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Obama – a strategic partner for South Africa?
June 28, 2013, 6:10 pm

Of all the differences between US President Barack Obama and former President Nelson Mandela, there are many things they have in common: both are tall, slim, former lawyers, and both were the first black president in their countries.

So it is a real pity that Mandela will not be in the room when the South African and US heads of state meet. We have no doubt he would have a lot to instruct and scold the young leader of the ‘free world’ who lands in Johannesburg as part of a three-nation African tour.

Perhaps because of Madiba’s current state of health, there hasn’t been quite the same frisson of excitement which accompanied former US President Bill Clinton’s official visit of in 1998. Or, perhaps, the South African layperson has learned to tamper down expectations of a president that most of this continent adopted as its own.

But neither has the critique of US policies during Obama’s presidency reached the level of decibels recorded when former US President George W Bush visited in 2008.

From the South African side – led by President Jacob Zuma – there are a number of issues which they will likely be plugging. The overall message is that the US is a ‘strategic partner’ as stated by Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana Mashabane. Or, as the Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies put it, ‘a key trading partner’.

Zuma’s delegation will likely pressure the Americans to continue their commitment to the 2000 African Growth and Opportunity Act (which offers incentives for African economies to build free markets) and South Africa’s inclusion in it.

It is estimated that 98 per cent of the region’s exports to the US has been facilitated by the AGOA.

It would also be a moment for South Africa to emphasise that it has not abandoned its traditional markets. Total trade between the two countries in 2012 was about ZAR 123 billion ($12.3 billion) – the same as 2008 levels. Of this South Africa enjoyed a tidy trade surplus.

The South Africans will also urge that Washington extend its commitment to the fight against HIV/AIDS, especially the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief (PEPFAR), as well as the Mega Assistance Agreement (MGA) of 2010, due to expire in 2013.

The MGA has seen $21 million being distributed via the South African government to projects inside the country as well as the Southern African region.

The South African officials would be hard-pressed not to make the point that AGOA was passed during Clinton’s presidency, and that George W Bush committed in 2003 an initial amount of $15 billion to combat HIV/Aids.

US agenda in Africa

There are all kinds of attempts to explain what the US agenda is and what is the crux of President Obama’s second visit to the continent.

South African officials who are keen to widen and retain US investment in South Africa, and to add to the 600 American companies already doing business here, have emphasised the fact that Obama is accompanied by a large business delegation.

At the most benign level, there is the view that the Obama Administration has finally realised its oversight. There is an understanding that the US president could not help but be focused on his domestic agenda given the Great Recession, health and immigration reform, fighting for a second term, as well as withdrawing from two wars, and so forth.

There are suggestions of a second ‘Scramble for Africa’ – that the US has realised it has abandoned a continent of about one billion people to the Chinese and other countries and that it now wants to make up for lost time.

When we look at how the US pivot to the east is aimed at isolating China from the rest of its neighbours, this argument has the air of verisimilitude. As Atul Bhardwaj, writing in the Economic and Political Weekly of May 18, 2103, wrote: ‘India has got itself trapped into an anti-Chinese matrix set in place by the United States … China is India’s biggest trading partner; it is no longer associated with exporting anti-capitalist revolutions’.

He then asks: ‘Why is China seen only from the perspective of balance of power and not in terms of its other utility to national interests? For India to view China objectively and bridge the trust gap, it will have to disassociate itself from the American narrative on China’.

Perhaps part of the same military scenario would be attempts by the US to convince South Africa of the need to have a US Africa Command based on the continent. This move has been firmly resisted by the African Union, with South Africa being perceived as the mainstay to that resistance.

The US is about to appoint its new Ambassador to South Africa. He or she could not ask for a better start to this posting because state visits tend to assist in cutting through knots in bilateral relations and unlock doors which may otherwise have been a little difficult to go through.

And if Mandela were to address the South Africans or other foreign audiences about the Obama visit, he would have the same message for them that he had for those who criticised him for keeping company with the Fidel Castro’s of the world: we must be able to choose our friends and not be dictated to by anyone else.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.