SA must make the best of Obama's visit

2013-05-21 11:46
(File, AP)

(File, AP)

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It’s difficult to argue anything other than that South Africa is riding what may be one of its highest points in its relationship with the USA in recent times.

Mzansi receives an almighty amount of what amounts to trade aid, plus another bucket load in normal aid money. Along with a number of other African countries, SA is a huge recipient of Pepfar (President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, kicked off under President George W Bush) dosh. The US has given a surprising amount of deference to South Africa's foreign policy, in particular relating to Zimbabwe.

The way it is going is good for South Africa. But it won't remain this way unless South Africa works at the relationship.
In terms of economics, South Africa gets to export a significant number of goods into the US without paying import duties, under legislation called the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Another programme, the Generalised System of Preferences (GPS), allows further duty-free imports, of which we are the fifth largest beneficiary in the world (after India, Thailand, Brazil and Indonesia).

According to a source that I spoke to at the US Trade Representative Office last year, "South Africa is the largest beneficiary of both of those programmes put together." In other words: The top recipient of US preferential trade policy (excluding oil-producing countries). In 2011 South Africa exported R89.6bn worth of goods to the USA – that's up over 15% from the previous year and 126% from the year 2000. So that's working pretty sweetly.
Pepfar has been another boon in South Africa's fight against Aids – one of the few sectors where government is making noticeable improvements. From 2004, when Bush gave birth to Pepfar, until 2011, the US gave South Africa nearly R30bn to fight against its horrendous infection rate. Add another R4.5bn for the 2012 financial year, and you can quite easily see how South Africa is onto a good thing due to the USA's economic and health foreign policies. The South African government has thrown masses of money at the country’s Aids problem, but Pepfar has been instrumental in hugely improving that effort.

Significant concerns

And the USA's deference to South Africa's attempts to mediate in Zimbabwe is quite the compliment, particularly when SA's foreign policy can be somewhat unpredictable.  In spite of the volatility of whatever the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) decide to do on any given day, South Africa's influence is growing: A South African sits atop the African Union, SA is the current chair of the Brics group, and the only African representative in the G20.
While economic issues seem settled for the time being (AGOA only expires in 2015, and will pick up any slack left by the expiration of GSP in July, although GSP should be re-authorised), expect foreign policy to make up a fair portion of what is discussed when President Obama visits South Africa.

Aside from Zimbabwe, there are significant concerns about South Africa's aims in the DRC and Central African Republic. Also, bear in mind Obama stops in Senegal on his way here – Senegal is a member of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), the next big power bloc on the continent after the Southern African Development Community, which also oversees the troubled areas of Mali and Niger, and contains the next most economically significant African country: Nigeria. If South Africa is going to drop down any rungs it will be in losing its "gateway into Africa" status.
US foreign policy relating to Africa is being concentrated in the upper half of the continent due to that region's possible direct impact on the US – there is a proven al-Qaeda (and allies) presence in the Sahel region, and governments of the gigantic countries there are simply not able to police the perceived threat.

Take this seriously: In Obama's US Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa published in 2012, one of his "four pillars" is "Advance Peace and Security", the first sub-point of which is "Counter al-Qaeda and Other Terrorist Groups" and the second of which is "Advance Regional Security Co-operation" (cough, Ecowas, cough). Despite some South African media concerns that al-Qaeda is alive and well in South Africa, the real problem lies north of us and the USA IS getting involved. 

Leadership role

And the issues can be deeply complicated. If South Africa wants to lead it needs to know what is going on. For example, former US State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, William Fitzgerald told me in February that Mali was unlikely to ever return to the state it has been in, and that rebel forces, in spite of being dominated by French military in the country, are likely to get some degree of autonomy when fighting ends. Is South Africa planning on taking a leadership role here? If so, has Dirco thought about what it wants to do? A quick scan of the Dirco website indicates the last statement the department issued about Mali was in January, and was merely some horn-tooting about a donation made by the SA government.
With US foreign policy interests going on north of South Africa, don't expect the "gateway into Africa" to last just because.
South Africa is in a good place with the USA (even as it grows closer and closer to China) which is generally a preferable place to be. But this relationship won’t last as is if South Africa doesn’t demonstrate it is a leader.
And President Obama's visit is Mzansi's best way to do so.

 - Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  au  |  sadc  |  ecowas  |  barack obama  |  us  |  aid  |  hiv aids  |  obama in africa

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