Bonkers Mbongi

Joel Pollak, Donald Trump’s slavish SA-born mbongi, thinks Trump “may be able help” bring the Zuptacracy to heel. “As he wrestles with the swamp creatures of Washington, Trump has some leverage to drain the swamps in Pretoria and Cape Town as well,” the would be ambassador to Pretoria recently posted on Breitbart, Trumpism’s Pravda.

And that leverage would be? No, not a promise to Trumpify Nkandla if Zuma would agree to retire there quietly. Something even wackier.

“President Trump,” argued Pollak, “could use his discretion to suspend South Africa’s AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) eligibility until the country can reliably hold its elected officials accountable to the law. That might prompt Zuma to clean up his administration, or embolden voices for reform within the ANC.”

It’s not obvious Tony Leon’s one time speechwriter has much grasp of SA’s current political dynamics. Were I Zuma or a Gupta, I’d tell the orange mountebank to bring it on. I’d want him as an enemy. Kleptocrats love it when popular anger is distracted by foreign devils. Pockets at home become easier to pick. Besides, there are comrades who dismiss AGOA as heartily as they dislike Zuma.

Pollak’s suggestion is probably still born.The law does not give Trump the power to suspend SA’s AGOA benefits simply because many South Africans are convinced their president is a crook. The requirement is for beneficiaries to have in place, or be “making continual progress” towards, “a system to combat corruption and bribery”. No one would deny SA has such a system. It’s under strain but it’s there nonetheless.

None of which is to say that SA’s enjoyment of AGOA between now and when the act expires in 2025 is a done deal. Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross made that very plain when he addressed the Corporate Council Africa’s annual business summit here earlier this month.

The Trump administration, he said, wanted to move from AGOA’s unilaterally extended trade preferences to “two-way trade agreements”. Nothing particularly new in that. Indeed, from the outset AGOA’s authors saw the more advanced African economies graduating from one-way grants of US market access to negotiated reciprocity.

More interesting — and Trumpian — was what Ross chose to emphasise next: “In the meantime, we must ensure countries currently benefiting from…AGOA continue complying with the eligibility requirements established in US law. The administration takes these congressional requirements very seriously…We will vigorously protect the rights of US companies and workers in the global arena.”

Deliberately or serendipitously, the office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) showed Ross to be in earnest three days later when it launched an “out-of-cycle” AGOA eligibility review of three members of the East African Community — Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania — and warned a fourth, Kenya, which had already semi-caved to US demands, to keep its nose clean. SA knows all about “out of cycle reviews”, having been subjected to one as part of the late poultry war.

EAC leaders announced last year they were raising tariffs on imports of cast-off clothing and shoes they said were stifling domestic manufacturers. In March, SMART, the Washington trade association that represents “secondary materials and recycled textiles industry”, petitioned USTR for retaliation. 40 000 US jobs and exports valued at $124 million were at stake, the lobby claimed.

If the tariff increases were consistent with World Trade Organisation rules, and it looks as though they are, what had the EACs done to violate AGOA? The SMART answer: they were not making “continual progress” on “the elimination of barriers to US trade and investment” and “economic policies to reduce poverty”. Trump’s USTR has decided there are “exceptional circumstances warranting” turns of the screw.

Here is the reality of AGOA. The US can make whatever demands and arbitrary determinations it likes in return for duty free access to its market. Under previous administrations, there was a tacit understanding that the act’s purpose was primarily developmental, to help African nations grow by encouraging their integration into global value chains. That was then.

If Ross is to be taken at his word, Team Trump means to use AGOA eligibility aggressively in pursuit of its America First objectives. These include “access to markets, recognition of truly international standards, due process in procurement and protection of intellectual property”. Also “wins” for US companies bidding on African infrastructure projects, even when their bids are not the lowest. The Trumpsters will be keeping count.

The only way African governments will be able to avoid arbitrary Trumpist interpretations of AGOA conditions will be to negotiate bilateral deals. Does that rule out agreements with regional communities like the one the Obama administration was working towards with the EAC? That’s unclear.

More predictable is that SA will come under pressure to do a bilateral deal to level the playing field for US exporters with their EU competitors. That’s where the administration will play the AGOA eligibility card, not as a lever to end the Zuptacracy.


John Brown

Once a month I ride the Capitol Limited between Washington and Cumberland 140 miles to the west at the foot of the Allegheny mountains as a volunteer lecturer. The railroad follows the sinuous Potomac river and the remains of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal that run beside it. My job is to talk to passengers about the history of what they are seeing from the observation car.

Half way along the route we come to Harper’s Ferry where the Potomac is joined from the south by the Shenandoah and passes through the Blue Ridge. The view, wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1783, is “one of the most stupendous in nature”. The town itself, in its heydey, was less picturesque. “An abominable little village,” an English tourist called it in 1836. “Here is the Government Manufactory of Firearms; and the smell of coal smoke and the clanking of hammers…prevent one’s enjoyment from being unmixed.”

As we approach Harper’s Ferry, I generally ask my audience what, if anything, the name John Brown means to them. I am referring to the radical abolitionist who, in October 1859, tried to seize the armoury and ignite a slave uprising that would blaze down the Shenandoah valley and into the deep South. Most of Brown’s 19-man raiding party were killed. Brown himself was captured, hastily tried and hanged that December.

A century and a half on, it is still best to have a sense of who you’re talking to when discussing Brown or the civil war between the slaveholding South and the free North it helped trigger. Donald Trump’s dog whistles have given a sense of license to diehard Confederate flag-flyers and other fans of the Lost Cause.

“John Brown’s effort was peculiar,” said Abraham Lincoln in early 1860, the year he would be elected president. “It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves in which slaves themselves refused to participate.” He saw Brown as “an enthusiast” who “broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt which ends in little else than his own execution.”

That was the carefully measured judgement of a statesman hoping save a deeply divided nation from fracture. It has lived on as the safe view up to the present day. When in doubt, it’s what I can confidently get away with on the train, placing Brown somewhere on the fruitcake spectrum between Don Quixote and Tad Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

But it’s also a distortion.

Yes, Brown committed acts of what many would classify as terrorism. As supporters of slavery fought with anti-slavery “free soilers” in the 1850’s for control of what would become Kansas, he and his men rousted two families out of their beds at the dead of night and slaughtered five of their menfolk with broadswords. The victims had all been involved in murderous attacks on free soilers. Brown openly intended his vengeance to terrorise.

And yes, you might even see parallels between Brown’s crusade and jihadism. Like the jihadis Graeme Wood interviewed for his masterful book, “The Way of Strangers — Encounters with the Islamic State”, Brown took his marching orders from an uncompromising reading of scripture. But is extremism in the name of God always wrong? As Evan Carton writes in “Patriotic Treason — John Brown and the Soul of America”, the best recent biography:

“The Christianity that is invoked in our national halls of power has nothing in common with the teachings that Brown understood to be at the heart of the faith: Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them. Do unto others that others should do unto you. Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”

Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and towering abolitionist orator of whom Trump recently said “(he’s) done an amazing job and is getting recognised more and more, I notice”, counselled his friend Brown against the Harper’s Ferry raid. He had to leave the country for a spell after it failed. But his admiration never waned.

“Like the great and good of all ages, the men whose bleeding footprints attest the immense cost of reform,” he would later say, “this our noblest American hero must wait the polishing wheels of after-coming centuries to make his glory more manifest, his worth more generally acknowledged.”

There are signs, Trumpism notwithstanding, that the polishing wheels are getting closer. Most obvious is the courageous decision by the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, to take down the city’s statues of Robert E Lee and two other Confederate generals. “These statues”, he said in a speech that has caused some to see him as a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement and the terror that it actually stood for.” And which Brown stood all but alone against.