29 Jul 2013

SA's quest for God, gold and glory in West Africa

Written by  Adekeye Adebajo

No. 265: SA's quest for God, gold and glory in West Africa / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
29 July 2013

As Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui elegantly noted, western imperialism involved God, gold and glory. Missionaries sought to convert Africans from their "pagan" ancestor worship; businesses sought mineral and farming resources; and empire-builders justified the whole enterprise as a civilising mission. In the contemporary case of Pax South Africana, could the expansion of mostly white-led businessmen across the continent be the modern equivalent of a bygone era?

South Africa's relations in West Africa over the past two post-apartheid decades has centred on Nigeria, Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire. These oil-rich states are the subregion's three largest economies and have been South Africa's biggest trading partners in West Africa. In these relationships, "God" represents South Africa's missionary zeal in pursuing human rights and peacemaking in Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire; "gold" represents the expansionist activities of South Africa's corporate sector; and "glory" is represented by South Africa's quest to be seen as a regional leader.

South Africa and Nigeria collectively account for about 30% of Africa's economic might. Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan paid his first state visit to South Africa in May and addressed Parliament. President Jacob Zuma noted during the visit that 73,282 Nigerian tourists visited South Africa last year, spending R720m in the country. Jonathan's visit followed trips by Zuma to Abuja in 2011 and this year. Nigeria, however, opposed the successful bid by South Africa's Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to chair the African Union Commission in July last year.

Historically, the nadir of bilateral relations was reached after the brutal hanging by Nigeria's Sani Abacha of nine environmental activists in 1995. Then president Nelson Mandela sought to sanction Abacha's regime, but found himself diplomatically isolated on the continent. Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo oversaw the "golden age" of this relationship between 1999 and 2007, creating a binational commission, managing African crises, and promoting socioeconomic development. Nigeria became South Africa's largest continental trading partner, a relationship now worth R36bn.

Despite recent diplomatic tension over the expulsion of each other's citizens in a row over "fake" yellow fever certificates, this remains potentially Africa's most strategic partnership. "God", "gold" and "glory" have all defined this relationship.

During the colonial era, Ghana was known as the "Gold Coast". Like South Africa, the country was an African El Dorado. Gold remains Ghana's main export, although oil exports are increasing and cocoa remains important. Since 1960, Ghana has provided 80,000 peacekeepers to more than 30 United Nations and other peacekeeping missions. While South Africa's relationship with Nigeria has been both political and economic, its relations with Ghana have tended to focus on trade. "Gold" has tended to overshadow "God" and "glory". In 1999, Eskom launched the Self-Help Electricity Project, which helped to boost electricity supplies in Ghana's rural areas.

A binational commission was established in 2004. While Ghana imports mostly processed and manufactured goods from South Africa, it exports agricultural and semiprocessed commodities to South Africa. Companies from South Africa have become major players in Ghana's mining, telecommunications, construction, tourism and general trade sectors.

In one of the most successful Pan-African commercial ventures, South Africa's AngloGold acquired a 50% stake in Ghana's Ashanti Goldfields in 2004. The company — the jewel in South Africa's West African crown — is today the world's third-largest gold producer, with 20 operations on four continents. South African brand names also dominate a large mall that opened in Accra in 2008.

After 1994, South Africa identified Côte d'Ivoire as a strategic subregional partner due to its strong economy. A bilateral promotion and protection of investment accord was concluded in 1999, but a military coup by Robert Guei at the end of that year led to a thaw in growing bilateral relations. However, the country would still become South Africa's third-largest bilateral trading partner in West Africa after Nigeria and Ghana by 2001, and South Africa's Randgold and MTN entered the market. Mbeki also sought to mediate the country's civil conflict between 2004 and 2006. Mbeki's mediation, however, came to be perceived by opposition parties as being biased towards President Laurent Gbagbo. West African actors also became increasingly critical and Mbeki stepped down from his role before he was pushed.

Côte d'Ivoire remains politically unstable following parliamentary elections in December 2011 which Gbagbo's party boycotted, even as he was sent to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity.

Despite the country's political fragility, Côte d'Ivoire remains the largest economy in Francophone West Africa, the third-largest market in the subregion after Nigeria and Ghana, and has gold mines, oil and other economic prospects in sectors that South African companies would find attractive. "God" and unfulfilled "glory" have largely defined this relationship, but the allure of "gold" remains visible.

Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution and is co-editor of South Africa in Africa.

This article is part of a series of fortnightly columns written by Adekeye Adebajo for Business Day every other Monday


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