German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a welcoming ceremony during the Group of 20 leaders summit in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, Turkey in 2015. Picture: REUTERS
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a welcoming ceremony during the Group of 20 leaders summit in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, Turkey in 2015. Picture: REUTERS

What an extraordinary contrast it must have been for President Jacob Zuma. From debating such critical topics as "white monopoly capital" on the fringes of Soweto at the ANC’s policy conference, he zipped over to Hamburg in Germany to join 19 other world leaders to discuss the grand issues of the globe. It must have been something of a relief. The undercurrent discussion at the Group of 20 (G-20) meeting was all about leadership — but not his leadership.

The significance of this meeting was about US leadership during the presidency of Donald Trump, whose explicit policy is all about rejecting the notion of a global community that shares common interests of peace, prosperity and economic integration. Trump’s rejection of the idea of US leadership and his substitution of that for an adversarial approach based on "America First" formed the backdrop of the meeting.

As irony would have it, the meeting was hosted by Germany, whose Chancellor Angela Merkel has come to represent everything Trump is not: a genuine proponent of economic integration based on international co-operation and a stronger systemic underpin. Trump illustrated his disdain for the meeting by asking his daughter, a former fashion model, to stand in for him during one of the sessions.


The G-20 meeting emerged with a common communiqué and all participants declared it a success. We should not believe this for a second. Success in this case was constituted by the lack of a serious rupture, but the sense of a distinguishable unity of purpose is obviously lacking. As former US treasury secretary Larry Summers notes in the Financial Times, confusing civility with comity is a grave mistake in human or international relations.

The G-20 noted Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord, which everybody else then endorsed once again, leaving the US isolated. But more than that, Summers points out, Trump’s stance has forced the G-20 to back away from previous commitments to rejecting protectionism. And in part because of American attitudes, the G-20 was mute on international migration at a time when refugee issues are more serious than at any moment in the past 50 years.

The background noise was unfortunate for Africa because the Germans really did want to make Africa one of the focus points. As it happens, the meeting did agree on something called the G-20 Africa Partnership.

Yet it’s hard to know exactly what this will involve. The final communiqué points to pre-existing G-20 developmental projects such as the Initiative for Rural Youth Employment and those aimed at supporting the increased participation of women in the global economy.

The conference did introduce the idea of "investment compacts" to "enhance sustainable infrastructure, improve investment frameworks as well as support education and capacity building". Some African countries, excluding SA, put forward their individual priorities for these compacts.

For the rest, the initiative seemed to take the form of commitments rather than plans. Most ominously, the final communiqué spoke of "aligning" the African Partnership with the AU’s Agenda 2063. This agenda reads like so many AU conference resolutions: an amorphous set of "goals" that signify very little. In this case, it’s even worse because the target date is set for 50 years, which means very few Africans born today will be around when the delivery date comes due.

Plans without measurable targets are not plans, they are hopes. Expressing your hopes is desirable and satisfying, but doing so does not take you forward. Clarifying that distinction would go a long way towards making these summits seem to ordinary people less like opportunities to posture and more like opportunities to get things done.

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