Blinken’s visit to restore relations with sub-Saharan Africa

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Picture: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Picture: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Published Aug 8, 2022


Johannesburg - On the eve of the first visit to South Africa by the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, described by political analysts as a bid to restore relations fractured under the administration of former president Donald Trump, the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco), has talked up the relationship between the two nations.

Clayson Monyela, the Head of Public Diplomacy at Dirco, said yesterday, Saturday, that South Africa and the United States enjoy historic and cordial relations, saying that the South Africa-United States Strategic Dialogue is a structured bilateral mechanism designed to serve as a platform through which the two countries review the bilateral relationship, consider new areas of co-operation and exchange views on matters of mutual interest. This dialogue had stopped under the Trump administration.

“Our relations with the USA are important to us as they are a major export market for South Africa and a significant source of foreign direct investment (FDI), technology transfer, development assistance and tourism. Trade and investment relations take place under the auspices of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which grants duty-free and quota-free access to the United States market for value-added products. AGOA has created jobs in both South Africa and the United States and is thus mutually beneficial,” he said.

Relationships under president Trump were soured after the controversial former US leader cut commitments much to South Africa’s chagrin made by his predecessor president Barack Obama to the Green Climate Fund which was meant to help the continent.

However, this and other decisions affecting the continent have been reversed under President Joe Biden. But many feel that this trust has to be rebuilt, and that the visit is one way of repairing the damage also fuelled by President Cyril Ramaphosa, the only African leader out of 16 turning down an invitation to attend President Biden’s Summit for Democracy last December.

The visit comes amid increasing tension with China and Russia in what the Brookings Institute labels as a charm offensive to build on Blinken’s goal in his last visit in November to Nigeria, Senegal and Kenya to foster closer relations between African countries and the United States.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Picture: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque .

Professor Landry Signe, Senior Fellow at the Arizona State University and a Distinguished Fellow - Stanford University, said the trip would strive to advance the relationship and Blinken will announce Biden’s US strategy for sub-Saharan Africa.

“Moreover, launching the strategy while visiting leaders in Africa is an important milestone in the US relationship with African countries and sends a strong message of respect by recognising that African countries are geostrategic players and critical partners on the most pressing issues of our day.”

Blinken will deliver his address announcing and describing the US strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa Institute auditorium on Monday at 3.45pm.

Yesterday, Monyela noted that the United States is South Africa’s third largest trading partner with more than 600 United States companies operating within the country’s borders. United States foreign direct investment (FDI) in South Africa was valued at $7.8 billion (R116 billion) in 2019, a 6.8% increase from 2018.

Furthermore, according to Dirco, United States direct investment in South Africa is led by manufacturing, finance, insurance and wholesale trade. South Africa’s FDI in the United States was valued at $4.1 billion in 2019 (R59 billion), up 1.2% from 2018.

According to SA Tourism statistics, for the period January – April 2022, Monyela added that tourist arrivals from North America went up by 414.6% (16 838). In North America, the United States has recorded the highest increase in volume to 43 700 (459.8%).

The introduction of additional flights from the United States (Delta and United Airlines) to Cape Town is indicative of the interest shown by United States citizens to visit South Africa, which will support the various efforts aimed at economic recovery, including in the tourism sector.

It is expected that Minister Pandor’s meeting with Secretary Blinken will take stock of South Africa’s bilateral co-operation with the United States, with a particular focus on the trade and investment relationship. Other areas of focus will include health, climate and energy as well as regional and global issues of mutual interest. The meeting will also discuss ongoing and recent developments relating to the global geopolitical situation.

Secretary Blinken’s visit is part of a five-country tour that includes Cambodia, the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

But not all Africans buy into the narrative of a foreign power being the saviour of democracy. Earlier this year, the second 2022 African Youth Survey of 15 nations on the continent, found that while their personal and entrepreneurial ambitions remain strong, the declining perception that their country is on the right path coupled with polarising national leaders that lack trustworthiness are diminishing levels of optimism for the future.

Foreign leaders are expected to have a bigger impact on Africa than national figures, yet foreign companies are seen as vehicles that extract resources without sufficiently benefiting the local communities.

In contrast to the domestic landscape, there is widespread agreement among Africans to have a bigger impact on the African continent over the next five years. China is seen to have by far the biggest impact on the continent, particularly in the areas of affordable products, foreign investment, and trade relations.

The United States and the African Union are seen as the next two most influential powers. Linked to this is the legacy of former colonial powers, where a majority of African youth think that they have a positive influence on education, trade relations, and foreign direct investment in their country.

However, a sizeable minority are cynical of the influence former colonial powers continue to have, particularly on the politics and leadership of their country as well as access to the natural resources in their country.

Furthermore, the survey found that Western-style democracy is not suitable for the African context, African countries will need to find their own democratic structures and systems to be successful.

Asked what the renewal of ties with the US would mean for BRICS, Monyela said, the USA itself relates to and trades with China, India etc. “It's normal and healthy in Diplomacy. Our membership of BRICS is anchored on one of the pillars of our foreign policy....South South Cooperation. BRICS is a strategic and influential block in global geopolitics. Through BRICS, South Africa is joint owner of the New Development Bank among other key institutions. One of the pillars of our foreign policy is relations with the global north, hence our cordial and excellent relations with the USA,” he added.