Secrets in the south

For a nation with a growing international influence, South Africa’s recent behaviour is confusing

The annual UN climate change conference is taking place in Durban until 9 December and South Africa is keen to show the world it can be a leader as well as a listener when it comes to global energy. But it has some rather unseemly domestic problems to attend to first.

The climate change summit may be the present focus for the world’s media in South Africa but another area that has certainly caught the media’s attention is the controversial Protection of State Information Bill. It has just been passed by the lower house of parliament and the president, Jacob Zuma, says the new act is needed to improve the state’s control over national secrets. The opposition, backed by Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and hundreds of anxious journalists, is threatening legal action if Mr Zuma signs the bill into law next year. Many reporters are worried because the new legislation would not include a clause of public interest defence to cover exposé stories unpalatable to public figures. Moreover, journalists could be treated as foreign agents if they were found to be in possession of information that the new bill had been able to redefine as a state secret.

On the surface this seems to be a dangerous bill: whistle-blowing journalism is hard enough in South Africa and the content of this law paints the government in a poor light. State regulation and censorship – to whatever degree – of the press is a scary policy and one that South Africa must denounce and dissuade as publicly as possible. In order to be a global leader you have to be able to show you can manage your domestic and regional affairs first. It seems, however, that at the moment the government in Pretoria has taken a step backwards with this recent bill.

It this type of political misjudgment that provokes scorn and criticism on a global stage. Being provocative is no bad thing itself and South Africa must suggest, debate and dispute to maintain its credibility at the BRICS table where it now has a chair. But when you set yourself against a popular tide you risk looking out-of-touch and wooden. One reaction of governments is to brush off the negative coverage, change course and re-position themselves quickly with the current. Another response is to try to cling stubbornly to your original principles.

Gagging the media will receive no applause from Europe or the US. South Africa’s fellow BRICS Brazil and India will be worried but Russia and China have been accused of similar measures. Yet that is no excuse and South Africa must try as hard as possible to distance itself from such ideas so it can honestly show its aims and ambitions reach further than parochial and oppressive attacks on the media at home.

A fortress made of BRICS

The BRICS countries are building a formidable global power base but there are still cracks in the foundations

With the addition of South Africa to the group late last year, the emerging markets bloc has expanded its reach and capability considerably. It now has fingers in pies cooking in all corners of the globe and each member-state has a rough home ‘region’ where it is the dominate force. Brazil has majority sway over Latin American affairs, China rules the construction industry in Africa and Russia has diplomatic and industrial control throughout the former Soviet Union nations. But the way they influence and react with each other – let alone other countries – is both a cause for celebration and concern.

China is the most successful of the BRICS. It competes with Brazil in Latin America and rivals South Africa throughout Africa, be it through construction contracts in Angola or oil agreements in Sudan. Its conveyor lines drive European businesses back home and its markets are being opened up to foreign firms. It is powerful militarily, diplomatically and economically. China also is skilled at both comforting and irritating rival BRICS. It is happy to let South Africa be a diplomatic voice for Africa while it maintains its industrial strength there. But it has annoyed India by cosying up to Pakistan recently with economic agreements and plans for motorways and railways between the two countries. The transport links would pass through a part of Kashmir that India sees as its own and that Islamabad ceded to Beijing in 1963.

The other powers have also tried to carve out distinct paths across the globe. Brazil is promoting itself as a leader of a new international diplomacy by flexing its negotiation muscles and by engaging with Iran and the Middle East. Russia is still sending rockets to the International Space Station and is arguably the closest of the BRICS to Europe. India is starting to move its weight in South East Asia and has belatedly broken free from its comfortable domestic engine room to engage with African nations and make its nuclear-backed voice heard. South Africa is aiming to make the continent it foots its own, at first through diplomacy (President Jacob Zuma recently met Colonel Gaddafi for talks), and later by possibly challenging China industrially.

There are many sticking points. China and India have a disputed border and Beijing is cross that Delhi lets the Dalai Lama use India as his base-in-exile. Diplomatically, Brazil and South Africa are making an impact on the world stage, while quietly letting China continue to invest in their ‘home’ regions. But while China powers on, Russia is stalling and South Africa relatively inexperienced as the baby of the club.

It is up to Brazil and India to move the BRICS on from a second-class talking-shop to the most important international alliance. An Argentine writing his doctorate on Argentina and Brazil’s economies recently told me that “Brazil is big, very big – too big in fact” and the same could be said for India. They are outgrowing their respective Latin American and sub-continental origins and it is time that they give China a rest from pace-setting. They are certainly all building themselves up quickly and strongly and the West ignores them at its peril.