Multiple political issues intersect in the background of the economic convergence of the European Union and South Africa passing through a high-level meeting which followed five years of inertia. In the context of the 7th European Union-South Africa Summit occurring in Brussels in mid-November, the President of the Republic of South Africa and leader of the African National Congress (ANC) or all-time governing party of the rainbow nation Cyril Ramaphosa and the upper echelons of the European Union sealed a series of reciprocal and diverse commitments chiefly revolving around prospective investments from the Global North to the Global South and many-sided political cooperation. On the African side, this intercontinental handshake brought along the urgency to restore Pretoria’s reputation and economic solidity in the aftermath of the corruption scandals related to Ramaphosa’s predecessor Jacob Zuma; on the European side, the resolve to expand financially and bolster multilateralism to face the unrelenting migratory flows and the sweeping wind of illiberalism affecting many EU Member States motivated the positive disposition of the supranational entity towards Nelson Mandela’s motherland.
In mainstream global affairs, South Africa is often portrayed (and conveniently portrays itself) as the exception to the African rule; in other words, a developed oasis in a backward landmass. Whether this social construct emanates from the segregationist Colonialism of a Special Type which turned South Africa with its abundance of natural resources into an early engine for global production or the symbolic stature of Nelson Mandela who differentiated his national liberation movement from other emancipatory groups, the immaterial norm of exceptionalism survived the first two decades of majoritarian democracy in the erstwhile realm of apartheid. Equally exceptional was therefore, in the African landscape, the Strategic Partnership tying Brussels to Pretoria in 2007. In the light of the EU’s self-perception in a changing global environment – considerably more so now than a decade ago, the unique Strategic Partnership with South Africa testified to the unequalled political location of the African State within the European discourse and provided for a tighter interinstitutional dialogue, reinforced cooperation on climate change and the sharing of expertise in various domains. Additionally, it laid the ground for the asymmetric trade liberalisation of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) applied to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) which comprises South Africa and its neighbouring countries. These platforms adhered to and consolidated South Africa’s economic status vis-à-vis the EU, as the latter constitutes the major trade and investment partner of the former. Leveraging this long-standing entanglement and tapping into the evocative celebration of the 100th anniversary of Mandela’s birth, President Ramaphosa reached out to the Western conglomerate to substantiate the ambitious financial targets set by his administration. This intention dovetailed with the long-term project of the European Union to stimulate development outside of its borders counting on the mobilisation of the private sector – hence moving from assistantship to indigenous growth – through the External Investment Plan and the Africa-Europe Alliance for Sustainable Investments and Jobs. The pledge to uphold conspicuous financial deals resulting from the Brussels meeting, consequently, responded to the EU’s objective to promote progress in Africa (with a view to discourage migration and enlarge international demand for European products) and President Ramaphosa’s concerns about a disappointing economic performance which – adding up to the spectre of widespread corruption relating to the former President Jacob Zuma – threatens the national dominance of the party he leads.
This overlapping of strategies and desiderata rests on a shared ideological conviction: capital and the market economy are the finest instruments to fight poverty, the ‘root cause’ of migration which is a phenomenon that impacts South Africa just as much as the EU. The overreliance on capitalist principles informed South Africa’s transition from apartheid and stifled the revolutionary ambitions of freedom of the national liberation front. However, the recent history of the country demonstrates that the evanescent trickle-down effect arguably inflamed the striking inequality still plaguing the rainbow nation. As the democratic establishment never sufficiently addressed the structural determinants of difference after the demise of institutional racism, the alleged ‘reformist faction’ within the ruling ANC referring to President Ramaphosa brandished the ‘land expropriation without compensation’ formula concerning the unfair system of land ownership which dates back to the days of the white-minority regime. Judging by the outcome of the bilateral gathering, the government simultaneously proves not to have disavowed the original liberal (at times, neoliberal) South African disposition, promptly encountering the favour and approval of the EU. The endorsement of free trade in the face of global shifts towards protectionism is a clear manifestation of this conjunction. Interestingly, in the name of such a liberalisation the European flank requested that the African partner should relax some positive-discrimination measures, notably in the fields of company ownership and management, the localisation of production processes and the issuing of specific permits by the relevant institutions, lest the complication of economic exchanges.
The contentious questions pertaining to multilateralism, human rights and the rules-based global order were also at the forefront of the discussions, taking into account the normative significance of post-apartheid South Africa and its Bill of Rights which the European Union could cling onto in the confrontation with the increasingly inward-looking international great powers. However, the scar of apartheid and the postcolonial condition engenders quite a distrust on the part of Pretoria towards the West, which frequently translated into unbending support for national liberation movements over human rights (as in the case of Zimbabwe) and alignment with challengers of the constituted order like China (which also earmarked large investments for South Africa). The revitalisation of the EU-SA Strategic Partnership could then compel President Ramaphosa to clarify his country’s position in between the double nature of modern State and anti-imperialist actor, provided that Europe will also grow more assertive politically. In any case, the EU delegation committed itself to share best practices with the African Union – the efficacy of which South Africa was encouraged to revive – as both international actors stressed at the Summit the importance of regional integration to deal with articulated challenges.
If the current EU establishment will departure soon, Cyril Ramaphosa is (expectedly) here to stay. The former unionist, Constitution drafter, successful businessman and erstwhile deputy President of South Africa and the ANC took up the leadership of his country after the dismal regency of Jacob Zuma – lasted almost a decade – that came to an end because of the endemic infiltration of private interests into national institutions occurring on the presidential watch. President Ramaphosa will thus have to reactivate national and international confidence in the ruling party – ahead of crucial general elections – and reverse the downward trend in the economy (two objectives which are tightly linked), under the pressure of intra-African migration and rampant inequality. It remains to be seen whether the alliance with the EU on considerable investments will be the panacea for this quagmire.