Analysis: Obama’s visit, the lasting effect

Analysis: Obama’s visit, the lasting effect

In the wake of Obama’s visit, the country is left with a resounding message that a more vibrant economy will be mutually beneficial for South Africa and the US. And going forward, South Africans – and their friends in the US – will need remember this, with all the cold statistics and heart-warming examples they can generate. Importantly, also, relying on that old network of anti-Apartheid activists and their aging friends in Congress may no longer be sufficient. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

After Sunday’s “framing speech” in Cape Town, the Barack Obama Africa extravaganza moved on to Tanzania for the final leg of the US president’s three-country journey through Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania; this last stop designed to heighten interest in US trade and investment with Africa. Back in South Africa, up until just a few days before Obama and his entourage arrived in South Africa, most local commentary about this visit focused either on how the visit would somehow fit with the national angst over Nelson Mandela’s circumstances, or about the visit’s presumed imperial dimensions and consequent calls for boycotts, protests and demonstrations against Obama – or even an effort to have him charged as a war criminal.

As further sideshows, there was a shoving match between the Democratic Alliance-led Western Cape and Cape Town governments and the national ruling party over whether Obama should address Parliament or get the Freedom of Cape Town from the city’s government. And if these were not enough, there was a public squabble over whether he should be granted an honorary degree from the University of Johannesburg.

For its own purposes, the national government seemed to be underplaying the visit as much as it could arrange – perhaps to avoid riling up its rather restive alliance partners any more than they already were with the ANC over other issues. Both COSATU and the Communist Party have been publicly angry with the ruling party over a variety of causes – but there were now some increasingly angry comments from closely aligned groups like COSAS and the Young Communist League.

But just a few days before Obama arrived, the South African government finally seemed to come awake to the visit – the Dirco and Foreign Trade and Industry ministers and President Zuma finally set out their case for treating this visit as a key element of the country’s economic future. By the time Air Force One had touched down at Waterkloof Air Base on Friday evening (with all its papers and permission slips signed and in order), a kind of muted Obama fever was taking hold – although it was  being seen through the lens of Mandela’s medical condition.

Obama’s response to South Africa’s national psychic distraction could have gone very wrong. If the White House had even seemed to have been pushing for that elusive photo opp with the ailing former president, charges and counter-claims from a publicly feuding Mandela family would have filled the public space and probably poisoned the air waves.  Alternatively, the White House might have elected to skirt around South Africa’s on-going national drama and carried on as if there were nothing unusual about this visit, giving an unfortunate sense that the Obama visit was simply unconnected to these events.

In the end, however, Obama’s own true sense won out. Rather than pushing for that final hospital ICU moment so beloved of film and TV scriptwriters, instead, they spoke with Graca Machel by phone and met with Mandela family members “off-camera” to offer solace and support. And, of course, in every one of his public utterances, Obama effectively escorted Nelson Mandela – or at least his inspirational influence and ideals – into the room as well. It would be easy to argue this was pandering to the local crowd, save for the fact Mandela really has been a major formative influence on Obama – propelling him into his own early moments of public attention and serving as a guide star for him intellectually and emotionally over the years – per his own testimony. And besides, invoking the spirit of Mandela made excellent theatre too.

Obama’s trip had three main public events – the press conference after the presidential bilateral meeting in Pretoria, the Soweto youth forum, and the set speech in Cape Town – all in addition to an emotional visit to Robben Island and several smaller events like an official dinner. Despite what seemed to be almost disinterest a couple of weeks ago, by the time Obama and Zuma held their bilateral meeting, the South Africans had clearly got their briefing papers sorted out. Everyone speaking on behalf of the South African government was marching – or at least speaking – the same way. They made it abundantly clear the key – indeed crucial – theme for this official visit was trade and investment promotion and their positive impacts on job creation. Anything that smacked of bilateral differences ended up down in the footnotes.

Everyone spoke about those 600 US companies invested in South Africa, the 150,000+ jobs they have created, the need for yet more investment to make yet more jobs, a bit of crowing about the trade surplus South Africa now enjoys vis-à-vis the US, and a strikingly enthusiastic, full-throated embrace of the African Growth and Opportunities Act, AGOA. Importantly, AGOA is US law rather than an international treaty, and it expires in 2015. Since the US Congress has yet to even begin consideration of renewing or revising this law, let alone passing it, warm words about the desirability of its extension, mean now is time for African states make the case AGOA brings significant benefits to both sides – one of those sometimes elusive “win-wins”.

Left to Congress’ own devices, and given the still-limited American economic recovery, congressional deliberations about AGOA renewal could easily become a debate about a domestic job-eating trade agreement that would drive American businesses right out of business. A subsidiary theme – but one not on the front burner yet – is discussion about moving South Africa out of the list of nations qualified for AGOA tariff privileges by virtue of is middle tier-ranking nations, by contrast, say, to places like Senegal, Lesotho, Mozambique or Tanzania. This is a fight South Africans will need to tackle in the coming months.

That line of argument should probably go something like this: Even though South Africa is a middle-tier national economy compared to most other African nations, many of its citizens have more in common with nationals of other eligible nations in economic terms. As a result, AGOA is a key element in encouraging new manufacturing and production – and jobs – and in allowing such produce to gain access to the vast US market. And, of course, a more economically vibrant economy is in a better place to purchase American-made infrastructure for national growth, just as employed South Africans making things destined for export are in a better place to be in the market for US goods and services, especially the kinds preferred by younger people. And then, crucially, this demand will help generate growth and employment in the US for industries that are growing, rather than declining ones.

Going forward, South Africans – and their networks of friends in the US – will need to make this argument forcefully and effectively, with all the cold statistics and heart-warming examples they can generate. Importantly, however, relying on that old network of anti-Apartheid activists and their aging friends in Congress may no longer be sufficient.

Meanwhile, Obama’s own “solo” encounters with South Africans, in Soweto and at the University of Cape Town, were exercises in reaching beyond government-to-government conversations and stale bickering. Over the past six years or so, Obama has turned the encounter with young people into a highly polished, minor art form. After his introductory remarks, extolling Nelson Mandela and acknowledging the growing importance of young Africans as a force for broad social, economic and political change on the continent, Obama took questions from his South African audience. This audience was supplemented by smaller gatherings in Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria, connected electronically.

Playing to the underlying themes of the trip – as designed by Washington – many of the questions were about economic growth and economic independence. This allowed Obama to rely on his enduring, favourite themes for Africa: the era of the big man in Africa is over; open, democratic governance is best; the path for the future is trade and not aid; the US and Africa must be partners in progress, not gift giver and obedient recipient; and that Africa, in its international economic relations, must be careful in the way it relates to other nations. It must make sure others contribute to Africa’s development rather than acting for their own self-advantage. No points for guessing who he meant there.

Outside, down the road, protesters were shouting and chanting harder-to-answer questions about drone weapons, PRISM, the Obama administration’s absence from Middle East peace negotiations, and the a whole litany of left wing standards. In a way, it is a shame Obama wasn’t asked any nettlesome questions like those – the man is a born debater and a vigorous advocate for his corner. And besides, there are answers, albeit complex, morally difficult ones, for his policies, and it would have been fascinating to watch Obama deal with these complexities in conveying them to his audience.

Just what would he have done with a snarl of a question about how he explains to his children about the death of someone killed by a drone? While his answer might not have convinced everyone in the room and it would certainly have raised the temperature by several degrees, it would certainly have given Obama a star turn as a man who must wrestle with the tough questions, rather than just the easy no-brainers. And it might well have allowed him to respond to (although not necessarily convince) someone like Buti Manamela of the Young Communist League who had said he was marching against Obama because of Manamela’s disappointment with Obama; presumably because Obama was not, after all, the second coming and that he had not singlehandedly transformed the world political, economic and social system to Manamela’s satisfaction.

By the time Obama reached the University of Cape Town, he was ready to deliver his “framing speech”. He rolled out his now-standard litany that open, democratic governments are inherently more efficient and capable of responding to citizen needs and supporting broad-based economic growth – and that young, aspirant middle class Africans are the key demographic to watch in monitoring growth. And, of course, that corruption remains a key element in retarding economic growth. Then, as both add-on and key deliverable for the trip, Obama rolled out his trip initiative, Power Africa.

According to a White House fact sheet released after Obama’s speech, the plan seeks to “double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. More than two-thirds of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is without electricity, and more than 85% of those living in rural areas lack access. Power Africa will build on Africa’s enormous power potential, including new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas, and the potential to develop clean geothermal, hydro, wind and solar energy. It will help countries develop newly-discovered resources responsibly, build out power generation and transmission, and expand the reach of mini-grid and off-grid solutions.”

Since reliable estimates are that Africa suffers a $300 billion deficit in investment in providing electricity access to the entire continent, there is clearly some scope for work. The US government is clearly not in a position to make that kind of investment – and such an investment would run counter to Obama’s ideas that massive amounts of aid is not the best way forward anyway. As a result, his offer is a mixed $7 billion package of grants, loans, loan guarantees and other financial help, designed to leverage much other funding from the private sector, so as to add 10,000 megawatts worth of electricity generation for twenty million households in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Tanzania – using conventional, renewable and green energy solutions.

Speaking to his Cape Town audience, but just as clearly to the country’s power brokers, Obama also reminded listeners, “So here in South Africa, your democratic story has inspired the world. And through the power of your example, and through your position in organisations like SADC and the African Union, you can be a voice for the human progress that you’ve written into your own Constitution. You shouldn’t assume that that’s unique to South Africa. People have aspirations like that everywhere.”

Obama was truly in his element in Cape Town, lecturing, cajoling and even joking with an audience predisposed to believe in his argument about Africa’s bright future, America’s place in it, and the central role for people like those in his audience in making that future come about. And of course, it was all couched in and in full accord with Nelson Mandela’s own deeply democratic, broadly humanistic vision for the rainbow nation.

While the comparatives were not explicitly discussed during these two days, the facts of the US-South African economic relationship still underscores the idea economic ties between the two nations remain deep and important. Despite China’s rise in the world economic rankings, America remains South Africa’s second-largest export destination, its fourth largest import source, and a much larger source of foreign direct investment than China. Moreover, experts note, for example, while China’s total African trade has grown enormously over the past decade, America still remains Africa’s largest overall export destination.

Given all this, it should not be surprising the South African government, despite its insistence during the opening bilateral discussions that there were disagreements over issues such as the way Libya was handled or how best to cope with the Middle East’s future, South Africa made it clear that from its perspective, this visit went exceptionally well, significantly strengthening bilateral relations. Or as the final post-visit statement said, “The two leaders agreed on the importance of strengthening bilateral relations, including trade and investment relations and looked forward to the next meeting of the Strategic Dialogue to be hosted in Washington DC.”

Moreover, “Both leaders agreed on the importance of Foreign Direct Investment in contributing towards economic growth, human capital development and job creation.  They also encouraged their officials to continue to work together on the various training and capacity building opportunities. President Obama acknowledged the importance of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) for Africa’s economies and pledged his administration’s support for the renewal of AGOA beyond 2015…. [as] President Zuma further emphasised the importance of strengthening Africa’s capacity to export value-added products to the US market.”

Listing agreement on continued US foreign aid, especially PEPFAR funding, the two countries also agreed on support for areas like South Africa’s education, defence cooperation, and “promoting democracy, peace and stability on the African continent as a prerequisite for sustainable development, under the auspices of the African Union and the United Nations.” President Zuma had “assured President Obama that South Africa, as the SADC mediator, was committed to ensuring a credible outcome to the forthcoming elections in Zimbabwe. He further called on the US to continue relaxing sanctions against Zimbabwe as a confidence-building measure….”

After all those smiles and handshakes there were a few areas of less than total agreement such as South Africa’s interest in UN reform. But with a final wave towards agreement on “a rules-based, multilateral system which gives primacy to diplomacy and multilateral negotiations in the resolution of international disputes. Both leaders also pledged to cooperate with like-minded nations towards ensuring the integrity of the non-proliferation regime, to counter cyber-crimes and to fight terrorism in all its manifestations.”

With that, there was no sense of major disagreement, in spite of Buti Manamela and his colleagues’ disaffection. And given Obama’s obvious intent to press home the need for a strong, close relationship that is marinated in the ideals of Nelson Mandela and the hard realities of economic ties – despite the fierce rhetoric from the left about a superpower’s hegemonic designs on Africa. Give the visitor a Bells – and maybe one for each man – for this effort at personalised diplomacy. Of course there is that little business about what happens the next time there is a disagreement over Zimbabwe, Palestine/Israel, the UN, Syria, but all of those are for another day. DM

Read more:

  • AGOA Information Website;
  • CRS Report for Congress, Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress  – U.S. Trade and Investment Relations with sub-Saharan Africa and the African Growth and Opportunity Act from the Congressional Research Service;
  • South Africa and the United States: a Statistical Overview of Trade from the SA Institute of International Affairs website;
  • Obama’s Africa Trip: Differing Views between Americans and Africans at the Brookings Institution website.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) pauses during a joint news conference with South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, June 29, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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