07 March 2008 - 09 March 2008

South Africa: regional superpower or global player?

Chair: Mr Niall FitzGerald KBE

Ditchley’s conferences on single countries of 21st century significance continued with South Africa, interconnecting at the same time with our focus in recent years on the prospects for successful development of the African continent.  Throughout our debate we recognized that South Africa was an exceptional country, even within Africa, for a number of reasons.  Its historical connections with the United Kingdom in particular have given that relationship, and the view of South Africa from outside more widely, an emotional tinge.  But most participants wanted to analyse the South African story since 1994 objectively and to assess the prospects for the future on the basis of the country’s performance since then. 

After a good deal of discussion about optimism and pessimism, the conference was in a mood to avoid that kind of conclusion.  The fact was that South Africa had made an extraordinary transition from the apartheid era, had established a constitution of remarkable quality and was proceeding to tackle its problems as a fundamentally democratic and multicultural society.  South Africans enjoyed being South Africans and were capable of generating a spirit of African renaissance.  If history and outside perceptions placed a burden of expectations on the country, that should not be allowed to darken the balance sheet.  Participants could recognize a mismatch between rhetoric and reality, between policy prescription and delivery.  But South Africa was not unique in that respect and the vibrancy of its society was a real strength.  We therefore came to an implicit understanding that we should describe what was happening without being too judgmental about it.

On the internal scene, South Africa had the advantage of an economy with great potential, but the challenge of huge inequalities in the distribution of wealth.  The country’s macro-economic framework had been well managed over the past decade, but service delivery remained poor and the infrastructure was beginning to creak, as the recent performance on electricity generation illustrated.  Above all, unemployment was catastrophically high, with little sign of job creation policies intensive enough to remedy it.  We discussed the role of social and basic income grants in redressing the worst aspects of poverty, but the majority of participants believed that solid economic growth was the only answer in the longer term.  We were not clear that there was the strategic vision at present to set this requirement as a clear priority.

The call for strategic leadership connected us to the political scene, which we examined in some detail.  The prominence of the ANC made South Africa virtually a one-party state, though many participants felt that the vibrant nature of South African society and the relative freedom of the media might lead in due course to greater political diversity.  The ANC’s recent conference at Polokwane might be an early harbinger of that process.  People also noted the remarkable degree of social cohesion in the country, the relative absence of political violence (even if criminal violence was a serious worry) and the maintenance so far of a solid spirit of reconciliation and inter-racial understanding, given the history.  Concerns were expressed nevertheless about the temptation to give in to populist politics, the uncertain lines of political accountability in the system and the disappointment which would inevitably grow if economic and social inequities could not be resolved.

Against this background, the problem of HIV/AIDS in the country had to be regarded as extremely serious.  People were puzzled as to why infection had spread so widely in a society which ought to have been able to cope better.  In spite of all the focus on retroviral drugs, where there had been reasonable progress, and on denial at the policy-making level (not as serious as in India), human behaviour seemed to be remarkably hard to change.  There had to be a connection with poverty and perhaps also with the relatively poor state of education in the country.  Participants hoped that, if standards of education could be raised in the medium to longer term and if economic growth could be sustained and accelerated, there might be improvements.  But the current trend was very worrying. 

We looked next at South Africa’s role in its region and in the African continent as a whole.  Because of the importance of its economy (one third of the GDP of sub-Saharan Africa and two thirds of that of the Southern African Development Community (SADC)), South Africa could not escape being a driver of African development.  Its political role was equally important in taking forward the African regional institutions and at the Pan-African level, the AU and NEPAD.  South African leaders had made it very clear, and we were reminded again at this conference, that South Africa was not looking for continental hegemony.  But leadership had been thrust upon it and in many ways South Africa had responded constructively and helpfully.  If there were doubts about the real strength of Pan-Africanism, there was still important work to be done on economic development, regional infrastructure, good governance and conflict resolution.  South Africa’s contribution in most of these areas had been positive.  Yet participants also had to note that not all of South Africa’s very reasonable set of policy objectives had been followed up in practice.  The momentum behind NEPAD, and behind the African Peer Review Mechanism, had slowed.  The capacity to deliver the programme priorities of the African Union, and of the regional organizations, still lay a long way short.  We noted with some regret that South Africa’s partnership with Nigeria, which had begun strongly under Presidents Mbeki and Obasanjo, was losing some of its strength.  Perhaps external partnerships and assistance, under African direction, could attempt to regenerate some forward movement in regional capacity-building. 

The particular problem of Zimbabwe came into the debate in this context.  Most participants found it difficult to understand how South Africa could allow its own interests to be so badly damaged, in terms of crisis-driven immigration and of the effect on foreign direct investment, by the collapse of its neighbour.  Post-liberation politics and the fraternity of this generation of political leaders explained some of it.  But the ripples from Zimbabwe had been allowed to spread too far.  The point was made that the history of Africa changed the political logic in situations such as this one.  A different form of political discourse was needed to connect the past with the future.  Even if this was so, the conference was clear that the Zimbabwe problem should not be allowed to drift.

When we turned to assessing South Africa as a global player, tribute was paid to its success in establishing its voice as one of authority at the United Nations and elsewhere, speaking sometimes for the developing world, sometimes for Africa and sometimes for multilateralism.  In many ways South Africa’s contribution to international problem-solving was constructive, but this could be trumped – and often was – by its political rhetoric on North-South differences.  South Africa had also made it clear that, when the choice had to be made, its motivation always came back to Africa.  As a member of a number of different multinational formations, whether at the UN, within Africa, on global trade or environmental negotiations or on south-south structures such as IBSA, South Africa lacked the capacity to staff and service all these involvements;  and so it was unable to take advantage of the global reach which its reputation and advocacy gave it.  Perhaps this was something else that could be taken forward with external partnerships, for instance the EU-South Africa strategic relationship, which might not be fulfilling its full potential.  That was true of US-South African ties as well, in spite of the significant trade partnership.   The political chemistry between Washington and Pretoria was currently poor, which suggested that improvements might be possible under new leaderships.  

Participants were interested in how South Africa’s relationship with China and India might develop.  China’s relationship with South Africa was a complex one, different in kind from Chinese relationships with other parts of Africa.  President Mbeki had shown an awareness of the potential of China to be a threat to the region as well as a benefactor.  Careful judgments would need to be made about the balance between a partnership with China at the global level or in the context of the G77, and the competition which China represented to South African companies active within Africa.  As for India, there were connections and benefits that might flow from historical links, but the relationship up to now had been surprisingly under-developed.  This was an area to which South Africa might give further attention. 

We examined South Africa’s interest in becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council, while recognising that the UN was still some way from reaching agreement on that issue.  No expansion of permanent seats could proceed without Africa being included, but the hesitations of other African countries about allowing South Africa to be their representative were very real.  Nigeria’s claim might be regarded as equally strong.  Participants understood that Africa might not want to come to any conclusions on this issue while it was still more a theoretical than a practical possibility, but people felt that, if a deadline eventually approached, the Africans would be able to work out some form of compromise, leaving South Africa as one, but not the only, regional leader.  

From this complex set of varied characteristics, the conference found it hard to draw any firm conclusions about the direction in which South Africa was heading;  and South African participants pointed to the country’s wish to make its own decisions.  But to anyone willing to take away messages from this absorbing and revealing conversation, the priority areas appeared to be the following:

-        economic growth and an attractive investment climate;

-        strategically focused and accountable political leadership;

-        social cohesion and inclusiveness;

-        capacity-building, based on a foundation of solid education;

-        service delivery;

-        regional economic development in Southern Africa;

-        partnerships with external players.

What was explicit at this event was the desire for South Africa to succeed, for its own sake and for Africa.  We were fortunate to have a broad spread of perspectives represented around the table, helped towards a balanced set of conclusions by the firmness and wisdom of a committed chairman.  No-one believed that the coming period was going to be easy, but we were all sure that the unfolding story would continue to fascinate us.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman:  Mr Niall FitzGerald KBE
Chairman, Reuters Group plc (2004-).  Chairman, Nelson Mandela Legacy Trust (UK) (2005-);  Co-Chair, Investment Climate Facility (ICF) for Africa (2005-);  Chairman, International Business Council (2006-);  Member, Foundation Board of the World Economic Forum (1999-).  Formerly:  Chairman and CEO, Unilever plc (1996-2004).


HE Ms Ruth Archibald

High Commissioner of Canada to South Africa, Pretoria.  Formerly:  Director General Global Issues (Human Rights, Peace Building, Environment).
Dr John English
Executive Director, The Centre for International Governance Innovation, Waterloo, Ontario (2003 );  Professor of History and Political Science, University of Waterloo (1971-);  General Editor, Dictionary of Canadian Biography (2006-);  Author.
Mr Robert Franklin
President, Signalta Capital Corporation, Toronto (1989-).  Formerly:  Chairman:  Photowatt Technologies (2006-07);  Placer Dome Inc (1993-2006);  Glenayre Electronics Ltd (1990-93).
Mr Bruce Shapiro
President, Canada-South Africa Chamber of Business, Toronto;  President, MineAfrica Inc.

Mr Georges Lory

Director of International Affairs, Radio France Internationale, Paris (1998-).  Formerly:  Cultural Counsellor, Embassy of France, Pretoria (1990-94);  Journalist, Jeune Afrique.

Ms Marie-Roger Biloa

Chief Executive Officer, Africa International Media Group;  Chair, ‘Club Millenium’, Paris-based Think Tank on African Development.

Dr Seán Nolan

Senior Resident Representative to South Africa and Lesotho, International Monetary Fund, Pretoria (2006-).

Ms Mary Crewe

Director, Centre for the Study of AIDS, University of Pretoria.  Formerly:  Founder Member and Co-Chair, AIDS Consortium and NACOSA.
Dr Cheryl Hendricks
Programme Head, The Regional Programme, Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria.
Professor Iqbal Jhazbhay
Associate Professor, University of South Africa, Pretoria;  Director, Institute for Global Dialogue, Johannesburg.  Author.
HE Dr Lindiwe Mabuza
High Commissioner of the Republic of South Africa to the UK, London (2001-).
Mr Mondli Makhanya
Editor-in-Chief, The Sunday Times, Johannesburg (2004-);  Member, National Council of the South African National Editors’ Forum.
Mr Moeletsi Mbeki
Deputy Chairman, The South African Institute of International Affairs, University of Witwatersrand;  Political Analyst, Nedcor Bank and others.
Mr Kuben Naidoo
Head, Budget Office, National Treasury, Pretoria.
Mr Cyril Ndaba
Deputy High Commissioner of the Republic of South Africa to the UK, London.
Ms Farhana Paruk
Programme Manager/Senior Researcher (China and Africa), Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria (2007-).
Professor Barney Pityana GCOB
Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of South Africa, Pretoria (2001-).  Formerly:  Chair, South African Human Rights Commission (1995-2001).
Ms Elizabeth Sidiropoulos
National Director, The South African Institute of International Affairs, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Mr Xavier Le Mintier

Executive Vice President, Shell Oil Products Africa (2006-).  Formerly:  CEO, Shell Global Aviation (2003 2006).

Dr Adekeye Adebajo

Executive Director, Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, South Africa (2003-).  Formerly:  Director, Africa Programme, International Peace Academy, New York (1999-03).  Author.

Professor Alan Whiteside

Director, Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban (1998).

The Rt Hon Paul Boateng

British High Commissioner to South Africa (2005-).  Formerly:  Member of Parliament, Labour, Brent South (1987-2005).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Richard Dowden
Director, Royal African Society (2004-).  Formerly:  Africa Editor, The Economist (1995-2004), The Independent (1986-95).
Mr Jonty Driver
Poet and Novelist;  Trustee, The Beit Trust (1999-).  Formerly:  Head, Wellington College, Berkshire (1989 2000);  President, National Union of South African Students (1963-64).
Mr Guy Elliott
Finance Director and Chief Financial Officer, Rio Tinto plc, London (2002-).  Formerly:  Head of Business Evaluation, Rio Tinto plc (1999-2002);  President, Rio Tinto Brazil (1996-99).
The Rt Hon Lord Malloch Brown KCMG
Minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations (2007-).  Formerly:  Vice Chairman, Soros Fund Management and The Open Society Network, New York (2007);  UN Deputy Secretary-General (2006).
Mr Adam Roberts
News Editor, The Economist.  Formerly:  Southern Africa Correspondent, The Economist.
Mr John Smith
HM Diplomatic Service (1988-);  Head, Southern Africa Section, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London (2006-).
Mr Alex Vines
Head, Africa Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs (2002-);  Senior Researcher, Business and Human Rights, Human Rights Watch (2002-).
Sir John Weston KCMG
Non-Executive Director:  BT Group;  Rolls-Royce Group;  Hakluyt & Co Ltd.  Formerly:  HM Diplomatic Service (1962-98);  UK Permanent Representative to UN, New York (1995-98).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Professor William Beinart

Rhodes Professor of Race Relations, African Studies Centre, St Antony’s College, Oxford (1997-).  Author.

Mr Elliott Kulick

Chairman and Chief Executive, Pegasus International Inc (1985-).

Ms Geraldine Jackson

Founder/Station Manager, SW Radio Africa, London.

Ms Jennifer Cooke

Co-Director, Africa Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC (2000-).  Formerly:  Staff Assistant, House Foreign Affairs Sub-committee on Africa (1986-1987).
Ambassador Princeton Lyman
Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, Washington DC;  Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University;  Visiting Lecturer, School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University.  Formerly:  US Ambassador to South Africa (1992-05).