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UJ joint seminar tackles critical issues of global trade and multilateralism

On Wednesday, 7 August 2019, the University of Johannesburg Library at the Auckland Park campus hosted a series of engaging and expert presentations on critical issues of trade policy, touching on recent trade wars and the role to be played by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as well as the global politics of technology.

The 2-hour seminar, titled ‘Trade Wars, WTO Trade Talks & the future of multilateralism: Implications for the Developing South and Africa,’ was co-organised by the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD), the University of Johannesburg SARChI Chair for Industrial Planning, and the Centre for Africa-China Studies. Speakers included Dr Philani Mthembu (Executive Director: IGD), Professor Parminder J Singh (IT for Change, based in India), Professor Tatyana Fletavnoya (MSU, Russia), and Dr. Pedro Alves (University of Campinas).


Professor Fiona Tregenna (Chair: UJ SARChI Industrial Development) gave the welcoming remarks and handed over to the speakers. In his contribution, Dr Philani Mthembu noted that the event, which was in preparation for the BRICS Academic Forum to take place later in the year in Brazil, happened within the context of a ministerial meeting between African leaders and the US Deputy Trade Representative in Abidjan on AGOA (the US-Africa preferential trade agreement through which African goods from certain countries get tariff-free access to the US market). Further, he noted, it was in the wake of the December 2018-released US-Africa Strategy, which has been widely seen as anti-China’s presence in Africa. Dr Mthembu’s presentation further noted that South Africa’s trade was being shaped by changing geographical developments and was itself changing: as of 2018, more South African manufactures were sold to African countries than to countries outside the continent. In terms of the weakening of the WTO in the wake of the increasing bilateral and plurilateral nature of trade, South Africa should look at continental rather than national sovereignty so that the African continent could speak with one voice.

Prof Singh’s presentation was on the political nature of the global digital economy. He especially noted that the digital economy was behind most of what we are seeing between the US and China; the former unnerved by the rise of the latter in technological advancement. Prof Singh further noted that there was a problem with the notion of “free technological flows” as it bred data dependency. In response to this, he noted, industrial policy was needed from the global South. One of the issues, he argued, however, was the fact that the digital economy is a constellation of various industries rather than a single sector. The global South should be anxious, he noted, by recent measures such as Facebook’s new cyptocurrency known as Libra as it would threaten the fiscal sovereignty of states.

In her presentation, Dr Fletavnoya stated that the WTO had registered major achievements, for example in trade dispute settlement and in the abolition of agriculture export subsidies in the developed world, which had historically negatively affected the exports of developing countries by artificially driving up their prices. On the changing nature of the global economy, she noted that developing countries increasingly made up a larger share of global trade. This highlights the need for WTO reform. The seriousness of this, along with the politicised nature of some complaints, was reflected in the lack of a definition of something as contentious as “unfair trade.”

Dr Alves’s presentation was on the oncoming and already present aspects of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). Dr Alves recounted that in the popular discourse, it is regularly argued that there were windows of opportunity in 4IR. For example, 4IR has seen in some sectors a reduction in barriers to entry for entrepreneurs. But 4IR also poses major challenges related to inequality between and within countries. The negative consequences of this were likely to hit the labour market the hardest; leading to Dr Alves rhetorically asking the question of “what are human beings in a world where they cannot do work?” Reflecting on the experience of his country, he noted that Brazil was not moving in right direction for the 4th industrial revolution as it had recently re-aligned its focus towards the US and away from the BRICS association. Further, Brazil had seen the 4IR potentially be a tool for external influence (as seen in the 2018 elections wherein foreign influence was reported to have interfered through perpetrating fake news).

A lively question and answer session followed, with the audience raising a variety of issues, including the issue of how to regard the WTO (previously seen as anti-development in the developing world), the role of the state in development, and follow-up questions on the 4IR and the implications of the issues brought up in the presentations.

Dr David Monyae (Director: Centre for Africa-China Studies), gave the closing remarks and thanked the participants and the audience for attending the seminar and encouraged further reading and engaging with the themes and policies engaged with throughout the course of the seminar.

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