Clubbing Africa with AGOA

It has taken the Trump administration to change my mind about the African Growth and Opportunity Act and to see that Nelson Mandela was right to worry about its “conditionalities”.

The epiphany came as I listened to US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer talk about AGOA not as a way of encouraging investment in African export industries or of moving from aid to trade, but as a stick to get African governments to play by America’s rules. “They get duty preferences when they do that.”

I am not so naive as to deny there was always a stick element to AGOA, but I believed the stick would be applied judiciously and was worth tolerating in return for pretty much unfettered access to the world’s largest market.

I thought SA was foolish to protect its lame poultry sector when AGOA was helping the country run a substantial trade surplus with the US, much of it accounted for by manufactures. I also believed SA erred in balking at a reciprocal trade agreement with the US years earlier in place of unilateral AGOA. That way the chicken row might have been avoided.

But now comes the orange bully boy who equates Africa with excrement and is on an imbecile mission to “make America great again” at everyone else’s expense (and ultimately, its own). In his hands, AGOA, its conditions and coming expiration in 2025, are brass knuckles.

If there’s any doubt Trump’s trade office will use them, consider its disgraceful decision to side with America’s rag and bone men against members of the East African Community. The latter are being told that if they continue resisting imports of America’s cast-off t-shirts, their AGOA privileges will be cancelled, their aim to build their own textile and apparel industries be damned.

Lighthizer is under orders to strike “as many bilateral agreements as possible”. Divide and conquer is the Trump way. It’s much easier to “win” when dealing with smaller countries one at a time.

“I think that before very long we’re going to pick out an Africa country, properly selected, and enter a free trade agreement with that country,” said the trade representative. “And then that, if done properly, will become a model for these other countries.”

With yesterday’s launch of the Continental Free Trade Area, Africa is moving in precisely the opposite direction to Trump’s crude zero sum bilateralism.

A grown-up US policy would be predicated on supporting the CFTA vision, not trying to cut separate deals. In the closing days of the Obama administration, Lighthizer’s predecessor laid out some options along those lines in a thoughtful report, Beyond AGOA. But association with Obama is the kiss of death in Trump world.

Lighthizer said he saw “enormous potential” in Africa and that “we’re only a few years away from (it) being the population centre of the world.” Good to hear. Then he spoiled things:

“If we don’t figure out a way to move them (Africans) right then China and others are going to move them in the wrong direction.”

So China is moving Africa in the wrong direction? Is any outside country doing more to address Africa’s infrastructure needs or help the continent integrate and industrialise?

In any event, Mr Lighthizer, Africans are perfectly capable of deciding the direction that works for them without guidance from a president who holds them in contempt and hasn’t even bothered to name an Assistant Secretary of State for Africa.

Here’s hoping you do not succeed in using AGOA or its expiration date to separate one or two countries from the pride, and that none takes the bait or caves to threats.  Africa should wait till reason returns to the White House. Why negotiate with the trade representative of a highly eccentric one term administration.




George Lakoff, cognitive linguist, published a book in the early oughts he called “Don’t think of an elephant”. It was about what people in the persuasion business call framing. His point was simple enough. If you don’t want your audience to think about elephants, avoid using the word elephant.

 I was reminded of this by the statement put out on Sunday by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation concerning Parliament’s 241-83 vote to debate putting government’s power of eminent domain — the US term for expropriation — on steroids.

 “Minister (Lindiwe) Sisulu calls on the international community not to panic”, the statement was headlined, introducing, quite unnecessarily, the notion that something panic-worthy was actually going on here and that government and the normally imperturbable Cyril Ramaphosa might themselves be running around like headless chickens.

 The don’t panic panic button pressed, the rest of the statement was likely to be a blur for most observers, a pity because the meat of the message was quite reassuring. There will be a process (we all know what SA processes do to action) and the views of all South Africans will be taken into account, not just those of the Julius Malema fringe.

 That was all that needed to be said, though as I write, a week after the vote, the Rapid Response team at the Government Communications and Information Service is still crafting a set of talking points for “government communicators” at home and abroad.

 Of course, panic is exactly what Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters want us all to do. It magnifies their importance. It makes them look as though their grassroots support is  many times what it actually is. And it allows to them frame a critically important debate about SA’s economic future in an utterly counterproductive way.

 Malema and Donald Trump are political soulmates. They work from the same poisonous playbook. Their modus operandi is to whip up fear and loathing, assiduously blowing on embers of resentment until the embers erupt into flame.  They are master of the ju jitsu of making their opponents defeat themselves.

 Trump tweets hard to goad his critics into saying things that energise his base. Does he really think arming teachers is a smart way of dealing with America’s gun disease? It doesn’t matter. The reason he says it is to stoke the great American culture war.  Malema uses much the same tactics to fan racial animosity.

 None of which is to deny that both men, whatever their self-aggrandizing motives, are poking at genuine wounds and that these need dressing. But they need dressing in a manner that doesn’t leave the patients crippled for years to come. If Malema and Trump are allowed to keep framing the debate about remedies, the prognosis is not good.

 How then should the SA land issue be framed? Not, certainly, as something about which one must be told not to panic. Were I still in the nation branding business, I would want to put it in the context of pushing the economy onto a higher, more inclusive growth path. I would have advised the Minister against saying, as she did, “We invite members of the international community to continue supporting our effort to reverse the legacy of apartheid.”

 Were there such a thing as the international community, it would have shrugged at that, if not rolled its eyes. For a better, more forward-leaning frame, consider what Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said in a splendidly proud and confident speech here last week: “We must create wealth and provide happiness to our nation…We are going to build a Ghana beyond aid…The black star is going to shine and shine and shine”. Ghana’s economy is projected to grow 8.3 per cent this year.