Obama’s visit and the future

2013-07-02 00:00

THE state visit by United States President Barack Obama proved significant, not just for promoting trade and investment, but also for reconnecting him with the continent of his ancestry, and potentially opening a new chapter in U.S, SA and Africa relations.

After a lull during George W. Bush’s presidency, occasioned by disagreements with Thabo Mbeki’s government over the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Africom, South Africa-U.S. relations improved under presidents Obama and Jacob Zuma, leading to the establishment of the Strategic Dialogue in 2010. The two governments saw each other as strategic partners — the U.S. as South Africa’s strategic partner in its north-south relations, and SA as the U.S.’s partner in its trade with Africa. In 2010, the two countries signed the Mega Assistance Agreement, in which they agree to co-operated in offering assistance to poorer African countries, using trilateral arrangements. Their co-operation was instrumental in preventing a resurgence of the food crises in southern Africa.

After many expressed concern that the Obama administration was not committed to doing things differently from its predecessor, the U.S. government released its strategy for Africa in 2012, indicating that it views the continent as vital to its global strategy, mainly because of its economic resurgence and its need for support in ending conflict and fighting terrorism.

South Africa received this development warmly, declaring that there is obvious synergy between the countries in two areas: the commitment to building democratic institutions in Africa as a necessary condition for security and development; and enhanced trade and investment, including the revision of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), through which African exporters gain duty-free access to the U.S. market.

As a result, we have seen a steady growth in trade and investment, now valued at about R135 billion, an increase of 14% since 2010. South Africa has a trade surplus in this to the tune of R18 billion. As a destination for close to R70 billion of U.S. exports, South Africa is the U.S.’s biggest export market in Africa. South Africa can count on U.S. trade to boost its own sluggish growth through the establishment of over 600 U.S. companies here. So, trade and investment are natural points of convergence between the governments. Our government’s ongoing high-level dialogue with the Chinese, the EU, and other emerging powers, have been largely skewed towards investments. Zuma has been willing to shower the West and the East with praise as he searches for pragmatic relations, while openly criticising their foreign policy where they disagree. At the UN security council, he has been willing to avoid confrontation in favour of co-operation, without losing the independence of his foreign policy. He has acted in a similar fashion to all emerging powers, from Turkey to Indonesia, that have sought to change power relations in more subtle ways than constant confrontation. This explains Zuma’s praise of Obama, comparing him to Nelson Mandela for bearing the burden of history by being the first black American president. He said that Obama and Mandela carry the dreams of many Africans in Africa and in the diaspora, the dreams of an African rebirth. He suggested that Obama, like Mandela, inspires all who are proud of being black and global in a world order founded on white supremacy and black inferiority.

Thus, Zuma suggested that the Obama administration should not be defined by its terrible policies, such as the use of drones and neglect of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In turn, Obama was generous in describing the Zuma administration as exemplary and following Mandela’s legacy, and he praised Zuma’s work in Zimbabwe.

Obama’s intention to engage with the African leadership on mega projects, such as the Africa Power Initiative to increase access to electricity in Africa, was well-received. His wisdom in engaging the rising young middle class was also notable. To them, Obama underlined a great Africa that could be greater if its people believe in it and work together to build it.

Obama and Zuma may have begun a partnership that could be key in ushering in a new phase of Africa’s renaissance, one that is youth-driven and people-focused.

This may contribute to the birth of a post-colonial and cosmopolitan world system with a prosperous Africa at the centre, ending the global structure of a wealthy Western centre and a poor Third World periphery.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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