South Africa's former President Thabo Mbeki talks to The Africa Report about African diplomacy, the economic slowdown and the fight against illicit financial flows.
There is a palpable nostalgia for the Thabo Mbeki era – not just in South Africa, with its worsening economic position as the ruling African National Congress (ANC) comes under growing political pressure, but also across Africa, where so many lament that the continent lacks both a voice and a plan.
The [pan-African] institutions haven't died by any means, but something has changed
Seven years after he resigned as president of South Africa, when the ANC's national executive backed Jacob Zuma, Mbeki is busier than ever. He is mediating in Sudan's many wars and chairing a UN-backed panel investigating the more than $50bn in illicit financial flows out of Africa each year. It may be that the legacy of Mbeki, lambasted at home for his government's HIV/ AIDS policies, will prove stronger in pan-African affairs than in his own country's development.
In fact, the strategic sense that Mbeki brought to negotiating a transition with the National Party and its apartheid chieftains in South Africa also informed his ideas for new pan-African institutions. There was a flowering of continental diplomacy following Mbeki's election as South Africa's president in 1999. Part of the reason was Mbeki's determination to redraw Africa's relations with the UN, World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and with Asia and the West. He wanted to develop an African position, despite the differing interests among the continent's 53 states, which would strengthen its economies and consolidate democratic gains.
By happy coincidence, in 1999 Olusegun Obasanjo, an old friend of Mbeki's, won the presidency in Nigeria, ending a couple of decades of military despotism. They made common cause with Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal and Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria to get African countries working together.
The Africa Report: Many activists and politicians complain about the lack of an African voice, for example in negotiations on development finance and on climate change. Do you agree?
Thabo Mbeki: Yes, the complaint is that the leadership has weakened on the continent. That what you saw in the past with the emergence of the African Union [AU], the New Partnership for African Development [NEPAD] and the African Peer Review Mechanism was a much more forceful leadership that represented the African positions [...] but that has kind of died away. I don't know whether it's true or what impact it has.
In practice, you don't have too many pan-African champions. People seem to have been too exclusively absorbed by what they should do with each of their countries. If you talk about NEPAD, the Peer Review Mechanism – the enthusiasm and the drive that used to be behind those things doesn't seem to be there. The institutions haven't died by any means, but something has changed.
In 2000, it was you and Olusegun Obasanjo. Who is speaking for Africa now in negotiations with the international system?
That's the sentiment that's expressed right across the continent. Where is the voice? And people feel that somehow it's disappeared, this African voice. You have people who will say... if we take the issue of Libya and the decisions of the UN Security Council in 2011, as a result of which the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation [NATO] went in and did all that bombing... that that would never have happened at an earlier time. There would have been much better respect on the part of the UN Security Council for African opinion.
What happened to the African Union initiative on Libya in 2011?
They completely ignored it. There was this panel of five heads of state chosen by the AU to go and mediate that Libyan conflict. They were meeting in Mauritania, which was the chair of the AU. From Mauritania, they were going to go to Libya. But they were stopped by NATO [which told them]: 'If you come now, your plane might be shot down [...] because we are beginning our military operations.' So they couldn't go.
Could they have persuaded Muammar Gaddafi to stop attacking the opposition?
Gaddafi had agreed. They had spoken to him to say that there is a need to resolve this conflict in Libya so all of you Libyans need to get together. Stop all the fighting and decide on a new Libya, plus you, Colonel Gaddafi, you then have got to have a programme by which you disappear into the sunset. And he agreed. Then the UN Security Council intervened the way it did.
Romano Prodi [Italy's former prime minister and UN envoy to the Sahel] had been in contact with the Libyan factions – the Gaddafi and Benghazi people, the tribal chiefs – and all of them were saying: 'Let's find a solution, we are ready to meet.' So Prodi said: 'Can you please get hold of the UN, raise this thing with them and we will resolve this thing.' So I said OK.
I contacted the UN and said: 'This is the possibility, personally I support it and I'm sure that if I talk to other former heads of state on the continent they will support this. So let's stop all this bombing and let the Libyans sit down,' and so on. They said: 'Yes, yes, yes, we will come back to you, President.' But they never did.
I contacted the UN and said: 'Let's stop this bombing.' They said: 'We'll come back to you'...
How should Africa react to the international slowdown and what are the risks?
This current global situation should emphasise the need for faster and more effective regional cooperation among ourselves as Africans. If you had better cooperation in the Southern African Development Community [SADC] region, it would create space for industrialisation and restructuring of the economy.
In the context of the free trade area in the SADC region, one of the dangers that South Africa faced was that tyre manufacturing would migrate out of South Africa into countries that were already producing tyres – Mozambique and Zimbabwe. You might have South Africa lose its tyre manufacturing but if Mozambique or Zimbabwe gain, the region gains from that and you get better industrialisation.
Is Africa integrating its markets effectively?
If you take Nigeria, there is a free trade area in the Economic Community of West African States. In practice, the movement of people has become much better, much easier. But for the movement of goods and trucks, there are still lots of obstacles. If you had a more effective free trade zone in West Africa, you can imagine what it would do in terms of the size of the market for Nigerian manufacturing. You have got this agreement now – the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. The East African Community and SADC launched this free trade area from Cape to Cairo. I don't know how many hundreds of millions of people that is.
You have got the issue of illicit financial flows onto the international agenda now. What's the progress?
For Africa, it is a strategic issue. So the African finance ministers said let's look at this closely, measure its impact and set up a panel. When the UN conference on finance for development met, it took the whole issue of illicit financial flows as the African panel had recommended. They just integrated it into their action plan. When [US President Barack] Obama speaks at the UN General Assembly, he talks about it. It's on the global agenda largely because of an African intervention. It is possible, [when it's] properly organised and thought out, for the Africans to impact on the global thinking in a manner that would benefit the continent.
You talk about political action to tackle illicit flows. What, specifically, needs to be done?
What is required are very detailed implementation processes. Something like two-thirds of these illicit outflows are because of the activities of the commercial corporations, so you need institutions on the continent that deal with tax matters, customs and financial intelligence. You can't avoid building capacity in Africa: I'm talking about institutional capacity.
On the matter of the political will [...] when the AU adopted the report and its recommendations, they perpetuated the life of our panel [on illicit flows]. They said we must report annually to the summit about the implementation of those recommendations. I was in Kenya two weeks ago and [...] I said we are going to have to get reports from you, all of the member states, individually. That will help to address the matter about political will.
But also we've been talking with African civil society. We've started reporting back to that civil society, and we've done it for East and Southern Africa. Next month, we will do it for North, West and Central Africa. We were in contact while we prepared the report. We will go back to them to say this is now African policy, what do we do? Civil society is very interested in this matter, and the louder its voice in each of our countries the better. You then get pressure from below on the governments to make sure that they do the things that they committed themselves to at the AU.
Why did South Africa allow its big companies to move their primary listings to London, sharply cutting their tax obligations?
The problem that was raised by these companies was that they are going towards the mergers and acquisitions in the evolution of the global economy. For example, South African Breweries were saying this is what is happening in the brewing industry globally. The bigger brewers take over the smaller ones. And if we don't want to lose South African Breweries altogether, then it had better grow and become too big to swallow. They said that if they can't do it on the basis of capital available in the South African financial sector so they would have to list in London. If they don't do that, South African Breweries will be bought out by a larger brewer. And then the decision as to the future of South African Breweries lies somewhere else: for example, about the domestic production facility – they may decide to close the South African facility and we will export beer from somewhere to South Africa. This was the argument used.
Now, with SABMiller, Anheuser-Busch is threatening to take them over. There have been some statements in South Africa to say if SABMiller does get taken over, it must remain listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. South Africa can't survive autarky and cut itself off from the rest of the world. South Africa has to be open to the rest of the world. We've got to sell our gold and platinum somewhere. ●