As Barack Obama leaves Senegal and arrives in South Africa today, many South Africans are asking why it should matter to them. There are numerous reasons why a visit from the president of the US is a historic occasion


First, the US helps save South African lives. Since 2004, Washington has committed more than $4 billion (R40bn) to combat HIV/Aids in South Africa, making it the largest US investment for HIV/Aids worldwide.

At one point over the past decade, US-supported NGOs provided treatment for about 80 percent of all South Africans on HIV/Aids medication, and American programmes paid staff salaries for more than 20 000 health workers.

Last year, money from the US president’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief programme totalling $500 million provided antiretroviral treatment to 1.7 million South Africans.

Moreover, it was US government monetary assistance, combined with funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the South African government, that supported scientists in finding two HIV-infected women who produce antibodies capable of neutralising and killing 88 percent of known HIV strains. This may eventually help lead to a cure.

The US also helps save lives through the training of South African military and law enforcement. The US military frequently trains and supports South African military in various fields such as peacekeeping and maritime security.

This co-operation will be strengthened in July when Exercise Shared Accord 11, a joint military exercise, takes place to improve South Africa’s capacity to conduct humanitarian operations.

Additionally, Washington contributes $2m a year in training and support to bilateral law enforcement programmes.

Employment is another crucial area. There are more than 550 US firms operating in South Africa, employing thousands of locals and providing more than $9bn a year in foreign direct investment.

The US Agency for International Development recently contributed to this job creation endeavour by making $150m in funding available to more than 300 small and medium enterprises that could potentially create more than 20 000 local jobs.

Most importantly, total trade between the two countries is about $22bn, with 97 percent of South African exports entering the US “duty free” due to the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

South Africa is a popular tourist destination for Americans. US visitors were South Africa’s second-biggest overseas market last year, after those from Britain.

Last, both countries understand the power of education and have been working together on this crucial issue since 1994.

Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, last year announced the $500m Opportunity Grants Programme for disadvantaged South African students to study at US universities.

South Africa is also a popular “study abroad” destination for American students. In 2011, South Africa was the 12th most popular destination for US students studying overseas.

With that said, the “real” future of US-South Africa relations could possibly lie in the energy sector. The US already helps supply electricity to thousands of South Africans, but this could grow to millions via $2bn in credit guarantees for the development of the renewable energy sector, as well as a $805m loan to Eskom for the purchase of engineering and management services related to a new coal-fired plant.

However, the US is after the “big boy” – the future of South African electricity through nuclear power. We might have a better sense of the chances after the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa and the Department of Trade and Industry complete their industry mission to the US in July.

If that proves fruitless, there could be US-South Africa co-operation on the shale gas front. It is a rapidly increasing source of natural gas in the US, albeit a controversial one. South Africa’s recoverable resource is the fifth-largest in the world.

The bottom line is that the relationship between the two countries is one that significantly affects the lives of South Africans. Although Obama’s visit is more ceremonial in nature, trips such as this are a strong indication of the value the US places on its relations with South Africa.

Dr Scott Firsing is a senior lecturer and the head of International Studies at Monash South Africa.