Over the past few months, South Africa’s government has cancelled foreign investment treaties with Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, Switzerland, Spain and the Netherlands. The reasoning behind this tells us much about modern patterns of trade and development. As the nation looks to move on from the loss of Nelson Mandela, these moves to regain control over foreign investment will prove valuable.
Cancelling the treaties caused panic in South Africa’s mainstream business press and also led to the EU’s trade commissioner expressing his concern about the impact this might have on future investment in the country.
But South Africa is not acting alone. These moves represent part of a broader change of opinion among many developing countries towards investment treaties. It is no wonder when you consider large western companies are increasingly using the deals to launch legal challenges against developing countries in which they operate. The decision by arbitrators to award US$1.77 billion to Occidental Petroleum (an American oil corporation) in a case against Ecuador has spooked many developing countries.
The problem with these deals is they lock-in the rights of foreign investors. South Africa’s decision to terminate them will open up welcome space for the government to balance domestic development with the rights of overseas firms.
Firms over states
Bilateral Investment Treaties (known as BITs) are agreements between states that ensure a range of protections for transnational corporations. Crucially, they all include mechanisms for settling disputes between states and investor companies which, unlike the World Trade Organisation, allow firms to bring legal cases directly against states.
If a multinational company claims a state has seized its property in the “public interest”, under the terms of a bilateral investment treaty this dispute would then be resolved by international tribunals rather than national courts. The advantage these deals give to corporations over weaker states is clear.
Given that attempts to negotiate global investment rules collapsed years ago, bilateral treaties remain the main international legal mechanism for protecting the rights of multinationals. UN data suggests there are nearly 3,000 such deals in existence and nearly half of these will be due for renegotiation by the end of 2013.
In the post-apartheid years the ANC-led government sought to attract further foreign investment to the country, following the dominant neoliberal ideas of the time. The mid-90s saw South Africa sign a number of investment treaties with partner countries including 13 with current EU member states. This was a period when the number of treaties rose substantially across the globe, and South Africa felt compelled to compete with other potential investment locations.
In more recent years the government has begun to acknowledge this strategy has failed to resolve South Africa’s socio-economic challenges. More specifically, it began to question investment treaties after investors based in Italy and Luxembourg launched a compensation claim in 2007. It was argued that the government’s Black Economic Empowerment measures in the minerals and energy sectors contravened investors’ rights, and a private settlement was reached in 2010.
Neoliberalism and an open-door stance towards multinational corporations has now been abandoned in favour of a development policy focused on a more strategic role for the state. Over the past few years the country’s “New Growth Path” has sought to create jobs via an active industrial strategy. This entails a specific focus on reviving manufacturing and boosting employment through state-led investment in infrastructure.
However, South Africa is still hamstrung by numerous bilateral trade and investment agreements. With these deals still in place, foreign firms found their advantages written into law, and the government simply did not have the policy space to implement the strategy it would like. It is within this context that the moves away from investment treaties should be understood.
South Africa is still a far from undesirable location for multinationals. Contrary to some recent scaremongering it remains very unlikely that the end of these deals will lead to a wholesale programme of nationalisation, and all existing investments are still protected for a further ten years.
Eventually, the government plans to replace individual deals with a single framework. This proposes, quite reasonably, that foreign and national investors should both be treated equally under South African law. Moreover, corporations are already afforded strong protection in the constitution.
Revoking the treaties removes one of a number of obstacles to South Africa being able to address its development challenges. Whether the government will make effective use of this space to develop policies that can start to address the triple challenge of poverty, unemployment and inequality remains to be seen. But it is space worth having.