Steinmeier in southern Africa: ′Democracy can’t be taken for granted ′ | Africa | DW | 21.11.2018
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Steinmeier in southern Africa: 'Democracy can’t be taken for granted '

During a visit to southern Africa, German President Steinmeier praised the new leadership under South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa. In Botswana he called for stronger cooperation between Europe and Africa.

21 gun salutes rang out over the Tuynhuys, the office of South Africa's president in Cape Town. Dressed in dark green uniforms embroidered with gold, a military parade marched through the rain to meet the South African president Cyril Ramaphosa and his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. This was the first state visit by a German president to South Africa in 20 years.

"Thank you for bringing some German rain to South Africa," Ramaphosa joked in his welcoming address. For the South African president, Steinmeier's visit came at a crucial point. Ramaphosa and the the ruling African National congress (ANC) will have to fight hard to win an absolute majority in next year's parliamentary elections.

After years of economic stagnation, bad governance and corruption under his predecessor Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa took on the tough job of governing the post-apartheid nation. "We have embarked on a path of renewal," Ramaphosa said. He wants to win back the trust of both the international community and the community at home.

Steinmeier, for his part, praised Ramaphosa's leadership style, in particular the strengthening of an independent judiciary and the promise to crack down on corruption and self-enrichment.

Steinmeier and Botswana's president Masis at the airport in Botswana (picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka)

After three days in South Africa, Steinmeier visited Botswana's capital Gaborone

Read more: Merkel's Africa tour pushes for investments to curb migration

Remembering the past

"Blankes - Whites" and "nie blankes – Non Whites." These words greet visitors at the entrance to Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum and immediately transport visitors back to the years of the racially divided South Africa. For Steinmeier, this was an emotional moment.

"Democracy should not be taken for granted," the German president said. He paid tribute to Nelson Mandela as a role model for reconciliation and  humanity and for his vision of a unified and democratic South Africa.

"Our democracies are never perfect," Steinmeier said. "It requires bravery and hard work to maintain them and carry them into the future."

"We all need partners," he continued. If we all fight each other, the world won't become a more peaceful place. Steinmeier also condemned the "monster of aggressive nationalism which is baring its claws once again in some areas." Clear words, that might partly have been a stab at the politics of US president Donald Trump.

Read more: Germany hesitant to re-start cooperation with Zimbabwe one year after Mugabe ouster

A far cry from the rainbow nation

Just how big South Africa's problems currently are becomes apparent in discussions with members of civil society. The lives of South Africans, they tell Steinmeier, are very far from the rainbow nation that Mandela dreamed of.

For many, developments are too slow. But some are more hopeful. Roelf Meyer was among the people whom Steinmeier met. Meyer served both in South Africa's apartheid government and later in Mandela's first post-apartheid unity government. In the early 1990s, he was the apartheid government's chief negotiator, while Ramaphosa functioned as the ANC's chief negotiator for a new South Africa.

Former cabinet member Roelf Meyer (DW/K. Kroll)

Roelf Meyer served in both the apartheid and post-apartheid governments. He hopes that Ramaphosa can bring the country back on the path Mandela had envisioned.

"A year ago we were really worried," Meyer said. "But now everything is different because of President Ramaphosa." He thinks that the harsh criticism of his friend Ramaphosa is uncalled for. It's impossible to solve South Africa's problems in just a few months, Meyer argued. The new president stands for the same values as Mandela, he said. "This gives people hope, myself included."

Read more: South Africa is more unequal than eve 20 years after the post-apartheid TRC

Hopes for a new relationship

The new South African leadership calls for a new relationship between Germany and South Africa. In 2019, both countries will occupy non-permanent seats at the UN Security Council. Together with Germany, Ramaphosa promised, South Africa was prepared to promote an agenda of global peace and multilateralism. "It is up to us," Steinmeier said, adding that the international community would look to the two countries for leadership. 

Political scientist Sithembile Mbete (DW/K. Kroll)

Political scientist Sithembile Mbete believes it is time for South Africa to reassert itself on a global stage

"I think [Steinmeier's visit] is good with South Africa having isolated itself from the international community in the past nine years," South African political scientist Sithembile Mbete told DW. "This is an important moment for us to reassert ourselves and rejoin the community of nations in a productive way." Mbete also believes that the leadership change from Zuma to Ramaphosa has opened the country up for political engagement and debate. The biggest challenge the country now faces is the divide between rich and poor.  

Investment is what the country needs and what Ramaphosa would also like to see from Germany. The country currently hosts 400 German companies which have created around 100,000 jobs.

The German president was accompanied by a high-ranking business delegation and although some seemed uneasy about issues such as planned land reforms, Ramaphosa assured them that their investments would be safe in South Africa.

Botswana is a role model

After spending three days inSouth Africa, Steinmeier flew on to Botswana, which until independence in 1966 was still one of the poorest countries worldwide. Today it boasts one of the highest GDP per capita on the African continent. Botswana’s income mainly comes from its mineral resources and diamond trade and the government has managed to ensure that the population benefits from this.  

Nevertheless, Botswana’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi is also interested in diversifying his country’s economy. He wants more foreign investment, which is why the visit of Steinmeier and his business delegation are more than welcome.

"Botswana has a good education system. Everybody goes to school here. They have a good health system," said Sabine Dall’Omo, who heads the German firm Siemens in southern and eastern Africa. Additionally the country has tax advantages.for investors, making it an attractive place, Dall’Omo pointed out. 

Steinmeier and Masisi discussed closer cooperation in the areas of solar energy and climate change; the southern African country has been hard hit by recurrent droughts.

Steinmeier praised Botswana as a reliable multilateral partner, within both the UN and the African Union. "Europe and Africa need one another," he said at the end of his visit. Steinmeier and Masisi discussed closer cooperation in the areas of solar energy and climate change, by which the southern African country has been hard-hit with recurrent droughts.


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