Former White House political director Patrick Gaspard, President Barack Obama’s Haitian-American nominee to succeed Donald Gips as Washington’s ambassador to South Africa, is a step closer to Pretoria. Last Wednesday he made the obligatory appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In his prepared text, he told the panel the US had a “vital role to play in President Zuma’s efforts to improve the quality and accessibility of education; the struggle to combat high unemployment and by extension the epidemic in crime; and the challenge of income inequality.”

“Beyond our aid assistance and technical expertise,” he continued, “our greatest contribution will be in stimulating private investment and trade. This will be a major priority for my mission if I am confirmed…There are more than 600 American companies already based in South Africa and I will work to see that number grow.”

On the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which expires in 2015 along with the privileged access to America’s market it extends unilaterally to South Africa and most other African countries, he said: “As we move towards negotiations on the renewal (of AGOA), we must work with our South African partners to enact policies that benefit workers and businesses on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Mr Obama and his new US Trade Representative, Michael Froman, have said South Africa cannot take continued enjoyment of AGOA benefits for granted, especially if it keeps irking US companies by imposing higher tariffs on their products than on the EU competition.

Mr Gaspard chose to make a different point: labour, as well as business, must have a say in the terms of AGOA’s renewal. This was a reminder that he had spent the better part of a decade as executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) powerful New York chapter 1199.

He comes with a resume quite different from that of Mr Gips.

The latter is an alumnus of Harvard, Yale and McKinsey and Co. Washington stints aside, he has served as both as an executive and on the boards of an array of IT companies. His network includes the likes of Google’s Eric Schmidt. He now chairs the US-SA Business Council, which is run out of the US Chamber of Commerce.

Mr Gaspard was born in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1967. His father, a Haitian lawyer opposed to the Duvalier dictatorship, answered Patrice Lumumba’s call to Francophone academics of African descent, according to, a site hosted by the MSNBC cable news channel. The family moved to New York when Mr Gaspard was 3.

An admirer of poet Aimé Césaire from whom Franz Fanon drew inspiration, and a poet himself, Mr Gaspard studied at Columbia University but, like George Bush’s Rasputin Karl Rove, with whom he is often compared (and contrasted), did not graduate. He moved instead into activism and politics. Early mentors included David Dinkins, who would later become New York’s mayor with his help. In 1988, he worked for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign.

Before the second round of Codesa talks in 1992, Mr Dinkins, now mayor, had him take a team to SA to obtain guidance from Nelson Mandela on when the city should stop pressuring US businesses to disinvest. He developed while there “an abiding affection for (SA’s) spirited people and culture”.

In 1999, four New York policemen fired 41 shots at an unarmed immigrant from Guinea, Amadou Diallo, hitting him with 19. The four were tried and acquitted. Mr Gaspard was asked to orchestrate mass protests. Doing so, he caught the eye of the 300 000-member SEIU, which hired him and gave him a base from which to demonstrate the genius that had Mr Obama beating a path to his door in 2008.

His admirers, a category not entirely devoid of Republicans, say he has few equals as a political organizer, strategist and fixer. In a 2009 Huffington Post profile Kevin Sheekey, a top aide to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with whom Mr Gaspard was often at odds, was quoted as saying “Patrick is the best political mind of his generation in New York and maybe the nation.”

The same piece had David Axelrod, then Mr Obama’s chief strategist, saying: “He’s obviously a progressive guy, but…there’s a difference between being idealistic and being an ideologue. I think he genuinely believes you can enhance the lives of people through politics.”

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