Rudderless SA may miss out on new scramble for Africa

South African President Jacob Zuma’s visit to China last month was, by some accounts, a big success. Much was made of the size of the business delegation – about 350 people – and the government team of 13 cabinet ministers. It was a display of business-government engagement that South Africa rarely sees. It signalled the type of “SA Inc” image many believe the country should be putting forward in the way most of the countries the president visits are doing.

But behind all the warm and fuzzy statements, there is, sadly, no SA Inc. In China, our politicians were calling for the economic giant to invest in South African manufacturing while strikers were pounding the streets.

It is probably no coincidence that the African countries in which China has chosen to set up special economic zones to attract Chinese manufacturing do not include South Africa and are the countries not wracked by strike activity.

The weakness of SA Inc is more pronounced in South Africa’s own backyard – Africa. Take Angola. The state visit to one of South Africa’s biggest trading partners earlier this year also boasted a sizeable business delegation and was hyped as signalling South Africa’s seriousness in taking this bilateral relationship forward. Our government has taken the relationship so seriously that the post of ambassador in the South African mission in Luanda was vacant before his visit – and remains so.

Zuma plans to visit Nigeria later this year to mark that country’s 50 years of independence. But he is not assured of a rousing welcome given the resentment among Nigerians about our government’s failure to address the challenges of getting visas to visit South Africa, which is also hampering South African investors’ training plans for Nigerian employees. This has led to similar problems for South African business people getting visas to do business in Nigeria. Zuma must put pressure on the Department of Home Affairs to get its house in order if he plans to highlight the importance of this bilateral relationship on his visit.

Talk of economic diplomacy rolls smoothly off the tongues of our politicians but there is no real plan to leverage South Africa’s strong political ties for economic gain, despite growing competition in Africa from the foreign countries Zuma is so assiduously courting.

The symbolic importance of Zuma’s state visits will be lost if they are not underpinned by a strategy of engagement and diplomatic support that leverages longer-term benefits for the country as a whole. One lesson from the emerging markets Zuma has visited is the boost an export-led political strategy can have on domestic growth. For example, since it opened up its economy in 2000, Brazil has seen annual export growth of 13%, with a positive effect on its domestic economy.

The quality of many diplomats and the lack of a trade and investment component in most African missions means their presence has limited benefits for the growing number of South Africans doing business on the continent.

Many of the agreements negotiated in bilateral relations at a political level are not communicated to business and are often not signed or ratified, remaining little more than a gesture.

Back home, the politicians worry about the political repercussions of uneven trade flows (in South Africa’s favour) with other African states and voice concern about the perception of South Africa as a regional hegemon. They talk about codes of conduct for companies operating in Africa, rather supporting their expansion.

The government is clearly more concerned about making political friends in Africa than leveraging benefits for itself in the post-financial crisis era, where Africa is the new land of opportunity. There is almost no branding of South Africa in the region, nor do enough of our officials in other African countries court local businesses to invest in South Africa. They should be made to feel as welcome as potential investors from Europe, Latin America and Asia, if only to improve the climate for South African exporters and investors.

If South Africa does not wake up to the benefits of having a proper multi-stakeholder Africa strategy that leverages economic benefits for South Africa from the groundwork that has already been laid, it will be left out in the cold in the new scramble for Africa.

Dianna Games is executive director of Africa @ Work. The article was first published in Business Day.