There is a saying, “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”. It is something that our northern partners should keep in mind before they lecture South Africa on the need for ethical business practices and the rule of law. But particularly offensive in the so-called “non-paper”, or discussion document that the ambassadors of the US, UK, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands circulated to our policy-makers in June 2018, was the statement that South Africa must have a firm political commitment to an independent judiciary.
This is not 1984, and ironically in 1984 we didn’t hear many of these same countries calling for an independent judiciary in South Africa.
But we did see them conducting roaring trade with the apartheid regime.
Post-apartheid South Africa prides itself on an exemplary and independent judiciary, and our former justices of the Constitutional Court like Albie Sachs, Pius Langa, Dikgang Moseneke, Zak Yacoob and Kate O’Regan are our best exports in terms of defending the independence of our judiciary.
Perhaps we should challenge our northern partners to provide evidence of how our judiciary is any less independent than theirs.
In the now controversial “discussion document”, the ambassadors also call on South Africa to restore the rule of law in terms of ensuring transparent and non-discriminatory rules for procurement and tender practices.
Is this not the message they should be sending to their own multinationals?
Is it not American and European based companies that are implicated in much of the corruption and state capture in South Africa?
McKinsey and Bain are both headquartered in the US, Bell Pottinger in the UK, KPMG in the Netherlands, and SAP in Germany. These companies have been implicated in state capture, including the perversion of state institutions in our country.
So diplomatic representatives must speak to the corruption of their own companies before they call for ethical business practices in South Africa.
Be that as it may, there are a number of investor concerns highlighted in the “non-paper” that we have heard from other countries – including even Chinese investors – and we have no option but to pay attention to these concerns if we want our investment drive to succeed.
The ambassadors which highlight these concerns do represent countries from which 75% of our foreign direct investment emanates, but they are not alone in these concerns.
When they call for South Africa to reconsider its visa practices in order to make it easier for businesses to set up in South Africa as a hub to do business with the rest of the continent, we need to listen.
But it should also be said that visa restrictions in the US and some European countries are nothing but draconian.
When investors tell us that they are concerned about their investments, given the impending programme of land reform, and the non-paper calls for guarantees for investments, we need to continue to reassure our northern partners that land reform will not affect foreign investments.
To be fair, our president has reiterated this point on numerous occasions both at home and abroad since coming into office, in an effort to allay investor fears and instil confidence in our commitment to the rule of law.
The issue the non-paper raises with regards to eliminating regulatory uncertainty, particularly not shifting the goal posts when it comes to rules for mining, targets and scorecards for BEE, and Intellectual Property Rights is something we hear from other Asian countries as well.
We would be well served to ensure stable regulatory regimes if we want to succeed in attracting $100billion worth of investment into the country over the next five years.
So in many ways, this controversy is shades of grey. On the one hand, the non-paper did come across as patronising, arrogant and smacking of over-reach.
But on the other hand, the representatives of the countries which provide three-quarters of foreign investment have reiterated their support for the president’s investment drive and put forward the concerns of their investors as a basis for discussion at last year’s Investment Summit staged in October.
Yes, it was an abrogation of accepted protocol, and such concerns should have taken the form of a note verbal and been communicated through the Department of International Relations. But from the point of view of the diplomats, it was not intended to be a formal communication and was a product of their engagements with the president’s investment envoys, advisers, and officials in the economic cluster.
But if all ambassadors are expected to address their concerns through Dirco there shouldn’t be exceptions for some and not for others.
The bigger question which needs to be asked is who leaked the story to the Sunday Times eight months after the non-paper was circulated, just on the eve of the president’s State of the Nation Address?
And did it serve a particular political agenda?
* Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Group Foreign Editor.