South Africa, World

US Senators visit South Africa: Just (not) like old times

By J Brooks Spector 10 April 2018

J. BROOKS SPECTOR reminisces about US congressional visits from an earlier era to South Africa and observes the most recent four-man US Senate delegation’s visit. Good men, yes, but not much besides a smile and a handshake to offer, especially given the Trump administration’s indifference – at best – to Africa and South Africa.

One of the things American congressmen and senators do, especially during the longer recesses of their legislative calendar, is travel. Probably legislators from all national parliaments around the globe do pretty much the same thing as well, and for similar reasons.

When asked, such travellers will say, of course, that the primary point of such visits is to examine an issue up close; to get to know a place now in the news better, in order to inform their deliberations on policy; or to see a problem close-up, first-hand, without the smoke screens from intermediaries. And often, just by the way, for some visitors there is a bit of time to get in some really interesting shopping and a little VIP sightseeing as well.

Critics of such travel tend to call them boondoggles as a way of denying they have much real usefulness, besides the spending of taxpayers’ money on foreign vacations for those overly-entitled members of Congress. And of course, too, from the perspective of members of Congress, sometimes it is better to go somewhere far, far away during congressional recesses, rather than face the wrath of constituents in town hall meetings, especially if they have recently voted in favour of something becoming increasingly unpopular with constituents – or if they have agreed to raise taxes. Any taxes. Ever.

But such visits can have real consequences on policy as well as real impacts on the views and ideas of the visitors. Yes, it is certainly true that some congressional visitors have deduced critically important national security reasons to visit Paris in the springtime, London around Christmas, or Rio during Carnival; but others do make their respective ways to notably less scenic spots – or places with less exciting shopping.

In the midst of the US’ participation in the Vietnam conflict, some members of Congress visited that nation in a desperate effort to figure out the real circumstances of that misadventure-turned-tragedy – even if the briefings of those military dog and pony shows often obscured more than they clarified.

Similarly, congressional travels to Iraq or Afghanistan have been attempts to get a visceral, first-hand sense of what was happening there – and why, and, importantly, how the US might extricate itself before even more devastation was forthcoming, even if the fighting rumbled on. And some have also made it their business to follow what might be labelled the “human misery trail” to famines, civil wars and/or tragedies – not totally trusting their own government’s officials in what they say about events and circumstances.

Many years ago, while I served in South Africa for the US government in the 1970s, along with other more senior officers, we dealt with many such visitors, back when the apartheid regime held sway. The local government obviously wanted to put its best face on its rigorously segregated nation, even as visiting American congressmen and senators usually wanted to peel back that façade – and also to get a better understanding of how the US Embassy was responding to that regime.

Perhaps the visit that stands out most for me was one that took place nearly 45 years ago.

Back in 1975, Michigan Democratic Congressman Charles Diggs had just arrived at Jan Smuts Airport. The airport authorities had a suite of bedrooms in the transit area for VIPs who had arrived without visas, but whom they did not want to keep sitting around in the waiting area while the visitors waited for an onward flight to elsewhere in Africa. Back then, most international flights arrived at night, most especially those from North America, and Congressman Diggs had arrived without a South African visa. He was making a point of things, of course, when he insisted upon his entry into South Africa.

Diggs was an African-American, and he was also chairman of the Africa sub-committee of the House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee (essentially the US equivalent of a parliamentary portfolio committee). He had come to South Africa to see for himself what it was really like – and not incidentally, perhaps, in an effort to gain a bit of street cred back home with his almost entirely black constituency in Detroit, as he put an accusatory finger right in the eye of the apartheid beast. The South Africans didn’t let him into the country and, as a result, he was thoroughly provoked by this transit lounge game of chicken. In response, he insisted that the US Embassy must build a library in the middle of Soweto.

Now, this was back in 1975. Back then, there were virtually no privately held buildings in Soweto where one could show up and rent space for such a project. Moreover, there was no land one could purchase or rent to build a stand-alone library as a private citizen or foreign entity. And in any case, the SA government back then would never have issued a building permit for a new structure like that one, since they controlled all of the land in Soweto and had full and final say over what any of it could be used for. In fact, none of the township’s residents were able to own property in the township either. Every residence or stand was rented and held at the sufferance of the administration.

Still, Diggs’ position was clear on the matter. If the US Embassy would not fund and set up a library in Soweto, then he, Diggs, as a subcommittee chair, would put a legislative “hold” on the entire budget for all educational exchange, information, cultural and related programmes operated in South Africa by the US government.

Embassy arguments that their extensive library in downtown Johannesburg was already constantly filled with black patrons and that it was really the only library in Johannesburg that was totally open to all readers fell on totally deaf ears as far as Diggs was concerned. He was interested in the semiotics of the thing, rather than circulation statistics.

Eventually, our office learned that we had a friend who, among his many other activities, was also head of the YMCA in Orlando, Soweto, and that they actually had a couple of meeting rooms upstairs that were currently standing unused. They could certainly use the rental income, and, yes, the Y would be delighted to host an American library as a community service.

In fact, this particular Y had been built with private money back before the administration of Soweto had been assumed by the national government from the city, and the Y was operating under a charter that had been authorised by the City of Johannesburg some years before. Accordingly the Y had significant autonomy to manage its own affairs.

In response to Congressman Diggs’ insistence, we dutifully designed, stocked, and began to operate our library, located inside that Y. And from 1976 onward, as circumstances drastically changed in Soweto, that modest facility became a haven for students and activists in difficult times. Although the library is now in a new location in Jabavu, Soweto and has been named the Rosa Parks Library, the facility remains a testament to Congressman Diggs’ insistence that South Africa was not going to put a thumb in his eye without at least some real consequences.

Around the same time, Illinois Senator Charles Percy also came out on a visit. At one point, Percy was manoeuvring for a chance to become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 1976 or ’80 and a visit to South Africa was clearly a way to burnish his foreign policy chops, given the way things were, back then. Our task was remarkably simple: give Percy access to local activists and community leaders (just prior to June 16, 1976). Percy would never have been accused of being an earlier version of Senators Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren politically; nevertheless, after his trip to South Africa, he tried to invoke legislative measures to roll back any American military help to Unita in Angola and pushed for university scholarships under America’s foreign assistance programme, directed at South Africa’s black population.

More recently, back in 2006, when Barack Obama was still a junior senator from Illinois, while most of South Africa’s senior government officials declined to meet him, Embassy officers connected him with a friend of a friend of Obama’s, who just happened to be Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs. That visit to the court turned out to be a highlight of Obama’s first trip to South Africa.

And that brings us to the most recent visit to South Africa by American legislators. This past week, a delegation of four US senators, led by Senator Christopher Coons of Delaware (member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations, Ethics, Appropriations, Judiciary, and Small Business and Entrepreneurship committees), also included Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Senator Gary Peters of Michigan. All but Flake are Democratic politicians.

Some South Africans of a particularly conspiratorial turn of mind may recall Coons as the man behind “forcing” American chickens upon hungry South Africans. Coons would have answered that particular jibe that his support for Delaware’s many chicken growers was simply part of his job as a people’s representative. And in any case, he would go on to note that US-raised chicken meat is perfectly safe to eat whether one is in New York City or in Johannesburg. Moreover, the whole point of the exercise was to ensure US chicken exporters received the same treatment as their Brazilian or EU counterparts, not a special favour. Fair market treatment is a keystone of AGOA access for South African products into the US duty-free, after all, and that is worth billions to South Africa’s economy and tens of thousands of jobs.

Meanwhile, New Jersey’s Cory Booker is rumoured to be contemplating a run for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2020, while Jeff Flake is a conservative Republican who has become increasingly unrelenting in his criticism of the incumbent president, now that Flake is no longer going to run for his Senate seat again this year.

The ostensible purpose of this visit was to gain an understanding of and to support “ways to increase partnerships and enhance trade and investment opportunities which can lead to greater prosperity for both of our countries” and “to reinforce the strong ties between the American and South African people”.

The problem, of course, is that such interests come even as the current president appears largely uninterested in Africa in general, or South Africa in particular. While some important programmes continue to receive support – such as PEPFAR’s efforts aimed at HIV/AIDS – it is also true that more than a year after taking office, the president has yet to nominate an assistant secretary of state for Africa, or an ambassador to South Africa, let alone to dozens of other nations, even to South Korea.

Moreover, the president increasingly places himself squarely on the side of stridently protectionist trade policies, and he has often expressed a distaste for negotiating with – or participating in – anything that even sounds like a multilateral grouping of nations, claiming America is largely the victim of its trade agreements. Accordingly, the challenge for people like Coons, Booker, Flake, Bennet and Peters, among others, of course, is that their more internationalist approach runs directly cross-grain against Trump’s gut instincts – and his increasingly bellicose rhetoric on trade and economic relations.

Interestingly, such “to the barricades” trade war talk from the Trump administration also runs against the view of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s editorial director, Pratibha Thaker, who was also in Johannesburg for their group’s annual “Regional Strategic Forecast”. For Thaker, absent a real trade war that actually depresses world trade, the outlook for the globe is surprisingly optimistic, and while there are obvious trouble spots, much of Asia, the Near East and a number of African nations should do increasingly well this coming year. Trump would not see it that way, or, perhaps, he believed that was at the expense of the US.

When asked what had impressed the group the most on this visit, Senator Coons pointed to the spirited discussion they had just concluded with a group of Constitutional Court justices, as well as an energising engagement with the Harambee programme, a project that has partnered with some 400 employers across SA to recruit and place some 40,000 young job seekers into real jobs.

Harambee has recently gained a grant from America’s foreign aid programme to expand their effort and Harambee’s head, Maryana Iskander, commenting on this, said:

Gaining the support of USAID is an affirming moment for us; we know our work is having a beneficial effect on the South African youth employment landscape. Every economically disadvantaged young person who finds stable employment also finds dignity and independence, but there’s more to it than that. Enabling people to move themselves into a better life impacts positively on their families and their communities.”

However, the challenge for visitors like these senators is that, increasingly, American connections and ideas are being ignored in a world that sees the US turning away from engagement with the rest of the globe, and from being in the forefront of the expansion of human dignity and its own democratic values.

Instead, there is a rush to adopt right-wing blood-and-soil ideals or the state capitalist approach exemplified in China’s belt and road initiatives. In such circumstances, even positive voices like those of the four visiting senators are increasingly drowned out by the loud foghorn that is the Trump administration. DM

Photo: Republican Senator from Arizona Jeff Flake (C) speaks to members of the news media following a Republican luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 10 May 2017. EPA/Michael Reynolds

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