Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba has prominently and visibly featured as the states in South America and the Caribbean with whom South Africa has particularly strong diplomatic relationships extending to political and economic linkages. These states border the Pacific Ocean, Caribbean Sea and South Atlantic Ocean respectively, and therefore their considerations are increasingly influenced by optimising their blue economies within the Hydrosphere.
This expedition to the Chile, Colombia and Uruguay, however, brings another dimension to the South African approach towards Latin America. These 3 bilateral relationships should be viewed as part of South Africa’s South-South Cooperation Strategy applied to the regions encompassing Latin America, and within the larger context of the African-Latin American approximation towards a Trans-Atlantic Forum.
The dimensions discussed here will briefly reflect on the establishment of official diplomatic relations, the current trade relationship between South Africa and the respective states, what is on the agenda for the visit and what to expect from the visit.
Background of Diplomatic Establishment
The longest standing relationship that South Africa shares with the respective states is the Uruguayan relationship that was formally established with the opening of the South African Embassy in Montevideo in April 1968.
During the post-Apartheid regimes of Mandela and Mbeki, the appointment of the non-resident Ambassador AX Nkomo in 1997, based in Argentina, saw relations between South Africa and Uruguay grow considerably that includes high-level reciprocal visits such as: the 1998 visit to South Africa by the late Uruguayan Vice-President, Dr Hugo Batalla; the October 1998 visit to Uruguay by the late South African Minister of Foreign Affairs Alfred Nzo; the October 1997 official visit to South Africa by the Uruguayan Minister of Transport; and most recently the August 2000 visit to Uruguay by Deputy Minister Aziz Pahad. Additionally, the Uruguayan presence with South Africa in the ATLASUR, has served to strengthen Uruguayan and South African security and related political linkages and understanding.
This relationship therefore may be setting in a new cast after undergoing a remoulding phase, as Uruguay comes to grips with the full nature of the post-Apartheid South African state. This is not just due to the relationship existing through the Apartheid era and the changes that it would have had to undergo, but also viewing the Uruguay- South Africa relationship in the context of global Southern solidarity, regional communities such as Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Mercosul, and the trade between the two states.
South Africa’s relations with Chile, also has a character of reconfiguration as it similarly extends to include the Apartheid era. South Africa, at first conducted from Buenos Aires, Argentina, until an embassy was formally opened in Santiago in March 1974. The relationship however never formally normalised until the appointment of a Chilean Ambassador to South Africa in October 1991. During the post-1994 period, this relationship has assumed a more formalized structure for advancing joint interests through the Joint Consultative Mechanism (JCM).
The latest relationship to be formalised is the one of South Africa and Colombia, as full relations were established on 12 April 1994, with a Colombian embassy being opened in Pretoria in April 1995.
What about the Trade Relations?
The reason why South African trade and economic interests are receiving and should receive increased focus, can be found in the understanding that South African diplomats need to increasingly pursue economic interests through economic diplomacy. This is also a necessary focus due to the region of regional groupings such as Mercosul and the newly formed Pacific Alliance. This has particular relevance for the resolution of South Africa’s domestic challenges of inequality, unemployment and poverty.
A report produced, Uruguay XXI – Sudáfrica perfil país (Semptember 2013), states that the prominent sectors of trade between Uruguay and South Africa revolve around: food and processing; beverages and tobacco; wood and paper; manufacturing of substances, chemicals and rubber and plastic products; and textiles and leather. It also refers to the major Uruguayan exports to South Africa as being: Bovine fat, “Siguiéndole” Rice and dairy products. The major South African exports to Uruguay are: raw hides and leather, chemicals and plastics and rubber. From 2012 to 2014, the trade balance between the states became more equal, as South Africa was at a deficit of R373551.156 in 2012, which improved to a deficit of R 110146.439 by 2014.
According to the SARS Bilateral Trade document for 2014, the major South African exports to Chile were: Iron and Steel products, machinery, chemicals and aircraft and other vehicles. The major exports from Chile to South Africa include chemicals, mineral products and vegetables. From 2012 to 2014, South Africa’s trade deficit with Chile grew from R 278 723.541 in 2012 to R 735301.055 in 2014, more than doubling a period of two years. The importance of this relationship is also advanced and conferred by a Joint Trade and Investment Committee that tends to all trade-related matters between the two states.
Colombia’s main exports to South Africa in 2014 were mineral products, iron and steel products and vegetables. On the other hand, South Africa’s main exports to Colombia during the same period were Iron and steel products, aircraft and other vehicles and vessels, and chemicals. From 2012 to 2014, South Africa’s trade deficitwith Colombia grew, from R 843 365.473 in 2012 to R 2057713.833 in 2014.
Unsurprisingly, most of South Africa’s trade in goods with the respective states are transported by oceanic vessels. This connects the fundamental aspects of the trade routes, port docking and other related processes between these states and South Africa and this further validates the current focus placed on ‘Operation Phakisa’ aimed at the optimal and sustainable utilisation and protection of South Africa’s marine resources.
So then, what is on the agenda?
The department (DIRCO) has placed 3 key objectives on the agenda, for the official state visit to the three respective states. Firstly, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the establishment of a Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) with Uruguay has been signed. Secondly, the 5th JCM of South Africa and Chile will take place, and it will be conducted at the Deputy Ministerial Level. Lastly, Deputy Minister Landers will be involved in bilateral meetings with his counterpart, Deputy Minister Patti Londono Jaramillo of the Republic of Colombia.
The South Africa-Chile relationship seems to be dominated by an interest in the mining industry, and this is particularly noted by DIRCO, in the statement released on the 25th February 2015, indicating that “South Africa is Chile’s largest trading partner in Africa and South Africa is the biggest investor in Chile’s mining sector”. Due to the mining industry’s contribution to both states’ fortunes and frustrations, and the shared experiences and problems, the exchange of expertise and knowledge in related and relevant fields would contribute in part to resolving domestic and international challenges. These interests and concerns intersect at the nexus of the state, government, mining industry, labour concerns and environmental health.
It must be noted, however, that expectations from the 5th JCM between South Africa and Chile, must be guided by the functions of the JCM itself whichserves a constructive purpose in the on-going political dialogue between the two states at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels. The expectations therefore need to be considerate of the common or beneficial domestic and international interests of both states; as such mechanisms are not set up to advance mutually exclusive agendas. Therefore, further cooperation between Chile and South Africa can be expected not only with concerns from the mining industry, but we may also expect issues such as unemployment, maritime economy and education to be brought forth for discussion.
The expected signing of a MoU establishing bilateral relations with Uruguay will provide a formal basis from which to pursue the already existent agreement between South Africa and Uruguay regarding the coordination of their maritime and aeronautical search and rescue services, further defence cooperation, better and stronger relations between Uruguay and South Africa, as well as a more equal economic relationship that is has seen a shrinking trade deficit on South Africa’s behalf.
The Colombian trip may produce a statement or communique from which the perceived path of approximation may be detailed. Considering Colombia and South Africa’s domestic challenges, the following issues may appear: Drug trafficking, arms trafficking, organized crime, drug abuse, environmental concerns and poverty. What may also be of further interest may be the form that future South African-Colombians relationship may assume, and whether it may be formalized in the same manner (JCM) that its Pacific Alliance partner, Chile, has conducted its relationship with South Africa.
Whatever the outcome of this expedition, South Africa will return with a more nuanced understanding of the various interests of the respective states, which should put provide a better basis from which to understand and pursue relationships that will contribute domestically to social improvement and internationally to cooperation and strengthening of the global South network.
Wayne Jumat is a Research Assistant at Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.