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Will economic interest take precedence over democracy in SA’s engagement with Africa?

In this video clip, political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi speaks about African growth and development. Camerawork & Editing: Darlene Creamer (14/01/2011)

14th January 2011

By: Aubrey Matshiqi


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In the aftermath of the global economic crisis, Africa is one of the regions of the world that are experiencing better-than-expected levels of economic growth.

While this growth may be off a low base, it is not insignificant in relation to the continent’s developmental and economic needs. If the growth continues, it will assist regional integration efforts in different parts of the continent. But the most important challenge this growth presents is with regard to the relationship between economic growth, on the one hand, and democracy and social justice, on the other.


It is in the challenge of linking growth to democracy that South Africa’s role on the continent will be tested. In other words, will South Africa pursue growth and investment opportunities at the expense of democracy and development? Are we going to commit ourselves to an understanding of respect for national sovereignty which is based on the need to deepen democracy in South Africa, while avoiding an insistence on the same elsewhere in Africa if such an insistence poses a threat to economic opportunities? Is South Africa going to hide behind multilateral approaches to avoid taking positions that may alienate powerful leaders who are not committed to good governance and democracy?

These are some of the questions that arise as South Africa prepares to take up her United Nations Security Council seat. In fact, some of the challenges and tests that will face South Africa’s position in multilateral institutions are already upon us. Two cases in point are Sudan and Côte d’ Ivoire. At the time of writing this column, Sudan was a mere four days away from a referendum in the south of the country that would determine whether the south secedes or remains part of the country.


Given the fact that the country’s oil resources are in the south, postreferendum Sudan may be a very unstable place. First, there is a possibility that tensions will be caused by accusations that the north (the seat of the Sudanese government) created conditions that are not conducive to the holding of a free and fair referendum with the aim of preventing a ‘yes’ vote. Even more dangerous would be a refusal to accept the outcome of the referendum if the south elected to secede from the north.

As we have come to know and expect, those African leaders who have the capacity to impose a climate of violent instability can walk away from inconvenient political outcomes. In some parts of the continent, the bullet and the machete are mightier than the ballot. At the moment, Côte d’Ivoire is a good example of this tendency. If South Africa and countries such as Nigeria cannot give effective leadership within or outside a multilateral context, the benefits of growth will trickle down only to political and business elites, as is the case in countries such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the case of Côte d’ Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to accept the outcome of the Presidential election in defiance of the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) is going to be a test of the leadership capacity of Nigeria and South Africa. Since the threat by Ecowas to eject Gbagbo by military means is unlikely to materialise, South Africa’s diplomatic mettle and handling of soft power might become a factor. Even if Gbagbo is ejected by the Ivorian army, the period thereafter will require careful management.

If I am wrong about Ecowas and military intervention, getting out of Côte d’Ivoire may prove to be more difficult than the deployment of Ecowas forces. The fact that countries such as Ghana and Senegal are reluctant to be part of the Ecowas force suggests that sanctions, diplomatic efforts and the Ivorian army splitting from Gbagbo (if he cannot pay their salaries) are more likely. Whatever the outcome, the process will require South Africa’s direct intervention or its indirect intervention through the African Union’s ‘go to’ man, former President Thabo Mbeki.

Since global economic power is shifting towards emerging economies that have been part of the developing world, the question is whether these countries represent a shift in the ethos that will inform the engagement of the international community with conflict in countries such as Sudan and Côte d’ Ivoire. The developed countries of the North and the West were criticised for divorcing investment opportunities from development and democracy in investment destinations that were the source of their immense wealth. Are we going to be like them in paying lip service to the idea of justice and democracy? Or are we going to be the China of the continent and place the growth of our economy above worker and democratic rights in countries that are our investment destinations or the investment destinations of our powerful friends?


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