US president Barack Obama might have a Kenyan father, but Agoa essentially remains his country’s lever to access more of Africa’s billion consumers, writes Victor Kgomoeswana.
Love or hate them, Americans can teach us Africans a thing or two when it comes to decisiveness and focus. Not everybody thinks that US President Barack Obama is doing the best for American farmers, but you still have to give him some kudos for landing his country’s chicken on South African shelves for the first time in 15 years.
That is virtually since the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) was promulgated by then-president Bill Clinton.
Even back in 2000, Agoa was never about “growth and opportunity” of Africa, but about opening African markets to US exports. To make it palatable, diplomacy required that it should be couched in words that would entice Africans.
To prove that it was never about Africa, eligibility for Agoa has remained the sole prerogative of the US government. To be eligible for Agoa, each African country must fulfil certain conditions.
In the case of the recent impasse over chickens, we had to import the chicken that Americans do not like to eat - frozen chicken legs. In return, like all the other Agoa-eligible fellow African countries, our qualifying goods would gain access to US markets for qualifying goods.
Towards the end of 2015, Americans started whinging about how South Africa was prejudicial towards its chicken. Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies and the South African Poultry Association’s Kevin Lovell were among the apprehensive.
Minister Davies, among other gripes, justifiably wanted the US to comply with certain health and safety standards. The Americans were impatient.
They accused South Africa of being overzealous in setting the hurdle higher for its chicken than their other export destination markets. I did not care much for that. Why would they want us to lower our standards purely because other countries did not mind a little more risk in importing American chicken? South Africa’s auto exports to the US are estimated to be $2 billion (R30.7 billion) annually, thanks to Agoa. We also sell the Americans some citrus fruit - but do not expect the US to be lenient when they suspect our oranges of the innocuous fungal infection, citrus black spot.
The drought is scorching the last hope out of our agriculture, making an invasion by US chickens an unwelcome extra.
Still, President Obama was unrelenting. He applied the pressure, with a clear demand and a deadline for South Africa: pack our chicken, pork and beef on your supermarket racks or lose your Agoa status by March 15.
Minister Davies got the message, rustled up a deal, even with Lovell’s constituency apprehensive. Lovell told Cape Talk after the “deal” was announced this week: “It was an industry-led initiative; not that it was good for us but it was good for South Africa... that will be 65 000 tons extra.”
In that case, it will take about a billion rand of turnover off the industry and about 6 500 direct and indirect jobs. So much for “African Growth and Opportunity”!
Granted, some Americans like the director of policy and research at Oxfam America, Gawain Kripke, blogged “President Obama is picking the wrong fight”.
“He should be working to improve the sector, not export our pathology... 65 000 tons of chicken per year, which is less than 5 percent of US poultry exports (about 3 million tons) and less than 1 percent of US poultry production (about 18 million tons) annually”, asking rhetorically if it was all worth it.
They say in hip-hop “do not hate the player - hate the game”. Once again, as much as we cannot be excited that our poultry industry is going to suffer, it should be a lesson to us that in matters of trade and investment relations it is every country for itself.
President Obama is inherently an American head of state. His priority is the economy of the US. He might have a Kenyan father, but Agoa essentially remains his country’s lever to access more of Africa’s billion consumers; not for all American exports, as Kripke seems to suggest, but some.
At least, President Obama - wrong fight or not - and the Americans are preoccupied with their economic interest. What about us, with yet another ratings downgrade looming.
* Kgomoeswana is author of Africa is Open for Business and anchor of Power Hour, broadcast on Monday to Thursday on Power FM. He writes a weekly column for The Sunday Independent and African Independent - Twitter handle: @VictorAfrica
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.