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View from Pretoria

South Africa exploits its role as a gateway to Africa and focuses on foreign policy
By Alex Duval Smith

We have not reached the point where the sandstone Union Buildings in Pretoria rival the White House as a television stand-up backdrop synonymous with worldwide power. But South Africa – unlike Europe or the US – is perfectly placed to take advantage of a changing world. The so-called “developing world” now has a population of more than four billion, or roughly 75 per cent of the planet’s potential consumers. Africa has 60 per cent of the world’s arable, uncultivated land and, according to Lions on the Move, a recent report by management consultant McKinsey, it is a myth that the continent is dependent on natural resources: only 24 per cent of its GDP comes from them; the wholesale, retail and agriculture sectors account for 25 per cent of Africa’s GDP.

As the largest economy on the continent, South Africa has begun behaving like a heavyweight. This year it was invited by China to join the Bric – the Brazil, Russia, India and China trade partnership. This is likely to bolster foreign investment and entrench the country’s role as the gateway to Africa (although the acronym itself won’t change). A mixed blessing will be the likely further strengthening of the currency, the rand – bad for exports but good for guarding against fuel and food price rises. South Africa is also part of the lesser-known CIVETS (with Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt and Turkey) – less politically influential but presented by many analysts as the next economic boom countries.

To ensure that the Union Buildings become the next iconic landmark of power, Pretoria needs to broaden its diplomatic shoulders too. After a first round on the UN Security Council in 2007, South Africa is back again this year. The country plays an active role in military peacekeeping on the continent and is always quick to offer specialist teams in disaster areas, including Japan. In January it created its own aid agency, the South African Development Partnership Agency, making no bones about its motives. Ayanda Ntsaluba, director general of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, said the move was “not only a ­reflection of altruistic motives, but of how to advance South Africa’s own interests”.

In the first three months of this year, President Jacob Zuma travelled more than in any comparable period in his previous 20 months in power – to France, Mauritania, Ethiopia and Ivory Coast. He has lifted South African foreign policy beyond its usual chestnuts of defending Palestine and defensively upholding “quiet diplomacy’’ in Zimbabwe. “His skills as a negotiator are well known,” says Peter Fabricius, international editor of The Star. “His predecessor Thabo Mbeki was criticised for travelling too much but it was Mbeki who sowed the seeds of the international political prominence South Africa is beginning to enjoy. Our return to the UN Security Council is consistent with our ambition to achieve a permanent seat for Africa. Zuma must have realised the importance of that agenda.”

Key South African politicians and their challenges:

  1. Health minister Aaron Motsoaledi is putting in place a national health insurance scheme. He needs to convince a sceptical private sector that it won’t be a drain on the state.
  2. Finance minister Pravin Gordhan’s New Growth Plan promises five million jobs by 2020 – a key issue for the African National Congress government if it is to avoid popular unrest in townships with unemployment of 40 per cent.
  3. ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema is tasked with promoting a populist socialist agenda while the government gets on with soothing the markets.




Type: Presidential
Date: 19-21 May
Candidates: Incumbent president James Michel has held the job since 2004, and looks likely to keep it (his People’s Progressive Front has governed the archipelago since 1977).
Issues: The economy grew 3.5 per cent in 2010 thanks largely to a booming tourist sector. The only daily paper is owned by the government, and reads like it.
Comment: The government says 60 per cent of its islands are set to fall below rising seas by the end of the century. Despite robust environmental policies there’s only so much it can do.

Testing times


The first set of exams in core academic subjects for Israel’s ultra-orthodox children are due to start this month. In ultra-orthodox schools, which receive partial state funding, religious study is paramount and subjects such as science, maths and English are covered lightly or not at all. An OECD report last year recommended mandating these children to sit the same exams as other students. Shay Piron, a moderate rabbi who is CEO of the Movement for the Advancement of Education in Israel, says it’s a “major step in allowing these children to build a responsible and fulfilling future, instead of confining them to a life of poverty”.

Losing religion


Lebanon’s religious system has long perpetuated sectarian division by granting positions to civil servants based on their beliefs. Young Lebanese are now calling for a change. Marches have taken place since March to demand the secularisation of the state. If the movement succeeds, the government would reflect the country’s current demographics, not those of a bygone era.

Join the club

Abu Dhabi

In March, News International revealed it will launch an Arabic 24-hour news channel, Sky News Arabia, in 2012. It will join a large and growing number of Arabic-language 24-hour news channels including CNN Arabic, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, BBC Arabic and even CCTV Arabic.







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