Zuma on South Africa’s growing influence

11 July 2011

Mahlamba Ndlopfu, the official residence of South Africa’s head of state in Pretoria, is on a secluded hillside covered with Jacaranda trees. There was little tranquility, however, in Jacob Zuma’s path to the presidency. In the long struggle against apartheid, he was an underground member of the military wing of the African National Congress and spent 10 years in prison on Robben Island. Before arriving at Mahlamba Ndlopfu in 2009, Zuma, sixty-nine, known as a populist who can get a crowd going, won a divisive internal battle with then president Thabo Mbeki and also fended off corruption charges. With Zuma at the helm, South Africa has played a growing role in global affairs even as it continues to struggle with poverty and inequality after the white-rule era. The country hosted the 2010 Fifa World Cup with great success. South Africa has a prominent voice as a non-permanent member of the United National Security Council. Zuma has sought to play a more influential part in African affairs, as illustrated by his mediation in the Libyan crisis; he has been sharply critical of Nato’s military intervention and the indictment of Muammar Gaddafi by the International Criminal Court. But perhaps the most notable development is South Africa’s admission into BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa; Zuma sees the grouping of nations as the sharp end of the spear defending the interests of the developing world. Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Zuma at Mahlamba Ndlopfu on 26 May 2011. CAIRO REVIEW: South Africa has come a long way. How does it feel to be president today? PRESIDENT ZUMA: It feels a great responsibility. That is what is always a bigger challenge. Being a president of this county at this time, it imposes a very huge responsibility to ensure that South Africa moves forward, that if we are given this honor to be president at one time, you must help South Africa to move forward, to leave it better than what it was. That is quite a huge responsibility. CAIRO REVIEW: How did South Africa’s involvement in BRICS come about? PRESIDENT ZUMA: It came about partly because of the changing landscape of the globe. As you know, the emerging economies, the developing countries, have become quite powerful and have tried also to organize themselves. South Africa – besides BRICS, we are also in IBSA [the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum], we are also playing our role in the continent, as well as in the United Nations. You know that we have also been part of the group of countries that began to attend the G-8 [Group of Eight] for a number of years before the coming into being of the G-20 [Group of Twenty], of which we are now a member. The changing world. The feeling of more interaction with South-South kind of countries. There is a Group of 77. [Among] the countries that are sort of emerging economies, you could begin to look to those as kind of leading, if you take China, India, Brazil, Russia also has emerged, and South Africa, and the continent of Africa. A discussion began to say, look, if there is BRIC, why can’t South Africa be there? Therefore the discussion began between South Africa and members of BRIC. But what was also important from our point of view was, with the changing world, if we have a grouping like BRIC without Africa, it is not fully represented, and therefore there is a need for South Africa to become a member in a sense that would also make Africa be represented and complete the jigsaw puzzle. After some discussions, everybody realized the need. If today in the world you are part of the globe, you cannot be disconnected from the African continent, which is currently one of the regions of the world which is fast growing. Of course if you are in Africa, you then look at the most economically developed country, and South Africa in a sense fits very well into that. It was after discussions, and of course there was an agreement and finally South Africa was accepted as a member of BRICS, which I think adds value to BRICS itself. South Africa becomes an important entry point to the continent of Africa. CAIRO REVIEW: What is the purpose of BRICS, and what is South Africa’s national interest in being a member? PRESIDENT ZUMA: Firstly, BRICS is important because as you know [in the] changing world there are issues that have been raised globally. For an example, the need to increase the representation of the developing countries in the leading institutions—financial institutions, for an example, whether you talk about World Bank or IMF [International Monetary Fund]. Of course, the UN has been there before. There is a lot of talk about the Security Council itself. That means the old world has a very organized collective voice which in the majority of cases is in defense of their own positions. They wouldn’t want to open up for a long time. And these emerging economies began to be the sharper point of the voice of the developing countries. And therefore BRICS becomes the really cutting edge of that voice. Once you are in BRICS, you are in fact seeing an alternative voice in terms of the global issues. Today, nobody could ignore the BRICS members in terms of the affairs of the world. For an example, almost all the BRICS members are part of the G-20. That tells you therefore the importance in terms of the global balance; [it is] very important that this particular grouping becomes very strong. Back to the interests of the nation: this is very important for South Africa because these are big economies which are growing. They are not shrinking like the old world, which today is not growing very fast. Therefore for South Africa to be part of BRICS means we have an opportunity to participate almost at the equal level with these big economies, which means our companies, our businesses – we have better kinds of agreements that take into account we belong to the same grouping. And therefore the opportunities are more open, and that will translate to developments within the national situation. South African companies will have access to the economies of these countries. That is an advantage we have at the national level. CAIRO REVIEW: Should BRICS form a common vision and agenda? PRESIDENT ZUMA: That would be one of the logical things. I think it is important that because we share common values, that’s the reason we are together. We also come from the developing countries with almost a similar kind of position in relation to the developed world. We share a lot of views together. I think even if it is not on every issue but on some of the major issues, we will certainly come together. It also gives us an opportunity to be able to exchange views among ourselves on the issues that affect the globe today. Bear in mind, BRICS represents almost half of the global population. Therefore you are talking about whether you are looking in terms of the population, in terms of the market, in terms of the economy itself; you are talking about a big kind of thing, which have similar kinds of similar relationships and similar backgrounds. I think therefore on a number of other issues we will certainly come together and have one voice and agree on certain issues that affect the developing countries, for an example. It doesn’t mean that on every other issue, because of course whilst we are a grouping, we are countries that are different. But I think we’ll certainly be gravitating to forming a common view on a number of global issues. CAIRO REVIEW: Is there a conscious effort among BRICS nations to stay in touch on a “BRICS position”? PRESIDENT ZUMA: We are meeting and discussing a number of issues – our relations, etc. We have not necessarily developed the fact that, let us caucus on every other issue. But there are issues that we talk about. For an example, in the last meeting, which by the way was [South Africa’s] first meeting, we talked about the problems in the Arab world, particularly in Libya. We talked about the UN resolutions which were taken by the Security Council, and we share the same common views about those kinds of issues. So I wouldn’t say we have established that as a kind of routine thing, but I am certain that with time, the issues will determine how we actually act on those kinds of issues. CAIRO REVIEW: Will the issues tend to be more economic than political? PRESIDENT ZUMA: I think all the issues. You cannot separate economics from politics. CAIRO REVIEW: Critics ask how you reconcile shared economic interests with the contrast in other values, like human rights: South Africa is a champion of human rights, while China has a deficit. PRESIDENT ZUMA: No, I don’t think that is a problem really. It can’t be. It can’t be a problem when South Africa is part of that space. It can’t be. You will agree with me that one [country], which has been described as a leading economy of the world, and a leading democracy, the United States of America, has very close relations economically with China. That issue has not arisen. I don’t think that issue really arises. China is today one of the biggest economies, and it links with a number of other countries. If anything, I think that as it happens in the world, we will always influence one another on values and human rights. We stand on our human rights. We have a good record on that and believe in it, very much so. But it has not become an obstacle. As I say, other big countries who believe as we do have a very close relationship with China. CAIRO REVIEW: Have BRICS countries caucused on the election of a new IMF chief? PRESIDENT ZUMA: We have not caucused yet. I am in the process of trying to talk to my colleagues about that issue because I think it is an important issue, given the change I talked about. I’m in the process of trying to talk to my colleagues. CAIRO REVIEW: One of your ministers [Trevor Manuel, who is also a former finance minister] has been mentioned as a possible candidate for that position. PRESIDENT ZUMA: That is something we’d certainly like to see. It is consistent with our view that we need transformation. We need the developing world to be at the decision-making levels. I think the time has come. CAIRO REVIEW: In the need for global governance reform, how far should it go? What really needs to be done? PRESIDENT ZUMA: The global system at the moment is lopsided. Global governing institutions were established back in the 1940s, when the world, in terms of countries, was totally different. Even the number of members of the United Nations was different. It was at the end of the World War, the world was entering the Cold War, which has been there for a long time. The Cold War has ended, many countries are there. There are issues that should be taken into account – that some of the rules and regulations that were then laid down, other counties were not there. Therefore, given the change that has taken place in the world, you need the representation to be different. You cannot have, for example, some other regions of the world who are not represented at the decision-making; it doesn’t make good sense. Decisions that are taken affect everybody else. If we take the United Nations, we see no reason why the Security Council should remain the preserve of the few in terms of the permanent membership. People say, “We all believe in democracy”. You can’t be the champion of democracy but at the same time be so conservative in practice. It doesn’t make good sense. You can’t say all others should be democratic, but we have some preserve that you must not touch. It doesn’t make good sense. We believe that the Security Council should be opened up. In other words, regions of the world should be represented in the same way. You have one region that dominates, the European region. Why that should be the case? It doesn’t make good sense. These are the kind of views we are putting across. As well as financial institutions. Many of the financial decisions that are taken affect the globe, and some regions are developing, and many of these decisions affect these regions. Why can’t they be part of the decision-making? That is most important. CAIRO REVIEW: How hard will you push for that? What kind of resistance are you meeting from the Western countries? PRESIDENT ZUMA: We have been pushing very hard, very hard. There was great resistance at the beginning. I think at the moment there is the beginning of appreciating our point. They are beginning to talk about some quotas – that yes, some opening should be made in some institutions. Even in the Security Council the debate is very strong. The very fact that today we have non-permanent members coming in is in itself an appreciation of what we are talking about. We say that we should really complete everything. So we will push hard because we think if we live in the globe, that everything should be fair, that there should be equality, that democracy should be the system, then that must be practiced. We couldn’t just talk about it and then not practice it where it must be practiced. CAIRO REVIEW: Can you talk about South Africa’s relationship with China? How deep is that going to go? PRESIDENT ZUMA: It will go very deep. We have established very good relations with China. We have signed an important comprehensive agreement with China which opens up the kind of economic relations between the two countries. And we have historical ties with them. We are working very, very hard to ensure that we take advantage of Chinese markets. They also take advantage of our market, which includes the continent. So we would want them to go even deeper. There is nothing strange about it. Because all countries who have had an opportunity to do so have done so. The economic relation between China and the United States of America is very deep and very huge. So there is nothing out of the ordinary in what we are doing. CAIRO REVIEW: Are you concerned that China, as a very big country with a high demand for natural resources and scouring the world for markets, could overwhelm a member of BRICS that does not have such economic clout? PRESIDENT ZUMA: Not at all. We don’t have that problem. If anything, we think [in] the relationship with China we take advantage of this market to satisfy our own needs. It should also be looked at from that point of view: that our coming closer to China helps to address our own problems. It is not a one [way] street kind of relationship. We have had relations with big countries, as big as the United States. There was no complaint that they were swamping our economy. Not at all. I think it is a similar kind of thing. Relations are open between countries. Countries know their own limitations. But they also know their needs, as we do. As we go to this interaction, we have that in mind. And we of course have an experience that we have had relationships with other big countries in the past. It is not as if it is the first time we go to a relationship of this nature. CAIRO REVIEW: As you say, another big country is the United States. How does South Africa see the US role in the world today? Friend? Foe? Constructive? Or not? With respect to the developing world, Africa, South Africa? PRESIDENT ZUMA: I wouldn’t want to describe the United States like answering a question, “Is it an enemy or a friend?” We have had very friendly relations with the United States, and it has been a view in the continent here that the United States could have done even more than it has done up until now. But I think that relations have been growing positively, and I think we are very close with President Obama. I think Obama’s understanding of the challenges of the African continent is very positive. He has in fact increased the interaction between the United States and us. We are very happy with it, but there could even be more. And we are working for that, that we have got more very positive relations. So we regard the United States – the United States as you know it is one of the leading countries in the world, and we believe that its emphasis on good relationships and peace and stability in the world is an important role that the United States plays. And of course we believe that role should be played collectively by all counties. I think from our point of view, we have been with the United States on the G-8, G-20, and the interaction has been very useful. We are interacting on any other issues, including global issues like climate change, etc. We believe that time has come that no matter how big the country, the area of collective work, working together, is a thing that we should embrace, more than one dominating others. So at the moment, the United States is not standing wanting to dominate. It wants working together, and we think that is a positive thing. CAIRO REVIEW: What more would you like to see? PRESIDENT ZUMA: Generally. In economic development, in investment, direct foreign investment, we think it could increase. They could do more business with South Africa than they are at the moment. CAIRO REVIEW: Are you satisfied as an African leader that the US plays a constructive role in places like the Middle East, relations with China, global governance? PRESIDENT ZUMA: Generally, I have no quarrel with what the United States is doing at the moment. I think they are playing their role positively. We participate together in these institutions and groupings. It is playing a very positive role. I have absolutely no quarrel. They are ready to participate and help. But I must indicate that it is not just the United States only. The manner in which I think at the moment we are handling the Libyan question, unfortunately, is beginning to introduce a feeling that the AU [African Union] is not regarded seriously by the developed counties. Here is a situation where the AU has the most advanced proposal on the table to bring about peace and stability, [but] there doesn’t seem to be a good connection, so the behavior so far is, people are beginning to see that kind of behavior as not taking the African Union seriously. That’s the only thing I can talk about at the moment. Given the fact that Libya is on the African continent and therefore the AU should really be playing a prominent role. But that does not affect only the United States. It affects all the forces that are combined in terms of how they are looking at the solution in Libya. I hope we are not going to have more of such kind of experiences. CAIRO REVIEW: South Africa, and especially the ANC, have had a long relationship with the Gadhafi regime. How has it felt as an ally of Gadhafi in the past to view the revolution in Libya? On your upcoming mission to Libya, what do you see as a possible outcome? Could that include giving the leader of Libya political asylum in South Africa? PRESIDENT ZUMA: Firstly, the Libyan situation is not a situation that is isolated from what was happening in the Arab world. As you know, Tunisia had a problem, Egypt and other countries, which is borne out of how the governance has been. It came to Libya. So I don’t think we should look at Libya that it just emerged from Libya. There was no such thing. It was a trend. What became different in Libya was the manner in which the Libyan government responded to the issue, which then led to really serious violence – to almost a civil war. We believe as democrats that people have a right to call for a fair system of government. I think the problem that we had in Libya is that they have got a system that is not like any other kind of government system. And the people in Libya said, “No, we now need a kind of different government.” You can’t say the people are wrong. Once the issue is raised, it needed to be attended to, not confronted with violence. That was our difference there. As we have arrived, where people are saying we now need a government which is representative, and in Libya you would understand the situation. Because whatever system that had been introduced in Libya, people have reached a point that they are saying, “We don’t like it, we think we should have a normal kind of system.” You can’t say people are wrong. We never took sides. We always said if people are making a demand, any, any government must listen to its people. Once there was violence, then we had a problem. That’s why we are part of the United Nations resolutions: because we saw the killings that immediately emerged and said you cannot allow it. If people say they want change, listen to them and see what logic they are bringing. Are they asking for change when there is a proper system that satisfies everybody else? Particularly if they have got a very different kind of system that is not practiced anywhere else in the world. You must look at yourself and say there must be something wrong. That did not happen. So our view was that once there was a conflict, let the Libyan people have an opportunity to discuss the matter and solve their problems. We have said – and on this we are together with all AU members – we did not want any military intervention from outside, because it is not going to help us. We remain with that position. The AU taking that position then established the high-level committee to then go and help. That’s the committee that South Africa belongs to, which leads to your second question. I’m going to Libya partly because I belong to that committee, and partly because there has been a view that we need to do extraordinary things to help the situation in Libya. I am going to Libya – this will be for the second time since this [crisis] – went as a collective, I am now going there as a country. As you know, we met with the rebels. We met both sides. Therefore, we have contact with both sides. We have felt that it is necessary to find different ways. So I am going to Libya to also pursue the discussion of saying what solution could be found. CAIRO REVIEW: Do you feel you have a way of persuading Colonel Gadhafi to accept an agreement? PRESIDENT ZUMA: Like anyone, once there is a problem you have to find a way to communicate. I know President Gadhafi very well. We have had a lot of discussion before about matters in the continent. I think it is quite possible that we could discuss and perhaps look at the situation differently, because I am keen to know how he is looking at the situation. We have a view that as the AU we shall be representing: that there must be a ceasefire. We presented this to him, and he accepted it. And that after the ceasefire, there must be a process of negotiations. So that to solve the problem, we stop the killings. It’s important, and we are putting exactly the same point on the rebels. That the fighting is not going to help; we need a solution. The AU must be part of that solution because this is a member of the AU. These are the matters we raise. I cannot foretell what’s going to happen, but knowing him I think we would be able to discuss something that could perhaps help move towards resolving the problem. CAIRO REVIEW: Can you imagine a solution that leaves Gadhafi in power in Libya? PRESIDENT ZUMA: I wouldn’t want to imagine. I think it would not be right for me to imagine whether he should remain or not. That’s a decision of the Libyan people, which would include himself. He is a Libyan himself. I don’t think I’d want to prejudge the situation. CAIRO REVIEW: Seen from Pretoria, can you be optimistic about the future of Africa? You have crises in Libya, Zimbabwe, Congo, Ivory Coast, Sudan, and illiteracy, HIV/Aids. So many problems. PRESIDENT ZUMA: I am very optimistic about Africa. I am very optimistic. I think we have moved from a more difficult situation. We are in a better situation today than what we have been probably fifteen or twenty years ago. We work together more than we did before. I think there are more democratic counties today than there were before. There are more elections in the continent than there were before. We have, for an example, a system that checks how things are going in the continent, a peer review mechanism that has been established, and more countries are joining to become part of it, more countries are being reviewed how they are doing their systems. That thing was not there before. We have dealt with a number of pockets of conflicts in the continent. Today you could count them with one hand and not even finish on one hand, and in the past there were conflicts all over. There is more agreement on the continent today to move forward, democratically and otherwise. We have for an example discouraged the question of coups in Africa. No general in the continent today can think he could wake up and conduct a coup and become a president. That does not work. Those that have made attempts have had to immediately call elections, because this is the stand that Africa has taken. All of that must tell you one must be optimistic about Africa. CAIRO REVIEW: Have you been disappointed that South Africa has not had more influence in the crisis over President Mugabe’s rule in Zimbabwe? PRESIDENT ZUMA: I think to some degree we have never thought it would reach this point. We thought by this time we would have resolved the situation in Zimbabwe. But of course each country has its own dynamics. I think we have made progress in Zimbabwe, progress that has been as a result being a neighbour, of being part of SADC [Southern Africa Development Community], working together. We work with Zimbabweans on a number of issues and we have been making progress. Each time SADC meets, we give a report that marks the progress. It has been difficult, though, because the dynamics there did not allow our interventions in terms of helping facilitate things to move quicker. But yes, we are hopeful that we will resolve the matters in Zimbabwe. CAIRO REVIEW: How does the Arab revolution look from South Africa? PRESIDENT ZUMA: I think the relations will remain normal. I don’t think they will change. What has happened is actually a change in terms of how those people have been governed. I think the protests have been against what they call autocratic government. They want more openness, they want freedom, they want democracy. I think that should be respected. Because people who are governed are people. If they say we want to have a different system of government, they should. Therefore, whatever happened in the changes, South Africa will remain a country with good relations with the counties in the Arab world. I’m hopeful that these protests will really bring about more openness in terms of governance there, that it will help introduce democracy, so that it could have serious regular elections, and with the participation of the people. CAIRO REVIEW: What role can South Africa play in resolving the question of Iran’s nuclear program? You are presently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, and your country country was the first to dismantle all of its nuclear weapons. PRESIDENT ZUMA: We have played a role. Firstly, from the point of view of being a member of the United Nations, we have been participating in those debates. But we have also played the role in terms of bilateral [relations], talking to Iran. I think to some degree, not a bigger role than anybody else, to some degree given our experience of nuclear things, as well as our relations, as well as our being a member of the United Nations and a non-permanent member of the Security Council, we think there is a role that we could play. We are not saying it is a decisive one, but there is a role that we can play, we believe. CAIRO REVIEW: President Mandela, President Mbeki, and now President Zuma – how do you distinguish the different presidencies? PRESIDENT ZUMA: [Cairo Review Interview continued: click here] This interview was first published by The Cairo Review of Global Affairs