If there is anything we know about America’s spanking new president it is that he is petty and vindictive. Up to now, the worst he could do was post a bitchy, misspelt tweet with exclamation marks if he were not shown the reverence he felt entitled to. Now the repercussions could be more serious. The whole world is unsettled by the onset of the Trump presidency but South Africa has particular reason to be nervous. It turns out that shortly before the US election, President Jacob Zuma declined to meet Donald Trump. And now he is the President of the United States. #Awkward. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
To be fair to President Zuma, not many people on the planet believed Donald Trump could actually be elected president. The millions of people who turned out in several cities in the United States and other parts of the world for the “Women’s March” on Saturday might have been staging mass protests prior to the elections if the Trump presidency seemed at all plausible months ago.
When Zuma led a delegation to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly in September, his briefings followed the trend of the polls that showed it would be an easy walk to the White House for Hillary Clinton. So when the Republican presidential candidate at the time made a request to meet with Zuma, in New York, an appointment was declined. There was concurrence among officials in the Presidency and the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) that the appointment with Trump did not seem necessary. There was also concern that a meeting with Trump might impact negatively on South Africa’s relationship with the incoming Clinton administration.
If a meeting had taken place, it is doubtful that Trump could have been persuaded to change his strong opinions on South Africa. In December 2013, Trump tweeted:
“I really like Nelson Mandela but South Africa is a crime-ridden mess that is just waiting to explode – not a good situation for the people!”
Then in 2015 he tweeted:
“As I have long been saying, South Africa is a total – and very dangerous – mess. Just watch the evening news (when not talking about weather).”
It is not clear what the meeting was to be about. Perhaps he wanted to share his colourful views about South Africa with Zuma. Maybe there were plans to build a Trump Tower in Sandton. Or maybe Zuma and Trump’s mutual friend, Vladimir Putin, had recommended that they speak. Whatever the reason, the meeting did not take place.
So imagine the shock and panic in Pretoria on the morning of November 9, 2016 when the count from the swing states came in and the realisation dawned that Trump won?
At 11:13am, Dirco issued a media statement conveying Zuma’s congratulations to Trump:
“President Zuma conveyed his best wishes to the President-elect and looked forward to working with President-elect Trump to build on the strong relations that exists between the two countries. He underlined that South Africa further looked forward to working closely with the new Administration in the United States in promoting peace, security and prosperity around the world, especially on the African continent,” the statement read.
During the election campaign and the transition period, there was very little coherence from Trump on foreign policy and trade relations. His speech at his inauguration on Friday was oozing nationalism, with the “America First” theme hinting at an overhaul in foreign and trade policy.
“For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidised the armies of other countries, while allowing the sad depletion of our own military. We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own. And spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay,” Trump said.
“We have made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.”
In tone and content similar to his campaign speeches, Trump embraced the populism that carried him to his election victory.
“We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, in every hall of power – from this day on a new vision will govern our land – from this day onwards it is only going to be America first – America first!
“Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”
Trump expanded on his administration’s approach to trade policy as follows:
“We will follow two simple rules – buy American and hire American. We see goodwill with the nations of the world but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their nations first.”
And in terms of how the United States will relate to the world, Trump said:
“We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones, and unite the world against radical Islamic terrorism which we will eradicate from the face of the earth.”
Around the world, government officials will be trying to decipher what this means for bilateral and multilateral relations. In South Africa, officials say they are hoping that not much changes in the relationship between Pretoria and Washington in the course of this year. There is hope that once a new leader of the ANC is elected, a new relationship with the US could be forged.
Government insiders say South Africa had a better functioning relationship with the Republican government under George W Bush than with the Obama administration. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which provides antiretroviral treatment to South Africans, and the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which allows African countries to export duty free to the US, were introduced during Bush’s term.
A dispute arose with the US when the AGOA agreement was to be renewed. After months of headbutting over American chicken imports, during which time Obama threatened to revoke the duty-free status of South African agricultural produce, an agreement was finally reached.
Some of the Republican bureaucrats who were in the Bush administration, and had retreated to think tanks, are now returning to the State Department. South African officials say they hope that they will resume a good working relationship with such people and thus be able to smooth over any problems with the Trump administration.
But this is a time of great volatility for the world, particularly with Trump and his officials’ proclivity to attempt to alter reality – “alternative facts” as Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway put it. Thus, many countries are uncertain about how to relate to Trump.
Other than the congratulatory message, South Africa has not made any statements on Trump’s presidency. It remains to be seen how long it would take before there is contact between the two administrations, and what the relationship is likely to be like between Trump and Zuma following the September brush-off.
Perhaps the two men’s common traits, including questionable financial dealings, entitlement to women’s bodies and making the presidency a family affair, could bring them closer. There was certainly a big similarity in their speeches this weekend.
In his inauguration speech, Trump said:
“There is no fear, we are protected and will always be protected by the great men and women of our military and most importantly we will be protected by God.”
Speaking at an ANC rally in Burgersfort in Limpopo on Sunday, Zuma said the ANC would win the 2019 elections with a greater margin than before:
“The ANC is on the side of the people and God is on the side of the ANC. We cannot lose,” he was quoted by News24.
If nothing else, perhaps their common belief that God is on their side will unite them. But considering both their propensity to cause chaos, keeping Trump and Zuma as far apart as possible might be in the best interests of the two countries and the world. DM
Photo: US President Donald J Trump (EPA), SA President Jacob Zuma (EPA)