South Africa is the only African member of the Group of 20 (G-20) and therefore carries the weight not only of its own national interests but of being a voice for the concerns of African and low income countries.
While South Africa has no official mandate to represent anyone but itself, there is implicit pressure to ensure that those countries and institutions who participate in the G-20 processes at least understand some of the impacts that their decisions might have on African non-members.
This has been reflected in the active role South Africa has played in the G-20 on development, International Monetary Fund (IMF) reform and more recently taxation. South Africa works closely with other developing country members of the group to ensure that there is a balanced agenda and a range of different perspectives put forward on issues of particular importance to the global south.
From a South African and African perspective, the best means for the Australian presidency to assist in building a sustainable G-20 is to develop an agenda geared towards the universal goal of growth and development, and does so in a way that embraces the diversity of G-20 member countries.
The G-20 has demonstrated that it is well-suited to tackling global financial crises, of the like seen in 2007-2008. Such crises offer common objectives, a clear space where international co-operation is necessary and effective, and challenges that can be tackled regardless of differing approaches to economic development.
But for the G-20 to succeed in the long-run, the organisation must build an agenda that can unite the diverse group during good times, when mutually beneficial, unanimously agreed courses of action will be much harder to find.
Worth emphasising is the priority placed by South Africa on ensuring that the growth and development agenda of the G-20 remains relevant in addressing issues such as inequality and unemployment.
These are priorities shared by South Africa with its neighbours and also more broadly by emerging economies. The G-20 has the potential to provide a strong platform for the sharing of different development models and should not fall into the trap of being captured by any one economic paradigm.
The potential to capitalise on the above economic agenda is threatened by geopolitics. In 2014, the G-20 Presidency of Australia could well become derailed by tensions between Russia and its G-8 partners. This situation must be carefully managed.
South Africa has tied its colours to its fellow BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) with the Foreign Ministers in March 2014 arguing in favour of the continued inclusion of Russia in the G-20. Without overstating the weight of the BRICS grouping, it would be challenging to craft a meaningful work plan for the G-20 without their co-operation.
To make this delicate balancing act work, the Australian presidency should continue to concentrate its efforts on economic issues. A credible commitment to inclusive economic growth will ensure all countries remain invested in the G-20 process, and assist in assuring the long-term health of the group.
Catherine Grant Makokera is the head of the Economic Diplomacy programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs. Christopher Wood is a researcher in the same proramme. This article is an updated version of a piece that originally appeared in the magazine G20: Words into Action Brisbane 2014.