BY TON VOSLOO
A more suitable title than Beyond Diplomacy for Riaan Eksteen’s autobiography would be hard to conjure. It fully sums up or takes in a lifetime as a professional diplomat, business executive and academic. But those two words skilfully hide high drama, massive tensions, wars and nailbiting diplomacy. This is the legacy of Koedoe Eksteen which he now pens in what I view as the most informative book on a hugely important time in South Africa’s modern history.
The nickname Koedoe is very appropriate. It derives from the very first day in his life when the nurse in the maternity home in Volksrust handed him to his mother and said: “Here is your little Koedoe.” He was probably a bouncing boy!
The kudu buck of Southern Africa is a placid beast but very dangerous when cornered. My friend Riaan is by nature a true gentleman, at ease with most people, rich or poor, great company, but not to be pushed over. Then his tenacity will in, the thick kudu skin starts bristling and the sharp horns tilt dangerously forward. This I found out in our association over decades.
It goes back to 1964. Koedoe was a youngish diplomat in the Union Buildings in Pretoria and me a political correspondent for the Afrikaans Sunday newspaper Dagbreek & Sondagnuus. The South African team was preparing for their biggest task in decades, the looming court case brought by Ethiopia and Liberia against South Africa with regard to South West Africa in the lnternational Court of Justice in The Hague. I drove my Volkswagen Beetle to Pretoria to meet the team and fish for a story that could be fresh for the weekend. The two of us clicked immediately. He was not the starchy prototype diplomat in top hat and tails. We formed an association that lasted our entire professional lives and in which off-the-record info remained off the record.
During his time as a diplomat, we had dozens of meetings, and through a strange twist of fate I moved from journalism to management ending up as the chief executive and chair of Naspers, Africa’s biggest business, and Koedoe my counterpart as head of the SABC, Africa’s biggest state-owned broadcasting entity. I welcomed him in his new job, and although we were at loggerheads with the advent of pay television vis-à-vis the official TV broadcaster, we remained friendly adversaries. ln fact, we struck a deal that would have saved the SABC from serious have prioritised maintaining or increasing sales to China on their trade and diplomatic agendas – especially as demand from the US diminishes.
However, with most developing economies stuck in slow growth, mineral prices are predicted to remain low in the long term. Since minerals have, until now, been driving China-Africa trade, soft prices for hard commodities will be a brake on engagement.
Reporting on China-Africa relations often focuses on tensions due to project delays or cancellations resulting from problems with approvals, operations, and labor relations – as well as increasingly cautious Chinese decision makers.
However, these issues are not unique to Africa, and with the large numbers of projects China has there, the difficulties encountered on the continent as a whole are not overwhelming. In China’s resource drive, these issues must also be put in the context of global trends outside of Africa.The Chinese invasion of Africa is, for many people, a simple morality tale with an obvious villain. For the past decade, Beijing has poured money into the continent, doing deals with despots, dictators and democrats alike in its quest to plunder natural resources to fuel relentless growth. Human rights concerns are brushed aside, the environment wrecked, local businesses crushed, and corruption is endemic. And in the process China has propped up some of the world’s most loathsome regimes and fanned some of the bloodiest conflicts.
This is the picture of rampant neo-colonialism taken as gospel by many in the West. But the truth is rather different, which explains why some of Africa’s more visionary leaders embrace the Chinese advances.
The Chinese strategy, based upon models tested at home during its own phenomenal growth, is designed to meet three challenges, First, to tap into Africa’s natural wealth since Chinese growth is outpacing its own resources. Second, to reassure other developing nations that while China is a rising power, it is a responsible power – while the restless and energetic Eksteen turned his attention to advanced academic studies, earning him a doctorate. His ground-breaking thesis straddling the disciplines of international relations and intenational law drew Eksteen into the world of scholarly publishing and conferencing.
Beyond Diplomacy is a magnificent record of a clear-thinking diplomat’s life in turbulent years. He held his head high in some of the most troubled times in our history. With conviction one can support Eksteen’s answer to the diplomatic truism: ‘Lie for my country? Never!’
Editor and Publisher
Former Chair of Naspers