Hitting the Reset Button

The Obama administration is working hard to breathe life back into relations between the US and South Africa that have become stale, tetchy and, on occasion, downright venomous. That is good news for anyone working to promote South Africa’s global reputation. It helps when what is still the richest and most powerful country on the planet wants to see us the way we want, and need, to be seen.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to South Africa last week clearly determined to “reset” ties that had begun fraying when her husband was president and, but for a curious honeymoon between then Presidents George Bush and Thabo Mbeki , had been becoming progressively unglued ever since. An unnamed member of her retinue told the New York Times that “the relationship was fraught with far more difficulty than the previous administration was willing to acknowledge. We had little access and even less influence.”

Cynics might argue that Clinton was having her team play up the negatives in order to accentuate her accomplishment in setting things right. That would not be fair. Notwithstanding US respect for South Africa’s economic management, there has been real friction on a host of matters, chief among them AIDS, the invasion of Iraq, and what was taken as a disconnect between the values enshrined in South Africa’s constitution and the Mbeki administration’s voting record in the UN Security Council.

Trade has been another contentious area. The collapse of negotiations on a free-trade agreement between the US and the South African Customs Union (SACU) left a sour taste in a number of Washington mouths. In interview published by the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this month, Princeton Lyman, ambassador South Africa during the democratic transition, pointed to unhappiness with South Africa’s stance in the Doha round and what he and others see as our leadership role in persuading  the rest of Africa to side with China, India and Brazil against its own best interests.

Differences over Zimbabwe have been less acute than the media has sometimes made out, although it must have rankled with Mbeki to hear Bush call him “my point man” on the issue. Perceived arrogance and condescension certainly soured things between Mbeki and the Clinton administration’s top Africanist, Susan Rice, now Obama’s UN ambassador. “I admire her somewhat,” he once famously remarked when asked about his rumoured irritation with her. His feelings for American ambassadors who publicly chided his administration on AIDS and crime can only be guessed at.

The Mbeki administration established formal mechanisms with a number of countries to help manage their bilateral relationships. The original such institution was the US-SA Binational Commission, the brainchild of President Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce, Ron Brown, and chaired by Vice President Al Gore and Mbeki, his then counterpart.  Clinton, understandably, wanted to play a role in the South African miracle. At the same time, because of the ANC’s past affiliations and ideological leanings, Washington felt the need to keep South Africa’s young democracy close.

For a number of reasons, including the death of Brown, a political force of nature, the commission lost momentum. It was shelved when Bush entered the White House, though several of its committees, most notably the one on defence, lived on without fanfare.  An excess of fanfare may, in fact, have been one of the commission’s chief weaknesses. It obscured the substance.

Over time, however, the commission has come to be missed. Now, to judge from references by Clinton and International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane on Friday, a new “formal mechanism” is in the works, along with a revitalized US-SA Business Council. This can only be a healthy development, especially as it seems based on a genuine, not just rhetorical, desire for partnership on issues local, regional and global.

As part of its courtship, the Obama administration is paying us some very pretty compliments. Johnnie Carson, the new assistant Secretary of State for Africa, recently observed that in coining the acronym BRIC — Brazil, Russia, India, China — Goldman Sachs had made “a small mistake. It should have added that the letter S to make it the BRICS, with the S the South Africa. For South Africa deserves its spot at the table as one of the most important emerging markets and regional states.”

His boss, on Friday, rhapsodised that “it isn’t easy to find countries with financial and economic policies that have been as sound as South Africa’s…Frankly, we could learn a lot from your example.” She said she “wanted to make sure that word is brought back to the United States that South Africa is a great place to invest in.” This was part of a story, which, as she said earlier in Nairobi, “we need to tell over and over again.”

Having credible friends tell the story is the kind of help South Africa can use.

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