswana. The comparison is revealing about Pretoria’s basic worldview.
In this year’s Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance, Botswana shone once again, coming second with a score of 73.7%, while Zimbabwe languished as usual near the bottom of the heap, coming in at 39th with a fail mark of 44.3%.
Botswana scores so well on the index because of its steady and peaceful democratic governance since independence and its proper stewardship of the country’s natural resources, mainly diamonds.
President Jacob Zuma acknowledged these achievements last Friday, after meeting Botswana’s President Ian Khama in Pretoria. Zuma praised Botswana as a ‘model of democracy, stability and rule of law,’ adding that its management of its natural resources ‘to the betterment and development of the country’ was exemplary.
By contrast with this good neighbour, the imploding Zimbabwean economy continues to propel a steady exodus of economic (and to some degree political) refugees across the Limpopo River.
So the reason for South Africa’s better political relations with Zimbabwe than Botswana is evidently less about governance than about ideology.
The African National Congress (ANC) government clearly prefers President Robert Mugabe’s aggressively anti-Western, anti-neocolonialist and enthusiastically pan Africanist posture to what it quietly regards as Khama’s pro-Western and un-Africanist stance.
On these scores, Khama has recently confirmed a few times that Botswana is indeed an outlier in the region and even perhaps the continent.
In October, he told a Reuters reporter the Zimbabwe’s 92-year-old leader should, ‘without doubt,’ have vacated State House ‘years ago’. Then Khama’s government issued a statement saying it was ‘regrettable’ that South Africa was pulling out of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Botswana is the Hague-based court’s strongest defender in Africa even as the rest of the continent’s relations with the ICC continue to deteriorate.
And then, just for good measure, Khama’s foreign minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi suggested to her South African counterpart Maite Nkoana-Mashabane last week that Khama’s scheduled visit to South Africa to meet Zuma should be postponed because by then Zuma might have been removed from office by the Democratic Alliance’s no-confidence vote in Parliament.
One can imagine Nkoana-Mashabane’s indignation at receiving this missive. According to the Sunday Times, she told Venson-Moitoi that Zuma would still be securely ensconced in office on Friday. Khama duly visited.
Whether Khama really thought the ANC was about to jettison Zuma or was just mischievously highlighting Zuma’s domestic political predicament is not clear. Either way, it clearly irritated Pretoria, enormously.
As had Botswana’s criticism of Pretoria’s decision to leave the ICC. South Africa’s High Commissioner to Botswana and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mdu Lembede told the Sunday Standard that ‘nobody can tell us about encouraging impunity. Nobody has a right to say that’.
He noted pointedly that on 30 June 2003 Botswana had signed a Bilateral Immunity Agreement with the US, pledging not to extradite American citizens to the ICC. Lembede no doubt intended to underscore South Africa’s apparent perception that Botswana is a stooge of the US.
Pretoria also believes that Khama is not committed to the continent, is not a ‘pan Africanist’. Apart from his criticism of Mugabe, an official African icon, and his support for the ICC, which the African Union (AU) regards as an anti-African weapon of neo-imperialists, Khama very rarely – if ever – attends AU summits, which he dismisses as mere talkshops, they say.
Khama’s eccentric positions are stoking tensions between South Africa and Botswana about the election in January of the new AU Commission chairperson. SADC has officially endorsed Venson-Moitoi as its candidate for the post. And after his meeting with Khama on Friday, Zuma publicly confirmed his support for her.
Nonetheless there is clearly very little enthusiasm for Venson-Moitoi in Pretoria, and Gaborone evidently suspects South Africa is ‘de-campaigning’ her. A senior South African official confides that if he were in Zuma’s seat at the AU summit in January, he would take advantage of the secret ballot to vote against Venson-Moitoi, ‘because Khama is not a pan Africanist’. Whether Zuma feels the same remains to be seen.
Another burr in relations between the neighbours is the working of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU). This union sets a common external trade tariff around the perimeter, with free trade among its members within that perimeter. It has dictated economic relations among its member states for 106 years.
The revenues accruing from this common external tariff are distributed disproportionately among the five members, with a much larger proportion going to the four smaller ‘BLNS’ countries than their share of imports would dictate. For these countries, SACU revenues represent a critical percentage of government income.
But South Africa has been agitating for several years for the formula to be revised, suggesting it can no longer dispense so much of what it clearly regards as disguised development aid. Botswana and the other smaller members point out that they have paid a high price over the years for this revenue by providing South Africa with an open market for its exports. They argue that they been largely constrained from reciprocating by South Africa’s dominant economy and its control of SACU policy.
The statistics seem to bear this out. Last year South Africa enjoyed an immense trade surplus of about R53 billion with Botswana, exporting about R59 billion worth of goods to it, and importing just over R6 billion, according to the International Trade Centre.
Analyst Gerhard Erasmus writes in the online trade journal Tralac this month that ‘South Africa plays the dominant role in SACU and carries the bigger responsibility for solving its problems. The management of the Common External Tariff is done by Pretoria and includes rebates and duty drawbacks which are extensively used as part of South Africa’s industrial policies.
‘The BLNS countries do not enjoy effective policy space over their own industrial development plans but have to live with the consequences (such as expensive automobiles) of being in this close relationship with a regional economic hegemon; which will naturally have different policy needs.’
Erasmus notes that the five SACU governments met in July this year in their latest visible attempt to reform the union, but nothing has been said or done about it since.
The joint communiqué issued after last week’s Zuma-Khama meeting included the usual mantra that South Africa inserts in such statements about ‘the need to reform multilateral institutions, particularly the United Nations Security Council and the Bretton Woods Institutions to better represent the interest of the developing countries.’
But nothing about the urgent need to reform SACU, arguably a much more important multilateral institution, in the lives of South Africa and its neighbours.
Written by Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant