FW de Klerk
FW de Klerk (Reuters)

Africa abounds with economic opportunities, and the EU should not consider Africa to be on the strategic periphery. That was the key message of FW de Klerk, the last Afrikaner president of South Africa, when he gave the 12th Europe lecture. Will it remain a lonely plea?

De Klerk, who won the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela for the negotiated revolution in South Africa, gave the lecture in the Cloister Church in The Hague, the Netherlands. Autumn-leaved trees and stately buildings abound around the centuries-old church, sometimes visited by the Dutch royals on Sundays. Inside the church, there were about 400 guests, including former and serving Dutch diplomats and business people.

De Klerk spoke in an energetic voice, despite his 77 years. He used the history of South Africa to explain the changing interaction between Europe and Africa as a whole. He paid homage to the French, Dutch and German cultural roots of the Afrikaners, but emphasised how the Afrikaners had over centuries become an own indigenous group. They fought a major anti-colonial war against British imperialism and considered themselves as African, just like the European settlers in the USA eventually considered themselves to be American.

The boundaries of South Africa were drawn by Britain, about as arbitrarily as other European powers drew those of other African states with diverse peoples and political orders in the late 19th century. After only about 75 years, the European powers withdrew, and Africans have maintained a love-hate relationship with them ever since. However, European powers still provided much of Africa's trade, investment and sometimes propped up its regimes.

De Klerk made a forceful plea for Europe to become more involved and economically competitive in Africa as a balancing power between the USA and China. Africa again constituted a global strategic arena. The high economic growth rates, huge markets and resources like land, oil, gas and commodities made it attractive to outside powers.

However, he also saw several challenges if Europe wanted to play an important global role. De Klerk drew on his talks as head of the Global Leadership Foundation with African heads of state to state that Europe's prestige in the world is waning. Africans related this decline to the Euro crisis and the EU's internal problems. "The EU is like a giant tanker with 28 captains on the bridge - each of whom must agree to make changes in the tanker's course to avoid the icebergs they can all see ahead of them."

One of these icebergs was the crisis of demographic decline. Europeans could seemingly only solve this issue through mass immigration, but that would create problems of its own and change Europe's character. "Although you are concerned about us in Africa, these days we sometimes are also concerned about you", he told his predominantly middle-aged audience, some of whom laughed nervously.

De Klerk revealed that president Thabo Mbeki of South Africa was shocked to discover in discussions with European diplomats in 2003, that Africa has no place in the EU's strategic vision of the future. Ten years later, budget cuts have further reduced attention to Africa in shaping European foreign and defence priorities and capabilities.

This blind spot may still change in future. As Dr Jakkie Cilliers of the Institute of Security Studies stated as part of the African Futures 2050 project, demographic growth and urban dynamics in some Sub-Saharan African countries mean that extremists may in future also buy young suicide bombers from families. The recent attacks in Nairobi, Kenya, and the use of countries like South Africa as transit areas for organised groups of terrorists and criminals, are early indicators of the possibilities.

Socio-economic development will interact with the security challenges. However, if foreign business wants to conduct sustainable business in Africa, they also have to take note of the distinctive contributions and needs of the communities where they operate.

Post-colonial regimes

These African communities and their economic and social capital straddle the Arab sphere, the sub-Saharan sphere, Asian Africans like the Mehtas of Uganda, and western Africans like De Klerk and his people of more than 2.5 million. Their needs and contributions were previously not always taken into account by arbitrary colonial borders, less-than-democratic post-colonial regimes, or greedy entrepreneurs.

Given the state of governance in many countries of Africa - and the waves of demographic and urban growth - it is unlikely that African governments will be able to respond to all these needs. In talks with De Klerk, many African leaders were more realistic about the need for European partnerships in resolving socio-economic challenges.

During question time, De Klerk admitted that corruption in Africa remained one of the biggest obstacles for interested European companies. These companies have to comply with anti-corruption EU regulations. De Klerk stated that corruption, like racial discrimination, was not restricted to Africa, but took more sophisticated forms in Europe.

With an audible smoker's wheeze, he also suggested that the EU considers frameworks that address EU concerns but remain relevant in the African context. In his view, if companies could provide local jobs, it could benefit from the rising backlash against Chinese over-use of Chinese labour in Africa.

For now, North Africa still attracts some EU attention due to migration and security issues. However, Sub-Saharan Africa, with or without justification, still does not count in Europe's strategic vision. "Powerless at the edge of the world", was the way in which former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt described its global position in his book Die Mächte der Zukunft (The Powers of the Future).

Europe's own challenges and the current budget cuts to defence and diplomatic capabilities are likely to reinforce this approach. If De Klerk's call will be followed, it will be done by some enterprising business people. But to what degree will they choose politically-risky opportunities in Africa above similar opportunities elsewhere?

Dr Heinrich Matthee is a political risk analyst for companies in emerging markets