[Blog]

Encountering African political philosophy and geopolitics through TikTok

Mihle Kambula (Guest Blog)

21 April 2024

News outside the mainstream

The first TikTok page belongs to a gentleman named Godesulloh J. Bawa (@vibesestvida). I came across his page about two years ago and I discovered that he has some fascinating takes on African philosophy, Ubuntu, and politics in general. I watch his videos as often as they pop up on my FYP (For You Page) and I look into his videos when I would like to know more about African philosophers and their theories. He is not my typical news source as I prefer listening to the 702 radio station in the morning and reading current affairs from websites like AlJazeera.

His channel is more for leisure because I believe he has valuable insights into the dynamics and political realities of the African continent.

Credibility questions and strategies

In terms of his credibility, I would like to think that his views are valid because he mentioned that he has an African Studies Degree and he shows the books that he read which makes the audience see how his ideas are formed. By doing this, we do not only rely on him but on other credible political African scholars.

I would not use videos as references for my essays per se but I do think he somewhat shapes my thoughts and opinions on some African political theories and realities.  What he talks about is relevant to my course, especially since this term we are doing African Political Thought which covers colonisation/neocolonialism, pan-Africanism, and the black consciousness movement so I would say his content is helpful to a certain extent. Some of my favourite videos of his are labelled “Development,” “How Colonialism preempted modernity in Africa,” and “Afrocracy II.”

The second TikTok I came across more recently by a woman named Amani Dube (@amanidube1). Her content covers geopolitics, macroeconomics, as well as South African current affairs. Since I only discovered her page a couple of months ago I have not fully explored her content but for now I can say that I enjoy the way she presents current affairs. She, like Godesulloh, is not a news source but I watch her TikToks as often as she pops up on my page. She presents the news by green-screening articles from credible resources like Business Day and AlJazeera while summarizing them to make it easier for viewers to understand. Since I am relatively new to her page, I have not yet decided on how credible her content is but from what I’ve seen so far, her content seems quite legitimate as I sometimes refer back to the articles she green-screens. Her content helps provide current affairs while I randomly scroll through my FYP which is especially important for my politics and economics modules. So far, I enjoy that she entertainingly provides current affairs, especially in her most recent video under the “South African Affairs” playlist.

Mihle Kambula is in her second year of study towards a BA in Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg.

TikTok content creators who provide credible news on politics and international relations

By Nnoye Olisa (Guest Blog)

21 April 2024

Credit: Plann/https://www.plannthat.com/how-do-tiktok-stories-work/

In today’s fast-paced world, there are three TikTok channels that I watch for political news. The first one is from Zethu (@zethugqola) and the second one from Dan (@dancorder), both of whom I watch very often. Then a third from Kaitlin (@bykaitlinrawson) whom I don’t watch as often as the others, but when I do come across her videos, I appreciate them because she always inputs her sources and the specific legal documents relating to the situation. She also breaks down the complex academic language into simpler English which many viewers will appreciate.

I cannot give an exact date of when I first encountered these channels, but I have been consuming their content for about 3 years on and off. I have been more frequent in the past 2 years. As South African elections are coming up, more information is spread across the internet and so creators like this pop up on your for you page more often.

I used to listen to the news much more in high school because I would listen to the radio every day during my drive to school. Whereas now, in university, I have a constantly changing schedule so I’m not guaranteed to catch the news on my morning drive. I am on TikTok every single day for hours on end and I am therefore bound to receive my news from the app. Thanks to the algorithm, I don’t necessarily get news videos all the time, but they appear when it is relevant to the current political climate in the country.

The possibility of the channels feeding fake news and strategies for verification

While fake news is a reality to be lived with, when it comes to these creators specifically, I am not worried about them feeding me fake news. They deliver the news in a detailed and concise manner, making it easy for your average citizen to understand, which I think is a very important quality.

Importantly, they also make use of sources and input news articles and photos that concern the topic they are discussing, which you can easily search up and fact check. I appreciate that because it shows that they are sourcing their knowledge from sites they deem credible and not just delivering news without any concrete evidence. I also make sure I follow up and do my own research on the topic after watching their videos.

Still, while I’m not so much worried about them feeding me fake news, I am cautious of bias that may come with the delivery of the news. It is natural for human beings to be biased. Even when I listen to the radio or news reports, depending on the topic, the presenter may show some bias. I make sure to acknowledge the facts and look at the evidence they provide, but also detect the moments when it is just a personal opinion.

Linking TikTok channels and my political science curriculum

I study Politics and Development Studies, two courses which often deal with real-time political issues, especially in the South African/African context. These channels provide insight on domestic and international news and I am able to apply this knowledge to class discussions on real-time issues such as the upcoming South African elections, service delivery, international wars (Russia and Ukraine, Palestine and Israel) and many more. They don’t only focus on real time politics, they can also make videos on history to help people conceptualise the state of the country now and how history affects that. Dan Corder, specifically, made a video discussing the history of Apartheid and its economic impact on black people in South Africa today, which is a very relevant topic that I often discuss in my different lectures in university.

Nnoye Olisa is currently in her second year of studying for a BA Humanities: Politics and International Relations and Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg. She can be found @Nnoye.o.

Iran’s drone attack on Israel: World leader reactions show fault lines in the new Cold War

14 April 2024

The Iranian flag is hung prior to a meeting between Secretary-General António Guterres and Hassan Rouhani, then President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Source: UN Photo/Cia Pak, 18 September 2017.

The unthinkable has happened. Iran’s attack on Israel on the 14th of April, consisting of over 300 drones and missiles, marks an important moment in 21st century international relations. While it is not the beginning of World War III, it is a crucial moment in the Second Cold War. It is the first instance of a regional power taking step towards the risk of interstate war with another in decades. But while an unprecedented escalation, it is not the long-feared Armageddon of a third world war and at most is likely a highpoint in what future historians will write about when they turn to the new Cold War, which has been unfolding since the end of US unipolarity. In this new Cold War exists on one side the US and its NATO and non-NATO allies (what we may term the status quo side); on the other are revisionist countries that have grievances against the US and its regional allies. These include states such as China, Russia, and Iran. In-between is a vast number of countries, with lesser capabilities, whose positions opportunistically alternate depending on the views of their current governments (Argentina, as seen from its BRICS U-turn, being one such example) or what each side has to offer at any given time.

In many ways, the events of today are a proxy for world opinion, and the immediate responses to the Iranian attack tell us who is which side.

Some context

Although the two countries have been in a state of enmity since 1979, they had always avoided direct attacks on one another. Iran has always made use of proxy forces, while Israel has attacked Iranian assets regionally. As with most Middle Eastern implosions, tensions are complex and layered, but often point to sectoral differences and the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Iranian government has strong ties to Hamas, whose attack on Israel on 7 October 2023 has led to the ongoing Israeli actions in the Gaza strip in which tens of thousands have died, leading to the ICJ determining that there is a credible claim of genocide taking place there. The latest escalation, however, comes as a result of 1 April Israeli attack on Iran’s consular office in Damascus, Syria, which resulted in seven casualties.

Status quo side

US President Joe Biden, who has not condemned the 1 April attack by Israel, has made the following statement after Iran’s attack:

“”I just met with my national security team for an update on Iran’s attacks against Israel. Our commitment to Israel’s security against threats from Iran and its proxies is ironclad.””

Other pro-status quo (i.e., pro-NATO, pro-US and pro-Israel) world leaders, including the UK, Germany, France, Argentina, and the Scandinavian countries, have made similar condemnations of Iran’s actions clear. Only one so far, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has made the link between the current Israel-Gaza War. When doing so, he uses the history to lay further blame on Iran.

“Canada unequivocally condemns Iran’s airborne attacks against Israel. We stand with Israel. After supporting Hamas’ brutal Oct. 7 attack, the Iranian regime’s latest actions will further destabilize the region and make lasting peace more difficult. These attacks demonstrate yet again the Iranian regime’s disregard for peace and stability in the region. We support Israel’s right to defend itself and its people from these attacks.”

Revisionist side

On the other hand, countries outside the US/NATO orbit have expressed concern about the attack, but are careful to characterise it as part of the wider regional situation. They also link it to international law, thereby indirectly condemning Israel itself for the attack on Iran’s diplomatic office in Syria on April 1st. Those countries include China, Mexico, Colombia, and Chile. Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro has been the most forthright:

“It was predictable; we’re now in the prelude to World War III precisely when humanity should rebuild its economy towards the rapid goal of decarbonization. The support of the U.S., in practice, for a genocide, has ignited the world. Everyone knows how wars start, no one knows how they end. If only the people of Israel were high enough, like their ancestors, to stop the madness of their ruler. The United Nations must meet urgently and must immediately commit to peace.”

China, a leading state on the side of the ‘revisionist’ camp, has similarly expressed deep concerns, while in the aftermath of the Israeli attack on the consular office it had made the following statement:

“Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China strongly condemns the attack on the Iranian Embassy in Syria. He stressed the inviolability of the security of diplomatic missions and that Iran and Syria’s sovereignty must be respected. This round of escalation is the latest spillover of the Gaza conflict. The pressing need now is to bring an end to the conflict as soon as possible. China calls on parties to the conflict to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2728, put in place an immediate ceasefire and halt the humanitarian crisis. China will continue to view the issue based on its merits, play a constructive role in resolving the Middle East issue and help deescalate the situation. The US in particular needs to play a constructive role.”

Even if later statements follow, the knee-jerk statements by some, and silence by others, are telling in themselves. If it was not clear before, it must be now: we are in a Second Cold War. The attack on Israel has also not yielded any casualties due to that country’s sophisticated Iron Dome defence system. This likely makes Israel eager to retaliate though with no sense of urgency. This, and the geography of the Middle East (see map below), mean that the unofficial war will continue in that mode.

Some unknowns

Map of the Middle East. Source: Flickr.

Why would Iran take the brazen step of risking interstate war by attacking directly on Israeli soil, something it has avoided doing for decades? There are a number of reasons, some more probable than others.

  1. Israel’s attack on Iran’s diplomatic site in Syria has lost Israel the credibility of being a victim in world opinion. April 1, in addition to well-documented war crimes in Gaza, changed its tempo from defence to offence.
  2. Iran has a position of relative security; Israel would need to fly its air force over two countries to make further attacks on Iran, namely Jordan and Iraq. Neither of these countries is an ally of Israel, and both have already closed their airspace, thereby limiting the former’s ability to retaliate immediately.
  3. Iran may have gotten direct or indirect assurances from key players in the revisionist camp for support should there be further retaliation.
  4. Finally, and perhaps most far-fetched, Iran may be approaching nuclear status and therefore acting with unprecedented confidence. In recent months, reports have emerged that the country has reached such capabilities. A Guardian story reports, for example, that “Iran is enriching uranium [at a] high level – very close to the 90% regarded as weapons grade.”

The last point is worth pulling at some more. In March this year, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an agency of the UN tasked with ensuring nuclear energy is only used for civilian purposes, admitted that that the inspectorate had lost “continuity of knowledge about the production and stock of centrifuges, rotors, heavy water and uranium ore concentrate” in Iran. In other words, Iran may be approaching a state of nuclear ambiguity — as Israel has long done for some decades. What this would mean for the new Cold War is yet to be seen. Some literature indicates that the possession of nuclear capabilities makes states less likely to engage in direct conflict or, as in the case of India and Pakistan as well as China and India, when they do, the nuclear factor makes them have regular but low-level skirmishes.

Still, fears of the prospect of nuclear terrorism are real and would add another layer of volatility to an already unstable world.

Is China seizing African infrastructure?

29 March 2024

Yesterday, the 28th of March, the Public Policy and Research Institute of Zimbabwe (PPRIZ) hosted a multistakeholder reference group engagement in South Africa. Following the delivery of a brilliant presentation on China’s strategic goals in South Africa by Dr Emmanuel Matambo (Research Director of the UJ Centre for Africa-China Studies), I had the honour of being the respondent. Matambo’s talk used a three-pronged approach to understanding China’s activities in South Africa: the political, media, and academia. In all three, I found his analysis precise and on point. I was still left optimistic, however; China may be making concerted efforts to influence all three spheres in the country, but South Africa (and South Africans) show an incredible amount of resilience and imperviousness.

A lively question and answer session followed, in which I got to answer a few questions myself. Inevitably, a question was fielded about “China taking over African infrastructure” when they cannot pay their debts – the so-called ‘debt trap.’ Having looked at the claim in some detail a few years ago, I replied that there is no such thing. It’s a classic case of fake news. I share my research into how this lie came about and has caught fire below.

The history of a lie

In December 2018 John Bolton, then US national security adviser and the point-person for Trump’s Africa strategy stated as fact that “China planned to take over some state-owned enterprises if the Zambian government defaulted on its debt” (NBC, 2021, February 17). This was widespread news, and has since remained in the mainstream discourse. One of its original mainstream outlets was an NBC report initially put out in September of 2018. The NBC article itself was relaying an interview with a “consultant” in which he expressed “intentions” that his firm “had seen” regarding China’s appetite for the southern African country’s assets. Importantly, the consultant was not referring to events which had occurred. To quote the NBC article: “Research from business risk consultancy EXX Africa suggested that Chinese firms are seeking control of Zambian mining assets as collateral for potential loan defaults” (NBC, 2018 [updated 2021]). Earlier in 2018 (September), the following headline by African Liberty was widely circulated.

Sample of a fake news headline online. Source: African Liberty, ‘China is taking over Zambia’s National Assets, but the Nightmare is just getting Started for Africa’ by Ibrahim Anoba September 10, 2018.

The article[1] cites its information as stemming from a credible source of information which claimed that a Zambian SOE had already been taken over. That article, however, published in Lusaka Times,[2] in turn only provides as its proof the following: “The respected Africa Confidential has revealed that talks are underway for a Chinese company to takeover power utility ZESCO” (emphasis added).

How misunderstanding becomes policy, and how policy fuels misunderstanding

This evinces a particular feature of fake news: exaggeration. This allows for purveyors to be able to link their stories to a degree of truth. An initial report will introduce a case with careful wording (showing, for example, that plans are at most being “discussed”). This in turn morphs into an appeal to authority and sees tenuous or tentative developments reported as fact.

In this instance, we must locate the root problem of how fake news can find its footing on Africa-China relations: the deliberate paucity of raw data and information from either the African or Chinese governments, or the FOCAC process itself, leaves an information gap which can only be closed by speculation and exaggeration. Both sides should take measures to be transparent and open.


[1] Anoba, Ibrahim. 2018 (September 10). ‘China is taking over Zambia’s National Assets, but the Nightmare is just getting Started for Africa’ African Liberty. URL: https://www.africanliberty.org/2018/09/10/china-is-taking-over-zambia-national-assets-but-the-nightmare-is-just-starting-for-africa/.

[2] Lusaka Times. 2018 (September 4). ‘China to take over ZESCO – Africa Confidential,’ Lusaka Times. URL:  https://www.lusakatimes.com/2018/09/04/china-to-take-over-zesco-africa-confidential/.

Could South Africa elect an independent president like Senegal’s Bassirou Faye?

28 March 2024

In Africa’s ‘year of elections’ – in which more than a third of the continent is scheduled to head to the polls – the Republic of Senegal has delivered the first widely positive and celebrated results. On the 25th of March, the country elected its youngest president to date. Bassirou Diomaye Faye, born in 1980, obtained 54% of the vote on his 44th birthday. With no run-off election required, he will be sworn in to the presidency on the 2nd of April. The incumbent, President Macky Sall, has congratulated Faye and the Senegalese people and pledged his cooperation in the transfer of power.

Senegal’s president-elect Bassirou Faye. Wikemedia Commons.

Faye’s journey is one for the history books. In addition to his youth, his victory is all the more impressive when we consider that this is his first electoral contest and, moreover, that he was running as an independent. His party — African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF) — was barred from participating in the 2024 election and he therefore ran as an independent.

South Africa is holding its own general elections on the 29th of May and will be having independents on the ballot for the first time. Following the Independent Electoral Commission’s released lists on the 27th of March, we know that there are 16 candidates without a political party affiliation.

In light of this, could the country see an independent candidate emerge as president as well? The short answer is no, but the reason(s) why are still interesting and worth briefly reviewing.

The main reason is the difference in the two country’s electoral systems. While Senegal has a presidential electoral system, South Africa has a parliamentary system. This means that while Faye ran for president, the South African candidates will be running to be elected into parliament, which will in turn elect a president. In section 86, the country’s 1996 constitution provides the following process for the election of a president:

(1) At its first sitting after its election, and whenever necessary to fill a vacancy, the
National Assembly must elect a woman or a man from among its members to be the
President.
(2) The Chief Justice must preside over the election of the President, or designate
another judge to do so. The procedure set out in Part A of Schedule 3 applies to the
election of the President.
(3) An election to fill a vacancy in the office of President must be held at a time and on
a date determined by the Chief Justice, but not more than 30 days after the vacancy
occurs.

Given South Africa’s party-based political system, the following would have to ensue for an independent to be elected as president:

  • An independent candidate would have to be elected into parliament;
  • There would have to be no single party with a large enough majority to nominate and elect a president;
  • There would have to be no agreement among the parties about which whose candidate should be nominated for president; and
  • A large enough group of parties or parliamentarians would have to agree on a single independent candidate to be nominated and elected president.

The independent candidate would then have the difficult task of forming a cabinet. Given that they would have no long list of parliamentarians readily available to them, it would be extremely challenging for them to do what the Constitution requires in section 91(1) in that they (as President):

(a) must select the Deputy President from among the members of the National Assembly;
(b) may select any number of Ministers from among the members of the Assembly; and
(c) may select no more than two Ministers from outside the Assembly.

Clearly the odds are heavily against an independent emerging as president. Were they to do so, they would also live under constant threat of a no-confidence vote due to having no reliable MPs of their own.

But an independent minister?

In the event that there is a coalition situation, we can nonetheless expect the possibility of at least one independent parliamentarian being appointed as a minister in order to provide votes for the ruling party or ruling coalition.

Why did the US allow the Gaza ceasefire resolution to go ahead?

26 March 2024

“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” 

So said Winston Churchill, referring to the US’s penchant to drag its feet on major international issues. Then he was referring to Washington’s late entry into the Second World War, but the same words may best sum up its slowly (very slowly) shifting stance on the Gaza situation when, finally, on the 25th of March, America did not veto yet another UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire. While many have criticised the US representative to the UN for only ‘abstaining,’ it should be sufficiently clear: an American abstention is essentially a ‘yes’ vote. The resolution would not have passed had America, or any of the other four permanent members, voted ‘no.’ That is how it has been for the past several months.

But why have things gone differently now?

Politics of course.

On Friday 22 March Politico ran a long piece on the changing relationship between US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the article, written by seasoned journalist Michael Hirsh and running under the title ‘From ‘I Love You’ to ‘Asshole’: How Joe Gave Up on Bibi,’ we delve into a schism between two men who have been friends for some four decades, who have often disagreed. Now, however, their worldviews, and more importantly their political incentives, are are odds one another; Biden wants to win re-election in November, and Netanyahu wants to prolong the campaign in order to avoid being forced to step down once ‘normalcy’ is resumed in Israeli (and Israeli politics). And in such a situation, Biden has chosen to finally align himself with world, and increasingly Democratic Party, opinion.

Every Democratic US president since Bill Clinton in the 1990s has had to contend with the difficult personality of Netanyahu. Sometimes the tiffs have seeped from proper diplomatic channels and into the public domain: consider the Israeli PM’s address to the US Congress against the wishes of President Obama, or the hot mic moment when the latter was caught speaking candidly to his French counterpart about Netanyahu’s dishonesty.

Netanyahu as a liability

Israel’s brutally heavy-handed campaign in Gaza has caught the collective attention of the world. For America and Biden, it takes place in an election year. The last thing the incumbent needs is a crisis in the Middle East under his watch. South Africa’s successful case in the International Court of Justice, by credibly giving the label of genocide to Israeli actions in Gaza, has made it difficult to carry on with business as usual.

Yet Israel (and its right to ‘defend’ itself) is still a vote-winning issue in the US and no president is likely to even contemplate abandoning the alliance. While in ordinary times no American president would dare turn their metaphorical back, even on symbolic issues such as UN votes, it is also clear that in this instance Netanyahu has become a liability. He is unpopular at home, for reasons to do with the war, corruption charges, the emergence of some evidence that he has helped prop up Hamas in order to personally remain relevant, his settlement policy (which reportedly took attention from Gaza and allowed Hamas to breach the barricade-like border between the two territories) and he is barely hanging on to a far-right coalition, having only cobbled together 23% of the vote in the 2022 elections. As a sign of how lowly Netanyahu now ranks in Biden’s opinion, in early March the US administration hosted the former’s main rival, the former defence minister and member of war cabinet (without portfolio) Benny Gantz, when he meet with Vice President Kamala Harris.

Allowing the UNSC resolution to go ahead is a slap on the wrist in the hopes that Netanyahu’s government will turn around and be more pliable.

Will this result in a permanent break in US-Israeli relations? Not at all. Israel is already becoming isolated on the international stage. Nor does America wish for a severing of its close ties to Israel — only its current leader. The US abstention is an important but inconsequential development for the Washington-Tel Aviv relationship. It is a symptom of how far right, and far removed, Netanyahu and his Likud party and allies are from everyone else. Both Biden and Netanyahu may well be waiting for the other to be removed so that they may work with a more agreeable side. The first key date to watch for is November: when either Biden or former president Donald Trump will emerge victorious. Trump, who famously recognised Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, is unlikely to press on Netanyahu as Biden seems to be starting to do, while another Israeli PM would seek to distance themselves from the genocide-accused person and legacy of Netanyahu.

Learn to love presidential powers – a reply to Stephen Grootes and Trevor Manuel

27 March 2024

Co-written with constitutional scholar Dan Mafora. Forthcoming in the Daily Maverick.

In his March 25th piece for the Daily Maverick, Stephen Grootes makes the case for reducing the powers of the South African president, particularly the president’s powers of appointment. He points to comments made recently by Trevor Manuel at The Gathering, who similarly takes issue with the president’s authority to make appointments to key public offices. The former minister even makes the suggestion that the president’s current powers may have been an oversight and ought to be revisited. He asks whether such powers are “consonant with the spirit of our Constitution?” He neglects the well-documented history of the painstaking efforts that went into writing this globally admired document. Its ingenuity does not stop with the Bill of Rights; it extends to the less-explored sections dealing with executive powers, which are read all too briefly and dismissively – a tendency encouraged by South African political scientists and constitutional lawyers for whom executive power is a bogeyman; the harbinger of tyranny. Manuel also neglects his own party’s history – the ANC long contemplated and debated what kind of constitution the country should have after liberation. Two recent bestsellers – Odendaal’s Dear Comrade President and Mafora’s Capture in the Court – offer just such an overview.

Both men seem to be in agreement, then, that these powers should be curtailed, with Grootes, in his article, even suggesting that “There are measures citizens can take to try to weaken the powers of the President.” (Although he does not point to any concrete ones). His article plays out scenarios which may lead to such a “weakened” presidency, including the seeming inevitability of coalition governments. Here’s one: “If a president believes they are about to leave office or the party in power is about to be replaced, they might well agree to a reduction of their power.”

Of course, the article assumes that there is a desire for a “weak” president in South Africa. Such an assumption would be based on findings contrary to every bit of evidence regarding the way South Africans engage with the state and the expectations they have towards it when they vote. South Africans principally vote because they want government to make a difference to their socio-economic conditions. That is hard to do when the leader of the country would have their hands tied.

At its core, the Grootes-Manuel argument misunderstands or disregards the democratic process: the voting population elects a parliament, which in turn nominates and elects a president. This is not the ideal system of a directly elected president (which Grootes punts and with which we actually agree). And, yes, South Africans may not directly elect their own leader, but they always know who is the presidential ‘candidate’ of their party of choice – his face is on the ballot paper. Some, though not all, also peruse through their party’s manifestos, and thus have a sense of what it is they are picking. The awkward and untimely transitions (from Mbeki to Zuma, and Zuma to Ramaphosa), which Grootes cites, have taken place towards the end of the presidents’ tenures and are thus are no good justification for as broad-sweeping a change as he suggests. (Grootes must also be aware that the leaders of the US and the UK, which he holds up as models, are not any more directly elected than South Africa’s presidents. Otherwise Hillary Clinton would have won in 2016, not Donald Trump.)

With every major problem facing the country, there is an expectation by the public that government, led by the president, will take measures to remedy it. Grootes acknowledges this, but does not take a system-wide view to realise that a president weakened in making appointments, in turn weakens the population’s ability to hold the president, or their party, to account. The reason we are even contemplating coalitions now is because the population, though it does not directly elect its president and parliamentarians, has seen through the failings of the current dominant party and may well punish them at the polls on the 29th of May. This route — more cumbersome and demanding — is what the Constitution requires.

Curtailing the president’s powers would be the constitutional equivalent of cutting off our collective nose to spite our national face. True, as the article points out, there has been state capture and corruption with a certain former president and/or his appointees being the prime suspects. However, the delegation of the process of appointment to an imaginary unaccountable, nameless and faceless blob carries its own risks, which may be far worse than those brought by the present. We can think of two, but even they should suffice. Firstly, the process of delegated appointments of key figures is likely to result in its own temptations for shady backroom dealing no matter who does it. And the point which the article seems to neglect is this: who will appoint the appointers? It would likely still ultimately point to the president, or someone who ultimately answers to the president. Would he/she then not influence the process? Secondly, the appointments would likely result in a situation where the president would always have the indirectly appointed figures for a scapegoat when his/her administration fails to deliver. What we currently have is as good as it gets. It may carry risks, but the alternatives are far worse.

In these pages, Ndzendze has made the argument for a broader interpretation of Chapter 5 of our Constitution by giving presidents and their deputies their own ministerial portfolios in order to ensure transparency and accountability. Such a scheme, requiring no change to the Constitution, would ensure that the public more directly sees through the head of their national government and makes a determination as to whether they are an effective president or not. It also would not give them any powers that they are not already in possession of. A president already carries more power than a minister. Should we indeed find ourselves in a situation where parties that have not been in power at a national level find themselves with the presidency, can have a new president would take a ‘crash course’ in government by being simultaneously president and minister of a chosen portfolio. Elsewhere, it has been has shown that this has led to very good results in other countries.

Imposing additional (and unnecessary) procedural hurdles on the exercise of executive power, which is meant to be the most agile of the three kinds of constitutional powers, would likely worsen governance and not improve it. So, Messers Grootes and Manuel, learn to love all of our Constitution, including the president’s powers.

Ndzendze and Mafora write in their personal capacities.

Possible motives for Moscow terrorist attack

24 March 2024

On the evening of 22 March 2024, four gunmen shot up a concert in Moscow, immediately killing 60 and injuring at least another 100. The death toll has since climbed and sits at 113 as many are in critical condition. With much of the world’s attention having been on Russia’s war with Ukraine, this attack came out of the apparent blue. Speculation soon emerged about who might be responsible.

When, within hours, the Afghanistan-based branch of the Islamic State (IS), known as IS-Khorasan Province (ISPK), claimed responsibility many were surprised. In today’s climate of Russia vs the West, ‘standard’ explanations of terrorists doing terrorism no longer seem to suffice. Many on Twitter/X took to conspiracy theories about who could be “really” behind the attacks; the names of Israel, Ukraine and the US were among those floated. Naturally.

Subsequent publication of close range footage of the shooting by the ISKP seems to be further concrete evidence that the group is indeed responsible for the attack.

Why, then, did ISKP attack Russia? The reasons are speculative at this point, but an Al Jazeera article makes the case for at least three:

1. Russian alignment with the Syrian government, which is an enemy of ISIS.
2. Perception that Russian is “oppressing Muslims” in Chechnya and other regions of the Russian Federation.
3. Russia’s fight against ISIS in Syria and in Africa, through the Wagner Group.

It is also worth mentioning that the ISKP has also attacked Iran, and US troops in the past. It did also attack the Russian Embassy in Afghanistan in 2022.

This attack serves as a reminder that the re-emergence of interstate war is not mutually exclusive with the possibility of a sustained and even growing pattern of violence by non-state actors. Moreover, this incident challenges our emerging worldview of a new cold war in which there is, on one side, the West and, on the other, every other country outside its alliance system. America, Iran and Russia have all been targets of the same grouping within a short space of time of each other, whilst the US has been at loggerheads with both of the latter countries as well. This points to the emergence of an order that is not just anarchic but also chaotic: one in which there will be multiple fronts to multiple conflicts — between states, as well as with non-state actors, who will in turn be fighting against each other.

Worse than Oil? The Geopolitics of the Banana

by Bhaso Ndzendze

bndzendze@uj.ac.za

Modern Diplomacy

11 March 2018

Photo: Banana Forest/Pxhere

Attracting encroachments to national sovereignty by rapacious Washington-connected multinational corporations and the meddling attentions of their powerful home country; stunting reform and economic development at every turn; breeding economic dependency; firmly controlled by foreign companies and giving little beneficiation to the country of production; upending and undermining political institutions; and not even sustainable.

These are ringing accusations which bring to mind one natural resource – oil. Certainly not the banana. This is somewhat understandable; oil more readily lends itself to the vilification touted in these bleak and cynical claims, and it has been the subject of visible conflict, with allegedly oil-motivated American interludes into Kuwait, Iraq and Libya being all too well known and well televised.

Nonetheless, it is one of the blights of modern political economic analysis, including those with a bent for “resource curse” theory, that in their discussion of the interaction of forces that have resulted in the paradoxical plights of some resource-rich countries, they tend to overlook one of the most important culprits, or perhaps better understood as a catalyst in a larger political process; the innocuous banana. And yet, perhaps just as much as oil, this energy source has been the fons et origo of many social, political and economic malaise in many underdeveloped countries who possess them.

This inevitable interaction with politics is only more obvious when we consider the economic significance of this product; bananas are the world’s fourth most consumed food crop, after rice, wheat and corn, with some 350 billion bananas consumed every year. Figures of this magnitude rarely rack up by market forces alone and nominally hint at a set of vested political and economic hands at work.

In this brief article, a slice of the long and storied history of the politically-derived banana’s impact on the economies of numerous states which were in possession of it, particularly regarding Latin America, the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa through the prism of the unholy alliances between big corporations and dictators, as well as the battle for market access.

Unholy Alliances: Dictators and Corporations

United Fruit

The South American country of Ecuador rarely finds itself on the top 3 list of any global rankings. Yet it occupies that very spot when it comes to world production of the banana. Some 18% of the bananas traded worldwide during the 1970s and 1980s originated from Ecuador, and this number expanded to 30% in the 1990s. Banana production and trade in Ecuador gives direct employment to an estimated 380 000 people.This tells something about the history and geography of this fruit on two particular points; why Ecuador and why now? The road to this present-day reality is an interesting and entangled one through which we gain insights into the nature of globalization as a performative process and its structures with implications far beyond Latin America.

In order to flourish, banana plants require rich soil, combined with 9 to 12 months of sunshine along with constant, heavy rains of to 80 to 200 inches a year. This is a demand level unmatchable by artificial irrigation if the given plantation is to compensate for the production costs and still have the ability to sell at the low price for which the banana is known. This gives us an important clue as to the Ecuadorian presence among the top producers in the world. But that is only a partial aspect on a bigger picture.

For one, how did the bananas get to Latin America, when they are said to be native to the tropics of South and Southeast Asia, and are likely to have been first domesticated in Papua New Guinea? And how did one particular variety of this fruit, the Cavendish, conquer the world market when there are thousands all across the world? The answer to these questions are political and are to be found in the early half of the nineteenth century.

The mass production of the banana such as we know today commenced specifically in the year 1834 and saw an explosion in the late 1880s and from the beginning reaped political consequences. Prior to the 1870s most of the land that bananas were grown on in the Caribbean had been previously used to grow sugar, and indeed before then bananas were virtually unknown in the United States. But this quickly changed and just 30 years later, Americans (then totaling at 70 million people) were consuming over 16 million bunches a year. Like all rapid expansions and enormous profits, this came at a high cost, and perhaps none bore it more than the producing populations.

The odyssey started in 1871 and, indicative of those twists of fate with which history is so littered, not with anything to do with agriculture but the construction of a railroad in Costa Rica overseen by an ambitious 23 years-old Minor Keith, born in New York. The mega project sees hundreds lose their lives, including the lives of Keith’s two brothers. Bur Mr. Keith is undaunted. While building the railroad in Costa Rica he was also hatching a far grander plan. As construction made progress, he ordered the planting of bananas on the land easements to either side of the tracks. The bananas flourished and once the railroad was brought to completion it was possible to economically transport the bananas to Americans who were beginning to acquire a taste for the exotic fruit. By the next decade, Keith owned three banana companies. Keith then joined up with a Cape Cod sailor, Lorenzo Baker, and a Boston businessman, Andrew Preston. The three raised the necessary capital to establish the Boston Fruit Company. By 1899, the Boston Fruit Company and the United Fruit Company (UFCO) emerged – and in their wake formed the largest banana company in the world, with plantations all over Latin America and the Caribbean, including Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama and Santo Domingo. The company also owned 112 miles of railroad linking the plantations with ports. To complete their Charter company-like set up, and in order to protect their interests, they also owned some eleven steamships, known as the Great White Fleet and an additional 30 other ships under lease.

In 1901, Guatemalan dictator, Manuel Estrada Cabrera granted to UFCO the exclusive right to transport postal mail between Guatemala and the United States. Thus came UFCO’s first entry into Guatemala in whose wake the country would be held custody to a fruit company. Ruled by a conservative dictator who would be a puppet to the UFCO, Keith judged Guatemala to have “an ideal investment climate”. He formed the Guatemalan Railroad Company as a subsidiary of UFCO and capitalized it at $40-million. Other countries in Central and South America also fell prey to the UFCO, which they called or “El Pulpo” (the Octopus), but no other state felt the weight of the UFCO more than Guatemala.

Why was Guatemala such an ideal investment climate for the UFCO? “Guatemala was chosen as the site for the company’s earliest development activities,” a former United Fruit executive once explained, “because at the time we entered Central America, Guatemala’s government was the region’s weakest, most corrupt and most pliable.” In Guatemala, United Fruit gained control of virtually all means of transport and communications. United Fruit charged a tariff on every item of freight that moved in and out of the country via Puerto Barrios. As if that were not enough, the company also managed to exempt itself from virtually all taxes in Guatemala for 99 years.

In 1944, the people of Guatemala overthrew the right-wing dictator then in power, Jorge Ubico, and held their first ever true elections. The man they elected president was Dr. Juan Jose Arevalo, a socialist. A new constitution was drawn up, partly based on the American version. At this time, in the highly class-divided Guatemala, only 2.2% of the population owned over 70% of the country’s land. Only 10% of the land was available for 90% of the population, most of whom were native Indians.

Most of the land held by the large landowners was unused. Jacobo Arbenz who succeeded Arevalo in another free election continued the reform process. Arbenz proposed to redistribute some of the unused land and make it available for the 90% to farm. This greatly unsettled the UFCO; the United Fruit was one of the big holders of unused land in Guatemala. The pressure mounted heavily against the UFCO and finally the company made its pleas and called on officials in the US government, including President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (whose former New York law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, was a representative of the company), saying that Guatemala had turned communist and was susceptible to Soviet Union influence.

Fortunately for the fruit conglomerate, almost every major American official involved had a family or business connection to the company itself (Allen Dulles, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, had served on UFCO’s board of trustees while Ed Whitman, the company’s top public relations officer, was married to Ann Whitman, President Eisenhower’s private secretary). Thus with great zeal, the U.S. State Department and United Fruit, enlisting the talents of the PR genius Edward Bernays (a nephew of the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud), embarked on a major public relations campaign to convince the American people and the rest of the US government that Guatemala was a Soviet “satellite”.

Upon Bernays’ suggestion, the company also arranged and offered to pay for the expenses of journalists who traveled to Guatemala to learn United Fruit’s side of the story, and some of the biggest outlets (and particularly The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune) published accounts favorable to the UFCO.

The campaign was a resounding success and in 1954, with consent manufactured, the CIA engineered a coup, code-named “Operation PBSUCCESS”. The CIA set up a clandestine radio station to carry propaganda, jammed all Guatemalan stations, and hired skilled American pilots to bomb strategic points in Guatemala City. The U.S. replaced the democratically-elected government of Guatemala with another right-wing dictator that would again bend to UFCO’s will. The propaganda machine, meanwhile, portrayed the operation to the American audience as the removal of an unpopular leader and the ushering in of liberty and democracy; this has an eerily familiarity when looked at through the prism of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Cuyamel Fruit

After his firm, Hubbard-Zemurray, experienced much success importing bananas from Latin and Central America and selling them in in New Orleans, Samuel Zemurray went to the Central American republic of Honduras to expand his company into banana production in the year 1910. Honduras was deemed well-suited for growing bananas due to its proximity to the equator. These were the seeds of what would eventuate into Cuyamel.

But Cuyamel did not enter unchartered territory and the turf was already spoken for. The main player seeking monopoly status in the Honduras banana market besides was Vaccaro Brothers and Company. But both the Vaccaro firm and Cuyamel were eclipsed by the much larger United Fruit Company. Before United Fruit entered Honduras as a direct producer in 1910, the firm participated in the Honduras market by proxy through investments in both Zemurray’s and Vaccaro Brothers’ companies. Before United developed plantations of its own in the cities of Trujillo and Tela, it owned 60% of Cuyamel and 50% of Vaccaro. Even though the three companies were competitive against each other, they maintained some respective distance, and even pursued joint efforts in advertising and increasing banana agricultural outputs in Honduras.

Nevertheless, competitiveness seeps through. Zemurray had played an active role in Honduran politics since he first arrived in the country. In 1910, the administration of President Miguel R. Dávila had given the Vaccaro Brothers’ Company land for railroad construction and prohibited any other companies from building a competing railroad within 12 miles of the Vaccaro line. This had long displeased Zemurray, and he detested the Dávila government, having provided encouragement and money to a failed coup in 1908 against Dávila.

These concessions by the Dávila regime to Vaccaro further enrage Zemurray. He makes a concerted effort now to remove the regime, and has an accomplice in the person of former President Manuel Bonilla. Zemurray supplied weapons and transportation for Bonilla to launch a coup against Dávila. President Dávila fled, and Bonilla once again assumed the presidency of the nation, owing in large part to the direct intervention of Zemurray.

Shortly before Bonilla ascended to the presidency, Zemurray in 1911 transformed his company from Hubbard-Zemurray into Cuyamel Fruit Company. He acquired 5,000 acres of land for agriculture along the Cuyamel River in the northwestern extremity of Honduras, near the Guatemalan border. The firm took its new name either from this river or from the town of Cuyamel nearby. As a repayment for his support, Bonilla also granted Zemurray a concession to build a railroad between the town of Cuyamel, by the coast, and Veracruz, in the interior.

There were no more coups in the country through the end of the decade, but Zemurray’s Cuyamel Fruit was in fierce competition with Vaccaro and United. Further, Cuyamel’s development of a previously empty strip of land along the Guatemala-Honduras border almost led to an outbreak of war between the two states, but this was halted by US mediation. This incident of near-war strained relations between pro-Honduras Cuyamel and pro-Guatemala United, and this tension would not fully cool off until the two companies became one in 1929, when following the October crash of international financial markets, Zemurray sold Cuyamel to United Fruit in exchange for stock and retired, making UFCO the giant discussed in prior sections.

Banana Wars: The Battle for a Market

Africa’s banana market is a paradoxical reality. In the lowland of the Congo basin, farmers grow a greater diversity of bananas than anywhere in the world. In countries such as Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda per capita consumption has been estimated at 99 pounds per year, the highest in the world. Uganda itself is the second-largest producer of bananas in the world after India. It is, however, one of the smallest exporters, the crops being used mostly for domestic consumption.

West African countries produce nearly all of Africa’s banana exports. Production in this region has grown rapidly over the past 15 years, now accounting for around 4% of the world banana trade. The vast majority of these bananas are sold in Europe, mainly in France and the UK, where an estimated 2.5 billion tonnes of bananas are peeled annually. But the African access raises questions and a myriad of issues about the nature of the international political economy than meets the eye.

Since 1975, African and Caribbean countries had had a quota of bananas to import into the EU market, enabling them to sell to Europe as many as they wanted to support. The official reasoning for this was that the European Union (then known as the European Community) hoped, that this would enable the economies of such developing countries to grow independently, without depending on overseas aid. Some economists, however, question the logic behind this.

To begin with, if the EU is concerned with the development of these countries and to free markets, it makes no economic sense to continue to subsidize their agricultural lobby with up to 50-billion euros per year. Secondly, the EU would remove barriers to a vast array of agricultural products from Africa – as it stands only bananas can be sold into the EU market without barriers to entry, and indeed disincentives are provided as seen in the imposition of 30% tariffs to unprocessed coffee but 60% to processed (that is job-creating) coffee from Africa.

Secondly, banana and pineapple production in Africa are dominated by two American multinational companies Compagnie Fruitière/Dole (a descendent of the Cuyamel company dealt with above) and Del Monte. In any case, US multinationals which control the Latin American banana crop hold 67% of the EU market and the US itself does not export bananas to Europe. This perhaps displays the extent to which the removal of barriers to access are motivated by US-EU alliance and not developmental concerns regarding Africa. The Caribbean is a different story, however.

Despite this, however, the US filed a complaint against the EU for further with the World Trade Organization (WTO) and, in 1997, won. The EU was instructed to alter its rules as a result. The chief outcome of this deal had been to protect banana farmers in the Caribbean from competition from Latin America, whose bananas are cheaper because they are grown on large­scale, mechanised plantations run by giant US­based corporations.

After the WTO ruling, the US government continued to argue that free trade in bananas had not been restored, while the EU argue it has changed its rules. The US has then imposed a retaliatory range of 100% import duties on European products, “encompassing everything from Scottish cashmere to French cheese” as the Guardian then put it.

The US government was allegedly pressurised by powerful US multinational companies which dominate the Latin American banana industry. “The Bill Clinton administration took the “banana wars” to the WTO within 24 hours of Chiquita Brands, a powerful, previously Republican­supporting banana multinational, making a $500,000 donation to the Democratic Party” according to journalist Patrick Barkham.

The banana wars came to a conclusion only in 2009 with an agreement between the EU and Latin American countries. The December 2009 agreement involved the EU reducing its tariffs on imported bananas from 176 euros ($224; £140) per tonne to 114 euros per tonne within eight years.

The Future and Sustainability of the Banana: A Challenge of Globalization

Like oil, the banana is not only problematic in its production and sale, but it may also not have much of a future; at least not as we know it. Researchers have declared the Cavendish to be potentially unsustainable and at risk of “imminent death.” This threat stems from the Panama disease; a deadly root fungus from the island of Taiwan. And since all Cavendishes are clones, if the fungus can kill one banana shrub, it can kill them all.

Of course the Panama disease is nothing new. It was identified at least as early as the 1950s, when it wiped out the Cavendish’s predecessor, known as the ‘Gros Michel’, or Big Mike. When the Gros Michel banana succumbed to the fungus, the Cavendish was found to be immune, at least until the fungus mutated and started its attack all over again. Starting in the 1990s, the Panama fungus began to work its way across Asia and Africa once again. The oceans have proven effective barriers for now, “but when someone with the fungus on their shoe can cross an ocean in a few hours,” National Geographic magazine warns “oceans provide little protection.”

The history of the banana has been one of deep politicisation, therefore; implicating it in the unfavourable destinies of multitudes. But the banana, and for that matter oil itself, is merely one among many problematic resources to reap these economic histories and contemporary consequences. Indeed its trysts with dictators, lobbyists and tariffs at the behest of seemingly malevolent multinationals says more about the politicised nature of international trade than the resource in question. Indeed very few resources, if at all, could undergo similar examinations and emerge unscathed to some degree or another.

Does a Smoother Silk Road Lie Ahead for Africa?

By: Dr David Monyae & Bhaso Ndzendze

11 Nov. 2017

For its part, Beijing has largely kept to its declared vision of a non- hegemonic stance, regardless of the growing number of detractors seeking to assert otherwise. Last month`s CPC National Congress, in which Xi Jinping was granted another five-year term as president, has gone a long way in confirming, in the very least, the multilateral ambitions China has for the East Asian region and the world – and by definition, for Africa.

What are the implications carried by the outcomes of the congress for the relationship between Africa and China? And how best can Africa seek to situate the continent`s interests in the comprehensive vision articulated by China in the seven-day congress? In his report to 2 238 CPC delegates from all over China, the president, who is also party general-secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission, spoke under the theme of `Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.`

In his three-and-a-half hour speech, in which he reportedly had to pause 72 times on account of applause, he unpacked the grand WHAT is clear after the 19th Communist Party of China (CPC) National Congress is that it is no longer business as usual. For the past 15 to 20 years, there has been an ongoing narrative among foreign policy and inter- national political economy circles that China is poised and willing to project its increasingly growing power on to the global arena. For its part, Beijing has largely kept to its declared vision of a non- hegemonic stance, regardless of the growing number of detractors seeking to assert otherwise.

Last month`s CPC National Congress, in which Xi Jinping was granted another five-year term as president, has gone a long way in confirming, in the very least, the multilateral ambitions China has for the East Asian region and the world – and by definition, for Africa. What are the implications carried by the outcomes of the congress for the relationship between Africa and China? And how best can Africa seek to situate the continent`s interests in the comprehensive vision articulated by China in the seven-day congress? In his report to 2 238 CPC delegates from all over China, the president, who is also party general-secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission, spoke under the theme of `Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.` In his three-and-a-half hour speech, in which he reportedly had to pause 72 times on account of applause, he unpacked the grand vision for the next 15 years.

During and immediately after the congress, many messages of congratulation came from across the world (about 900 letters and messages from 164 countries), including from African leaders of political parties and government officials. South African President Jacob Zuma was among the well-wishers, and Zimbabwean finance minister Ignatius Chombo, on behalf of Zanu-PF, of which he is secretary, stated that `we are convinced that the decisions to be adopted at the 19th CPC National Congress will positively press forward world peace and economic development not only for the Chinese nation but for the world at large`. As China is Africa`s premier trading partner and number-one creditor, such careful observation and laudatory sentiments from the continent ought to have been expected.

For the congress has come at a time when China has entered into a substantial number of commercial, security and aid agreements with Africa – most notably through the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (Focac). Particularly glaring is the promise of the One Belt, One Road initiative in which a number of African countries have got on board (and whose long-term commercial and economic implications South Africa, as regional and continental leader, ought to seriously put under intense study and strike a balance in consideration of its own continental aims). During Richard Nixon`s visit to Beijing in 1972, the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, was asked about the impact of the French Revolution. Speaking of an event that took place nearly two centuries previously, vision for the next 15 years.

As China is Africa`s premier trading partner and number-one creditor, such careful observation and laudatory sentiments from the continent ought to have been expected. For the congress has come at a time when China has entered into a substantial number of commercial, security and aid agreements with Africa – most notably through the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (Focac).

Particularly glaring is the promise of the One Belt, One Road initiative in which a number of African countries have got on board (and whose long-term commercial and economic implications South Africa, as regional and continental leader, ought to seriously put under intense study and strike a balance in consideration of its own continental aims). During Richard Nixon`s visit to Beijing in 1972, the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, was asked about the impact of the French Revolution. Speaking of an event that took place nearly two centuries previously, vision for the next 15 years. During and immediately after the congress, many messages of congratulation came from across the world (about 900 letters and messages from 164 countries), including from African leaders of political parties and government officials.

South African President Jacob Zuma was among the well-wishers, and Zimbabwean finance minister Ignatius Chombo, on behalf of Zanu-PF, of which he is secretary, stated that `we are convinced that the decisions to be adopted at the 19th CPC National Congress will positively press forward world peace and economic development not only for the Chinese nation but for the world at large`.

During Richard Nixon`s visit to Beijing in 1972, the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, was asked about the impact of the French Revolution. Speaking of an event that took place nearly two centuries previously, Zhou famously commented that it was `too early to say`; if the Chinese have a long-range view of history, then they have an equally long view of the future. Looking at the report by President Xi, China is bent on becoming an even bigger player on the international arena; indeed, the president has staked his legacy on this. Achieving this requires fledging friendships across the international arena; and in this Africa is indispensable.

Indeed while not mentioned by name, President Xi might as well have had the more than 50 states which compose the African continent, which was the subject Zhou famously commented that it was `too early to say`; if the Chinese have a long-range view of history, then they have an equally long view of the future. Looking at the report by President Xi, China is bent on becoming an even bigger player on the international arena; indeed, the president has staked his legacy on this. Achieving this requires fledging friendships across the international arena; and in this Africa is indispensable. Indeed while not mentioned by name, President Xi might as well have had the more than 50 states which compose the African continent, which was the subject CHINA WILL WORK TO STRENGTHEN SOLIDARITY AND CO-OPERATION of his international visit after coming into office in 2012: `China will, guided by the principle of upholding justice while pursuing shared interests and the principle of sincerity, real results, affinity, and good faith, work to strengthen solidarity and co-operation with other developing countries`.

The question of bringing these pledges into fruition is one ultimately of African agency on the world stage. In terms of ensuring that the developmental potential of China`s grand plans are meaningful for Africa, it is incumbent upon the continent itself to take advantage of and build upon what China has to offer, and not just in terms of material proposals, but also the monumental shift that China is bringing about to the global arena. With this shift comes the long- awaited prospect of a multilateral world in which Africa is offered `alternatives` and can make of them what it wills, on the basis of African national interest. After all, Africa is no longer interested in revitalising the pre-1989-esque tug-of-war politics.

Neither Beijing nor Washington is entirely good or bad; rather, aspects of their visions are to be weighed, and Africa ought to situate and adapt and negotiate the visions which best fit into the long-arch aims of the continent. It then bears reiteration that African agency is the matter at issue: how best can Africa act collectively to extract actual and sustainable gains from the opportunity offered by China, both as a developmental partner and as a diversifying force on the international stage? Africa should seek to piggyback on neither, but should rather seek to take its rightful place in this context of multilateralism, and increasingly democratising global institutions.

Africa is too significant and has too immense a position to be a mere recipient of offers from either side at this juncture. And moreover, the congress has offered Africa the unique opportunity to penetrate and obtain from China itself what vision China is operating under, and consequently has the opportunity to also put forward a measured response to such a vision, especially going into the next Focac meeting in Beijing in 2018.

After all, Africa is no longer interested in revitalising the pre-1989-esque tug-of-war politics. Neither Beijing nor Washington is entirely good or bad; rather, aspects of their visions are to be weighed, and Africa ought to situate and adapt and negotiate the visions which best fit into the long-arch aims of the continent. It then bears reiteration that African agency is the matter at issue: how best can Africa act collectively to extract actual and sustainable gains from the opportunity offered by China, both as a developmental partner and as a diversifying force on the international stage? Africa should seek to piggyback on neither, but should rather seek to take its rightful place in this context of multilateralism, and increasingly democratising global institutions.

At the moment African states, despite the existence of multiple regional and continental fora, act too bilaterally and there is a lack of co-ordination in third party appraisal among the states – the grand effect being one of cascaded sets of interests rather than a single and unified voice, with the advantages that come with that. Africa`s posture in dealing with Beijing ought to be one that is deeply informed about China – its workings, its visions, both immediate and long-term – and the congress has afforded Africa substantial means through which to realise such goals, as China has articulated its orientation and publicised it for Africa to make the most of.

A principal article of faith in international relations is that change is wedded on to the global system. Indeed, it is no longer business as usual. Africa`s plans for itself and its future cannot remain unaffected by the express aims articulated in the congress, and to that end Africa will need to re-look at a number of strategies, including Agenda 2063, which remains only aspirational at this point, and go beyond the strictures imposed by it, and in the end funnel out a clearer and updated set of goals, and (equally crucial) the means through which it will achieve those goals. Through painstaking analyses of the congress and much reading between the lines, Africa has a substantial vantage point from which to actuate its own visions – both immediate and long-term.

Monyae is a political analyst and co-director at the University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute, and Ndzendze is research assistant at the same institute.

Originally published in The Sunday Independent