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Bond, Patrick (2012) South Africa’s Rhodesian temptations in Africa. Eye on Civil Society : -.

The recent declaration by Jacob Zuma of the need for a “decisive intervention” up-continent – readying an “African Standby Force for rapid deployment in crisis areas without delays” – followed a warning a few days earlier by brutally-frank Zambian vice president Guy Scott: “I dislike South Africa for the same reason that Latin Americans dislike the United States.”

The urgency of this debate is evident, for the World Economic Forum Africa summit in Cape Town has just alerted us to the voracious corporate appetite for minerals and petroleum.

Moreover, the SA National Defense Force (SANDF) is deploying 1500 troops to the resource-rich eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a site where not only is petroleum being prospected by the president’s catastrophe-prone nephew Khulubuse Zuma and lawyer Michael Hulley. It’s also the main source of coltan for our cell-phones, and it’s where AngloGold was caught working with warlords a few years ago, all at the expense of more than five million Congolese corpses over the last fifteen years.

Just weeks ago here at the BRICS Summit, Pretoria declared SA the “gateway” to Africa for Brazilian, Russian, Indian and Chinese investors, only three days after 13 SANDF troops returned home from the Central African Republic in coffins following a failed mission to protect SA “assets”. These assets were initially said to be merely military by SANDF, but recall that just as they fell, those soldiers were termed “mercenaries” by the Seleka rebel group now in control.

As a SANDF survivor told the Sunday Times, “Our men were deployed to various parts of the city, protecting belongings of South Africans. They were the first to be attacked. Everyone thought it was those who were ambushed, but it was the guys outside the different buildings – the ones which belong to businesses in Jo'burg.” According to the Mail&Guardian, businesses set up in Bangui in recent years include those owned by African National Congress bigwigs.

Chancellor House is not the only Johannesburg crew needing protection. In early May, Ernst & Young’s Africa Attractiveness Survey observed that thanks to the mining houses, MTN, Standard Bank, Shoprite, Sanlam, Tiger Brands and Nampak, SA foreign direct investment in the rest of the continent rose 57 percent since 2007, and that “when one strips out investment from other countries into South Africa itself, [SA] was the single largest investor in FDI projects in the rest of Africa in 2012.”

Finance minister Pravin Gordhan’s budget statement three months ago promised to “relax cross-border financial regulations and tax requirements on companies, making it easier for banks and other financial institutions to invest and operate” in the rest of Africa.

Does SA’s corporate reinvasion of Africa require a diplomatic accompaniment? According to former US State Department spokesperson Brooks Spector of the Daily Maverick: “Foreign policy efforts should also be geared to promoting the country’s economic and commercial prospects. These would include deliberate efforts aimed at opening foreign markets for SA product exports, encouraging foreign investment domestically, and supporting innovation and opportunities for international business ventures.”

Instead, he laments, “South Africa, today, resembles more and more that ‘pitiful, helpless giant’ of Richard Nixon’s late night fears about America caught in the midst of the Vietnam War than it does the view of a colossus that bestrides a continent existing in popular sentiment here.” (That sentiment includes the National Development Plan, by the way, which concedes “the perception of the country as a regional bully” because “SA policy-makers tend to have a weak grasp of African geopolitics.”)

To “bestride” Africa is a regrettable image, because “The Rhodes Colossus” was an 1892 cartoon in London’s Punch magazine celebrating the Cape-to-Cairo agenda. Ten years ago, a similarly misguided speechwriter for former president Nelson Mandela had him utter these words at the ill-advised launch of the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation: “I am sure that Cecil John Rhodes would have given his approval to this effort to make the South African economy of the early 21st century appropriate and fit for its time.”

Indeed, former ambassador to Argentina and opposition ex-leader Tony Leon last week characterised Pretoria’s stance by harking back to such bad old days: “The military has once again taken over our foreign policy.” As a result, “We don't practise what we preach.”

Pretoria’s vulnerability to the whims of capital means that while zigzagging across Africa between service to the West and to BRIC allies one day, and to Joburg/family businesses the next, and to Anglo and its ilk the next, with a military unable to service such a long supply chain, the foreign policy that Spector terms a “muddle in the middle” is better alliterated as schizophrenic sub-imperialist SA.

Once so named, it is up to the society to better equip ourselves for a politics of solidarity with Africa, a new anti-subimperialism, the way civilised people here did by the late 1980s, as an integral part of the radical social change so desperately needed as well, within the society.

Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society and co-hosted the “brics-from-below” summit at Diakonia church.

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