Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, centre, shakes hands with President Cyril Ramaphosa, right and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Republic Day 'At Home' reception held by the Indian President at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, India, in thisJanuary 26 2019 file photo. Picture: HANDOUT/ RB PHOTO / AFP
Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, centre, shakes hands with President Cyril Ramaphosa, right and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Republic Day 'At Home' reception held by the Indian President at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, India, in thisJanuary 26 2019 file photo. Picture: HANDOUT/ RB PHOTO / AFP

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s prospective alignment with India looks interesting, not least because it might help us manage our global partnerships better. The past years revealed the Brics grouping for what it was — not a community involving Brazil, Russia, India China and SA, but an opportunity for greater powers to compete for access to the natural resources of the smaller.

Russia had its chance, and the nuclear deal’s cost implies they didn’t have our interests at heart. Then came China with its lending for infrastructure, but its Belt and Road Initiative is drawing criticism from around the globe and from the Paris Club lenders for allegedly pulling partner countries deep into debt. Now it’s India’s turn to woo us — but this seems a different deal, at least in geopolitical terms.

SA has two alignment options, reflecting the current global scramble for power: the US and China. We don’t have much to learn from either because they’re in higher states of development. Economically, the US can offer us more of its austere debt relief through the IMF, but austerity measures in our current state are neither feasible (until we get our state-owned companies under control) nor desirable, because we have social inequalities that need fixing. In any case, the US is orientated towards maximising its corporate profit, which means exporting its Milton Friedmanesque philosophy of shareholder capitalism, a system that, as senator Elizabeth Warren’s bill recognised before the US House, worsens economic inequality.

China, by contrast, doesn’t share our socio-cultural environment (our population, remembering apartheid, resists tiny wages), seems more concerned with tackling its own corruption (a drive by President Xi Jinping) than ours, and is concerned with managing its own growth and place in the new world order. 

And that’s the greater problem — in their current scramble for geopolitical advantage, neither the US nor China seem careful to protect foreign civilians (as their competition with Russia for Venezuela shows). Debt buys influence, for example, and SA can expect covert operations that are not in the interests of our citizens. That’s partly because there’s a new and silent arms race going on, in cryptotechnology.

As wiki websites reveal, to ensure 9/11 never happened again, the US ramped up its covert surveillance long before legislation about appropriate usage of new technology could be established. And indeed, if they allowed legislation to catch up and return them to a rule-bound framework they’d fall behind. As the influencing of the US elections reveals, Russia is embracing the cyber-manipulation of society through social media. Just so, China couldn’t be weak here, and the US’s attempts to freeze Huawei from 5G networks for fear of surveillance emphasise the stakes.

But none of that benefits us, and because SA has traditionally been a geopolitical linchpin, the best we can do is stay out of it. Of course, trade and debt with these superpowers will continue, but the Indian alternative could create a basket of partners, which obviates us having to continually choose one power over another. 

And we can learn from India, because they’re in many ways similar to us. They too have a history of colonialism and had to motivate their population afterwards. They too have social constructions at odds with the egalitarianism and meritocracy needed to develop a productive capitalist society today — theirs is the caste system, ours is racial division after apartheid. They too have a distributed and poorly educated rural populace, yet became a globally competitive hub in technology, which Ramaphosa signals is important to us too.

India is rapidly industrialising into a prosperous nation, which we could definitely learn from. In return, they could access our natural resources — and their publicity admits that aim so directly that it may signal a refreshing turn towards transparency. SA is in a mess partly because of some of India’s citizens, so perhaps they’d be patient in helping us put it right.

The question is whether their overtures are serious or just a public relations burst; can they supply loans at better rates with less onerous penalties, investment orientated to our growth, and best practice to kick-start development? Can we genuinely work together as near-equals?

Finding our own safe corner of development in today’s savage geopolitical climate might be wise. Time will tell, but some here are ready to listen.

• Galetti, most recently a post-doctoral researcher at Yale, was creative director at Ireland’s biggest ad agency and senior writer and strategist for SA’s Democratic Party in 1994.