South Africa will caution Trump against ‘premature’ trade review

South Africa's government will tell President Donald Trump's administration that its review of a preferential trade agreement that could put as much as $2.4bn (R35bn) in exports at risk is premature and potentially damaging for both economies.

The US Trade Representative will start public hearings on Thursday to review the nation's duty-free access to the US market under the so-called Generalized System of Preferences, its oldest and largest trade-preference program for the world's poorest economies.

That's after it accepted a complaint from the International Intellectual Property Alliance - a private-sector group that represents 3 200 US companies including the makers and distributors of books, films, music and video games - that alleges South Africa's Copyright Amendment Bill and Performers' Protection Amendment Bill fail to "provide adequate and effective protection of US copyrights."

According to the pre-hearing brief filed by South African Embassy in Washington DC, senior officials in the Department of Trade and Industry will argue that the IIPA's concerns are "at best speculative and certainly premature" as the proposed bills are not yet in operation and undergoing a review by President Cyril Ramaphosa. Xavier Carim and Evelyn Masotja will make the representations.

To qualify for GSP benefits, a country must meet the criteria established by Congress and the extent to which the country provides adequate and effective protection of intellectual property rights may affect its eligibility.

This is not the first time that South Africa's actions put it at risk of losing preferential trade access to the US. In 2015, the US warned that changes to legislation that would limit foreign ownership of private security companies in South Africa may affect the country's inclusion in the African Growth and Opportunity Act. The bill was passed by parliament, but was not signed by the president.

If the outcome of the review is negative, South Africa could lose its preferential market access under the GSP and AGOA, which together allow most sub-Saharan African countries duty-free access to the US market for almost 7 000 products. This could deepen the malaise of an economy stuck in the longest downward cycle since World War II.

Trade in goods and services between South Africa and the US was $18.9bn in 2018, with $2.4bn of exports from South Africa that happened under the two preferential programs, according to US government data.

Oranges and Aluminum

South Africa's agricultural sector has the "greatest exposure" to a potential loss of preferential market access, according to Eckart Naumann, an independent economist and associate at the Stellenbosch-based Tralac Trade Law Centre. About 75% of US-bound farm exports, which is equivalent to $304m, was cleared under duty-free preferences in 2018, he said.

The country is the second-largest source of imported oranges in the US and also ships table grapes, litchis and avocados to the world's biggest economy. The viability of the local fresh-produce industry, which supports more than 300 000 jobs, could be affected by a loss of access to AGOA, Anton Kruger, the CEO of the Fresh Produce Exporters' Forum South Africa, said in his submission.

The South African and US minerals and metals industries could be affected by a negative review, even though only 15% of the $4.75bn in US-bound freight used GSP and AGOA preferences last year.

Hulamin, a Johannesburg-listed aluminum semi-fabricator that supplies the US with metal used in the production of beverage cans, vehicle manufacturing and construction, estimates that a loss of these benefits would increase the price at which it delivers aluminum sheet and plate products in the US.

"This could ultimately have profitability implications for companies that are importing aluminum for further processing," the company said in its submission to the US Trade Representative.

There will be no change to South Africa's GSP or AGOA benefits during the review process, a US embassy official in Pretoria said.

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