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'The Big View' - July 11 (Part 1)

Nelson Mandela and EU-South African relations, Mills Soko

This month marks the 93rd birthday of Nelson Mandela, the South African leader and global icon who played an indispensable role in the dismantling of the reviled apartheid system in South Africa and who later served with distinction as architect and founding father of the modern, democratic South African nation. The release of Mr Mandela from prison on 11 February 1990, and the abolition of institutionalised racial oppression in South Africa, laid a firm foundation for the normalisation of the country’s relations with the international community after decades of international isolation.

The European Union (EU) was among the first regional blocs and states that Mandela, on behalf of the South African people, thanked for their support of the struggle against apartheid. Addressing the European Parliament four months after he was freed from jail, Mr Mandela stated: “We are most grateful to you all that, by your invitation, you enabled us to be here today. But more than this, we thank you that by your ceaseless efforts and those of the millions of people you represent, you liberated from prison so many of us, including my colleagues with whom I was sentenced to life imprisonment.”

He further noted: “We would like to take this opportunity to commend this Parliament for the role it has played in the struggle to isolate apartheid South Africa, including measures it took to mobilise for effective sanctions and to monitor the implementation of those that had been imposed.”

Recognising the profound and irreversible political changes that were taking place in South Africa in the early 1990s, the EU decided to lift economic and political sanctions against the country. This paved the way for the start of a comprehensive dialogue designed to bolster political and economic relations between South Africa and the EU.

Since 1994, the year South Africa became a democracy, the relationship between Pretoria and Brussels has grown by leaps and bounds. At the core of bilateral links has been trade cooperation, codified in the Trade and Development Cooperation Agreement signed in 1999. On the day the trade deal was concluded, the then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, on behalf of the EU, faxed a letter to Mr Mandela noting that: "This agreement is a further step to consolidate and strengthen the firm partnership between European Union and South Africa in the areas of politics, business and commerce." Responding to the letter, Mr Mandela’s spokesperson (mindful of the former South African president’s imminent retirement) stated that: "It is a very pleasant send-off. It removes all doubt about the trade relations between us and the EU."

The importance to which South Africa and the EU attach to their relationship was underlined by their agreement in 2006 to initiate a Strategic Partnership, aimed at further strengthening the already close bilateral ties. This was in the context of the EU’s decision to elevate to a strategic level its relations with emerging powers such as India, China and Brazil. The South Africa-EU Strategic Partnership rests on two pillars: firstly, improved political dialogue around issues such as climate change, the world economy, food security, migration, and peace and security; secondly, policy dialogue around issues such as science and technology, energy, as well as transport and space cooperation.

The strategic importance of South Africa to the EU lies with the fact that the former is not only a regional power, but it is also an emerging global actor with which the EU is keen to collaborate in promoting peace, democracy and sustainable development in Africa and in the wider world. Moreover, South Africa is geo-strategically positioned in the developing world and is the only African member of the G20 and the EU's biggest trading partner in Africa.

From South Africa’s perspective, the EU’s strategic primacy is based on the fact that the EU is both South Africa’s largest global trade partner (absorbing about 40% of South Africa’s world exports) and source of development aid (accounting for 70% of South Africa’s donor funds). Furthermore, the EU has declared full support for South Africa’s key foreign policy goal of prioritising the “African Agenda” – namely, support regional integration in the Southern African region as well as advance peace and security initiatives across the broader African continent.

The strong and cordial ties that South Africa enjoys with the EU today bear testimony to the immense success of Mr Mandela’s (and other South African leaders’) efforts in reintegrating the country into the international system. South Africa-EU relations are on a firm footing and are poised to improve further in the future. Of course, the bilateral relationship has not been without challenges. But the challenges have been far outweighed by the substantial progress that has been made in forging, in the words of EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, "a true partnership based upon mutual respect and a desire to work together on a whole range of issues.”

Mills Soko is Associate Professor of International Political Economy at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.