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Africa, especially SA, needs to be wary of ‘foreign friends’ meddling in domestic affairs

In Politics, there are decades in which nothing happens, and then there are weeks in which decades happen. So Vladimir Lenin is said to have uttered upon the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, which gave rise to the Soviet Union, writes UJ’s Dr David Monyae.

Dr David Monyae, the Co-Director of the University Of Johannesburg (UJ) Confucius Institute (UJCI), penned an opinion piece entitled ” Africa, especially SA, needs to be wary of ‘foreign friends’ meddling in domestic affairs “, published on The Star, 2 November 2017.

This year, 2017, is the 100th since that powerful moment, but for its part the Russian government is intentionally downplaying this momentous occasion in world history whose full import is still being unpacked to this day, and about whom detractors and defenders are in general agreement was a seismic shift in global affairs. The reason for this quietness is arguably due to the return to legality (and therefore to immense power) by the ultra-conservative Russian Orthodox Church. The Kremlin, it would appear, is not keen on upsetting the pulpit. This shift remains under-covered, however – being weighed down by numerous other intrigues in which Russia finds itself.

Last week, the South African government got embroiled in yet another scandal; this time, it related to Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly having his senior staff meet President Jacob Zuma prior to the latest cabinet reshuffle.

News of foreign interference in African politics usually of the Western variety. The fact that this time it was Moscow which has allegedly done the meddling is a symptom of something much larger and tells the story of a world order in transit; and of a need for caution, even among our international “friends” (if such timeless and unconditional cordiality could exist among states in the first place).

Axiomatically, and history’s verdict on this is clear, world order and its structure is not given and static; stability is merely a chimera. But that “changingness” is wedded into global order does not explain that shifts in global economic and financial power create unfamiliar circumstances, and unfamiliar shifts create risks.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the rising/ recovering powers, Europe and Japan, complained of destabilising economic impulses emanating from the US. Thus this source of economic risk has been around for a long time, although it continues to mutate.

It is because of this that Africa finds itself in an increasingly multipolar world; a world characterised by competing and layered global interests. The emerging global order, we should bear in mind, is unevenly hegemonic. Indeed, hegemonic power does not operate in a uniform manner across the globe. There is no denying, above all, the often acrimonious differences among European and US governments (just think of spats over Brexit, the American complaint over the picking up of the Nato bill, for example) and, in turn, the growing challenge from China and, increasingly, Russia.

As it stands, the world finds itself with a weakened America with a huge portion of whose elite (including the former candidate Hillary Clinton as detailed in her election cycle memoir What Happened), media and grassroots Democratic Party supporters bent on blaming Russia for the November 2016 presidential electoral outcome (and without a hint of irony in shunning interference while having interfered in many developing countries’ electoral processes for decades), and for some quarters bent on reversing the greatest economic outcome of the post-War order: a powerful China with whom the US has a trade deficit as a direct outcome of its cherished idea of free trade. The fundamentals that brought US dominance about are crumbling and there is clear dissolution of the moral high ground that was held and maintained by the US following 1945 and once more after the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s.

Africa needs to observe these arguments closely; allegations of Russian espionage and outside influence have a direct impact on Africa. First, issues such as diplomatic freezes, US-Russia and EU-Russia sanctions and espionage are reminiscent of the Cold War, and African states might find themselves caught in the middle. We are leading up to the 2018 Fifa World Cup with Putin claiming that efforts to remove Sepp Blatter from Fifa’s presidency were done as punishment for his selection of Russia to host the 2018 tournament.

In this we are reminded of the 1980 and 1984 Olympic boycotts by the US and the Soviet Union on one another, respectively. For Africa, this is worrying to the extent that the continent could be the site of a tug-of-war of international politics in the form of interference and “investigations”. No investigations could be truly objective due to the vested interests that the US, and even Britain, have in precipitating a Russian collapse on the continent, and also due to a lack of alternatives that could take place in the wake of a discredited Russia. Rather, there should be domestic solutions to these issues, be they to do with land, corruption, or leadership.

Second, if it can be said with seriousness and be pursued by the US Congress and the powerful FBI that the US election may have been influenced by a foreign entity, it would appear the Western form of democracy and institutional arrangements, which have been the subject of much self-praise and self-abrogation by the US, are not as durable as they are made to seem when being exported to African states and elsewhere (America, which had entered World War I to make “the world safe for democracy” would seem to be at a loss for this on its home-front, if the Democrats are to be believed). There needs to be a fresher look at how democracy can be made to fit the African context and be intrusion-proof, in relation to America, Russia, France and others.

Beyond that, the US is no longer in the business of nation-building. US cuts to its contribution of the UN budget, a fact which has always shone as an example of US commitment to the broader world (if only with vested national interests as a corollary), are bound to affect Africa directly (peacekeeping alone has had to endure around $600 million in financial reversals as of the second quarter of 2017), likewise withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and a rise of explicit militarism under the banner of “America First” are symptoms of a US which has forfeited its leadership role in the world.

American militarism is worrying from an African standpoint as it is indicative of a lack of long-term orientation in resolving terrorism and civil insurgencies and leaving a stronger continent with strong nations. Such issues cannot be resolved through the barrel of the gun but must be approached through social development and creating an opportunity cost for youths who would otherwise be lured by terrorist groups. Rather, there needs to be comprehensive approaches; terrorism and civil insurgencies are a security issue, but they are also an economic and a social issue, and cracking down on either is the stuff of nation-building, failing which a vicious violence-poverty-violence-poverty cycle is fed into.

In light of these issues, African countries should be sure to maintain a wary scepticism towards Washington and Moscow. Russia is a self-interested state, run by a self-interested oligarchy which has a less than perfect track record for respect of other states’ territorial integrity, and the same can be said of the US (with a history of meddling going as far back as the 19th century in Spanish Cuba all the way to modern-day Yemen and Iraq).

For South Africa, in as much as international co-operation (whether in Brics or Agoa) is necessary, there must be an aversion to internationalising domestic issues; there is no external saviour in these matters. Leading up to the ANC elective conference, international interests must not determine the course of the process.

Dr David Monyae is co-director at the Johannesburg Confucius Institute. This article is based on a conference paper he presented in Moscow last month.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg

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