Africa’s great variety and expanse, its 1.2 billion people and 54 nations, remained relatively unexplored by New Zealand and New Zealanders in the 2000s. Few New Zealanders visited Africa, and the continent received little attention from the government.
Africa in the 2000s
Africa has been known for its poverty, lack of infrastructure, corruption, political instability, dictatorships and sometimes genocidal wars. In the 2000s, 34 of the 49 least developed countries in the world were African. Some, including Cote d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe, were unstable and sometimes dangerous.
Overall, however, the 1990s and 2000s saw a decline in violent conflict, with donor states providing more effective aid and debt relief, and more African countries holding credible elections. The economies of some African countries did well. Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali, for example, maintained growth rates of more than 5% from 2000 to 2008, and continued to grow during the global financial crisis.
Sport and church
New Zealand’s British Commonwealth background, trade relationships, and enthusiasm for rugby shaped its contact with African nations. Its closest links were with the white settler states of South Africa and Rhodesia (renamed Zimbabwe in 1980). In the 2000s long-standing relationships, particularly through sport and the churches, continued to be the most visible form of contact. New Zealand and South Africa competed on the rugby field, and Christian charities appealed for help during famines or to care for African children.
Ignored and neglected
After being ‘singularly absent’ and ‘generally neglected’ in New Zealand, Africa was the subject of a 2010 conference held by New Zealand’s Institute of International Affairs. NZIIA president and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Russell Marshall pointed out that New Zealand’s ‘very low level of ambition’ in Africa contrasted with the potential for investment and economic growth that was seen by other countries.1
In 2010 New Zealand had only two Africa-based embassies – in South Africa and Egypt. New Zealand’s ambassador in South Africa also covered Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritius, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Its ambassador in Egypt covered Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. The New Zealand High Commission in London covered Nigeria. There was also a non-resident ambassador to the African Union and Ethiopia (where the African Union, the continent’s regional organisation, is based). Compared to New Zealand, a number of Pacific rim and Asian countries were more active. Australia had eight embassies scattered across the continent. Japan, South Korea and Indonesia were all actively engaged with Africa, and China and the US had increased investment and government contact.
Africa’s rich resource base, its increasing stability and its voting strength in the United Nations all helped drive engagement by countries outside the region. For New Zealand, Africa’s United Nations representation was possibly of most significance. Within the General Assembly, 25% of members represented African nations. The General Assembly elects non-permanent members to the Security Council; New Zealand’s interest in being elected to the Security Council in 2015–16 gave engagement with Africa an increased importance.
Underlying New Zealand’s limited diplomatic relationship with Africa was a limited economic relations. In 2010 only South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria and Egypt were among the top 50 nations New Zealand traded with, and the value was very small, falling well below 3% of the total. The perception of Africa as unstable, poor and likely to be dangerous may have continued to mask opportunities offered by the strengthening economies and growing population of some African nations. In areas where New Zealand has expertise (dairying and food safety, for example) or an advantage (such as access to the South African market) there was potential for a substantial increase in trade.