President Jacob Zuma and his wife Nompumelelo Primrose arrive at the White House in Washington for the US-Africa Leaders Summit. Photo: EPA

The US wants what we always wanted – two-way trade, investment, mutual respect and strategic collaboration, writes Kuseni Dlamini.


The inaugural US-Africa Leaders Summit marked a turning point in relations between the two in general and US economic diplomacy towards the continent in particular. The summit was a historic moment, indicative of President Barack Obama’s determination to reset the relationship between Africa and the US from being paternalistic and transactional to being strategic and mutually beneficial.

As Obama indicated in his eloquent address to the Business Forum, “in the past it used to be about what the US can do for Africa. Now it’s about what the US can do with Africa”.

We need to grow and develop the continent in such a way that the US and the world ask what Africa can do for the US and the world.

Africa has the right combination of natural and human resources (youthful and energetic population) to be a first-world continent, provided it does what is necessary. US-Africa relations are in a state of flux for the right strategic reasons.

The world has taken note of Africa’s inexorable rise. So has the US.

Never has the US publicly declared that African prosperity was in its national interest, until the summit, when Obama said US exports to Africa support 250 000 American jobs.

The more the US exports to Africa the more jobs it can create and maintain back home. Job creation is a global challenge for most economies, especially for South Africa’s.

Never before has the US engaged with Africa as a strategic partner with value to add. At the summit, it did.

Never before have the top guns in Washington DC, including a former president, lined up to tell Africa how important and critical it is to the world. At the summit, Obama did. As did former president Bill Clinton.

The summit marked Africa’s rare moment of glory, visibility and celebration. Washington DC almost came to a standstill because most roads were closed and traffic jammed. Hotels were taken over by African delegations accompanying the more than 40 heads of states. A hotel worker told me his five-star hotel was even busier than during the presidential inauguration, which is usually the busiest time in Washington.

Obama’s Africa policy pundits were in overdrive as they basked in the glory of what was, by all accounts, a great foreign policy moment for Obama since he came into office The summit brought about unity in the increasingly divided and quarrelsome Washington marked by bipartisan tension and division on most issues.

On Africa, however, it is encouraging that there is consensus that its rise and prosperity is in the best interests of the US and the world. Let’s hope this will manifest itself in the extension and enhancement of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) which has resulted in 95 percent of South African exports enjoying duty-free access to the lucrative US market.

Other major Agoa beneficiaries are Nigeria and Angola.

We need more African countries to benefit from an enhanced Agoa. We also need the US administration to extend the life and mandate of the Export and Import (Ex-Im) bank which has underpinned many inward investments into Africa and South Africa.

Congress should unite in support of Africa’s prosperity by extending the lives of Agoa and the Ex-Im bank. Africa needs trade and investment. Not aid. If the summit is continued by future US presidents, as I think it should, credit will always go to Obama for initiating it.

During the Cold War US-Africa relations were shaped by the West-East divide which saw Africa split according to spheres of ideological influence between the capitalist West and the Communist East. Aid was an instrument to woo African countries to align themselves with this or that superpower’s foreign policy priorities and keep them dependent on handouts.

The post-Cold War era unleashed a new wind of change across the continent which saw hitherto despotic and autocratic regimes swept away by democratically elected governments with a “new generation” of enlightened leaders who pursued liberalisation and deregulation policies in pursuit of freer markets.

The Washington consensus underpinned by neo-liberalism entrenched its hegemonic project as a new world order or as Francis Fukuyama called it, “the end of history” was heralded.

Then came China and the rise of other key emerging markets such as Brazil, India, South Africa, Turkey, Mexico and Indonesia which tilted the established global configuration of economic and political power.

The advent of China and other emerging powers as aspiring new powers changed the balance of forces and gave African countries a new “look East” option with no strings attached in terms of governance, accountability, rule of law, transparency and other stringent criteria demanded by the West. The Brics alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa business communities) is partly an offshoot and symptom of that trend and dynamic in global affairs.

Beijing’s approach promised to respect the sovereignty of all African states by avoiding lectures on democracy and human rights – which is viewed as an encouragement of mischief by critics. Its foreign policy emphasised the notion of the equality of all nations and “mutual benefit and development” as cornerstones of Sino-African relations.

This is in direct contrast to Washington consensus-type conditionalities that are hated by corrupt and badly governed African countries because they are viewed as undermining their sovereignty and independence. Obama advocated a partnership premised on the respect for human rights, democracy, rule of law and good governance.

His Africa policy is bold, decisive and focused on key issues that matter to African economies and societies. It also puts African people at centre stage as demonstrated by his Young African Leadership Initiative (Yali). He wants what Africans have always wanted – two-way trade and investment underpinned by mutual respect and strategic collaboration.

It is up to Africans to leverage this new era in US-Africa relations to unleash Africa’s potential for generations.

The way American investors engaged African leaders demonstrated a high degree of maturity, respect and increasing sophistication. This reflects their appreciation of the changed and changing balances of forces in global economics.

Africa is experiencing its moment of glory with the world’s economic superpowers jostling for position to build and deepen better economic ties.

The EU, Japan and China are as keen as Washington is to have ever-closer investment and trade relations with Africa. They have all developed strategies on the continent.

The question that needs to be raised is to what extent has Africa developed smart and co-ordinated strategies on engaging with these suitors who are driven by the pursuit of their national economic and commercial interests?

Africa needs a strategic approach and concept on how best to maximise benefits from its engagements with these economic giants in ways that advance African economic and strategic interests.

It is one thing to be the most wanted bride and another to choose the right groom for your short-, medium- and long-term advancement and lifelong prosperity.

The need for Africa to have co-ordinated and well thought-out strategies on how to maximise leverage from the global fascination with its rise cannot be overemphasised.


* Dlamini, the chairman of Massmart, attended the inaugural US-Africa Leaders summit in Washington DC.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent