Playing into Xi’s hands

Monday was Memorial Day, the day America takes off to honour its war dead and celebrate the start of summer. The great and the good nowadays pay their respects via tweet. Donald Trump, neither great nor good, tweeted a tribute to himself. Referring to the ghosts of Normandy, Iwo Jima, Chosin, Ia Drang and countless other fields, he boasted how proud of him they would be for today’s economy, concluding exuberantly: “Nice!”

My point is not that he is a repellent human being. That is already well established.  What interests me more is the encouraging message his twitter-spew sends to all who yearn to see America in retreat.

It confirms that the US is led by an insecure, autocratic and vainglorious man who wants to believe he is uniquely clever but in truth knows and feels no history, reads no books, cannot be briefed and is entirely self-obsessed. This is the lens through which to view the curious off-again, on-again bromance between Trump and North Korea’s uber-thug Kim Jong Un, in which China is quietly operating as matchmaker.

In his tweets, a toxic smog of bluster, lies and crank conspiracy theory, Trump is telling any sentient observer that he is in a desperate state of mind — scared of what special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is turning up (and not just about the role Russia played in getting him elected), and no less worried that the Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives in November and vote to impeach him. He is crying out for help.

One cannot blame Kim or, rather more importantly, China’s Xi Jinping, for reading things that way and making the most of it.

The fate of the Kim dynasty depends on China, today no less than it did in 1950 when Mao sent 400 000 People’s Volunteer Army conscripts to their deaths to rescue founder Kim Il Sung (the Americans lost 34 000). Ninety percent of North Korea’s trade is through China. China, aspiring hegemon, wants to see US military footprint in the region shrivel and its alliances “anaesthetised”, in the phrase of Michael Green, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University.

Trump has already proven himself an able geostrategic gas-passer, pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership the moment he took office. He has dismayed allies far more than foes with wild threats of tariffs on steel, aluminium and cars. He has complained, ignorantly, that Seoul has not been paying adequately for the US military tripwire that guarantees it against attack from the North. In February, according to the NBC television network, he had to restrained from pulling US forces out of the Korean peninsular altogether.

If I’m Xi, I am seeing a huge opportunity here to hasten America’s abandonment of East Asia. From a position of weakness, Trump is effectively pleading with the Chinese leader to orchestrate a deal, any deal, he can use to con voters and the Nobel jury into thinking him a statesman and saving his presidency.

Xi, playing chess while Trump fumbles tiddlywinks, seeks to replace the US as South Korea’s security blanket. To that end, Beijing wants the Korean War, suspended by an armistice since 1953, officially over on terms acceptable to Pyongyang so that the rationale for a US military presence falls away and Seoul no longer sees its relationship with Washington in existential terms.

From Xi’s standpoint, Trump must be a dream come true — and he did not even have to brainwashed first in Manchuria. Helping keep him in office makes eminent sense. And of course, it he ever gets uppity about Chinese trade policy or sanctions-busting by a Chinese phone maker, he’s for sale. Just invest in a Trump-branded development somewhere or give his daughter a few more patents, and he’ll calm down nicely.




The first triplets born in Zimbabwe after independence were American, much to Robert Mugabe’s irritation.  Their father was the Hungarian refugee Donald Trump has finally got around to asking the Senate to confirm as his assistant secretary of state for Africa.

Tibor Nagy was an admin officer at the US embassy in Lusaka in 1980 when his wife, Eva Jane, a Texas farmer’s daughter who had been his college sweetheart, went into labour. She had a bad case of toxemia. The nearest hospital equipped to save her was in Harare.

Nagy, 69, spent almost all of his 25-year career as a foreign service officer in one or other African post, ending as ambassador in Ethiopia (during the Ethiopian-Eritrean war) and Guinea, before returning, in 2003, to his alma mater, Texas Tech University, to head its international affairs programme.

In 2010 he sat down to be interviewed for a candid oral history. That he cleared the transcript for public release suggests he was not expecting a return to African diplomacy.

As a child in Budapest, he wore the red kerchief of the Communist Young Pioneers, it being safer to conform. His father, an army officer, fought the Nazis on the Eastern Front only to be charged with being a western agent after the war. Stalin’s death saved him from execution, but not before the authorities had persuaded his wife — Nagy’s mother — to divorce him if she wanted to keep their child.

Spared, he supported the uprising against the Soviet puppet regime in 1956. When it failed, he fled to Austria with his son, second wife and her children. The US welcomed them in 1957. They made their home in Washington. Nagy Sr. went on to a successful career in the US Agency for International Development.

Most of the kids at Nagy Jr.’s elementary school were black. When they went on to middle school together, he was placed on a higher track. “I am convinced to this day it was based on skin colour because those kids were just as sharp as I was.”

Needless to say, he grew up staunchly anti-communist. In 1964, he went door-to-door for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and has remained unabashedly loyal to the party ever since. He failed his first foreign service exam. On his successful second try, he was asked to name his two favourite presidents. Theodore Roosevelt, he said, then, less predictably, Richard Nixon.

State Department careers are compartmented into various “cones”. Political and economic tend to be the ones to which high fliers are assigned. Nagy found himself in administration, making sure his colleagues were properly housed, fed, transported, equipped and protected.

By design or good fortune, his first assignments were to small or unpopular hardship posts — after Zambia, the Seychelles, Mengistu’s Ethiopia, Togo, Cameroon — where he could step in as de facto deputy head of mission and build a reputation for being an indispensable jack-of-all-trades. Among his many adventures were a near death experience in the Seychelles where a Tanzanian soldier put a gun to his head mistaking him for one of Bob Denard’s dogs of war.

Reading his oral history, I incline to the view that he is coming back to Washington not out of any admiration for the xenophobe, immigrant-bashing, trash-talking Trump but from a sense of duty to the country and its foreign service — which the Trumpists have been doing their utmost to degrade — and from a genuine affection for the continent and its people. He may have bided his time until being sure that the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, would have his back.

As the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of his father-in-law, Julius Agricola, a most able proconsul who served the depraved Domitian, “even under bad emperors there can be great men”.


Honest giraffe

To save his skin, Jacob Zuma disbanded the Scorpions. Donald Trump fired a giraffe, the creature with which two metre tall former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey associates himself in his memoir, A Higher Loyalty, published on Tuesday.

The book, in which Comey calls Trump “morally unfit” for office and says reminds him of the mob bosses he prosecuted at the start of his career,  is getting mixed reviews.

Among  the kindest was by New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani. Of Comey and Trump, she wrote: “They are as antipodean as the untethered, sybaritic Al Capone and the square, diligent G-man Eliot Ness in Brian De Palma’s 1987 movie “The Untouchables”.”

From Trump himself came the inevitable twitter tantrum, closely coordinated with his Fox News mbongi chorus and nicely illustrating Kakutani’s comparison. Comey was a “slimeball”, the president said, and ought to be in jail for a range of (imaginary) offences.

Supporters of Hillary Clinton expressed their disapproval more delicately, though their underlying rage is scarcely less fierce. Comey, they are convinced, put Trump over the top in 2016 when he told congress, days before the election, that he was reopening the FBI’s enquiry into whether she had knowingly compromised US secrets by using a private email server while secretary of state.

Comey, to my mind quite convincingly, argues that of the terrible choices with which he was confronted he made the least ghastly to preserve the integrity of the FBI as an institution that must, for democracy’s sake, remain outside the political fray.

He had announced the previous July that while Clinton had been “extremely careless” with her email, there was no evidence she knew she was breaking the law, let alone that she intended to break it. Then, in October, police in New York  discovered a whole new trove of potentially incriminating Clinton emails on a laptop belonging the the estranged husband of one of her closest aides, Huma Abedin. The husband, former Congressman Anthony Weiner, was under investigation for digitally exposing himself to an underage girl.

Comey’s critics argue he should have kept mum about this discovery until after the election. But he had every reason to believe it was about to be leaked by anti-Clinton cops in New York. If that happened before the election, as was likely, the FBI would be accused of trying to protect the Democrat. If Clinton won as the polls predicted and it then became know that the FBI had been sitting on incriminating evidence, the legitimacy of her election would be thrown into doubt and Trump’s charge that the result would be rigged validated.

In the event, Comey’s team had time to the examine the emails before  election day and confirm his earlier decision not to prosecute, but the reclosing of the enquiry came too late to unbreak camels’ backs broken by the last straw of its reopening.

If there is a case to be made against Comey’s handling of an impossible situation, it is that to protect the institution he loved he allowed himself to be intimidated by the howling heads of the rabid right.  The terrible irony is that in doing so he helped deliver the FBI into the hands of a man with zero respect for its independence.

Trump, in Comey’s telling, wanted the FBI director to act as one of his “made men” in Mafia parlance — to drop the probe into the Kremlin’s meddling with the election, go easy on Mike Flynn, his first national security adviser facing prosecution for lying about his Russian contacts,  even to find some way of disproving allegations that Trump had cavorted with urinating prostitutes in a Moscow hotel suite during the Miss Universe pageant in 2013.

Comey, a stiff-necked but honest giraffe with a nice eye for the telling detail, wouldn’t play.


Rag outrage

So Rwanda, an African success story whose president, Paul Kagame, currently chairs the African Union and just hosted the launch of the Continental Free Trade Area, faces US trade sanctions. Reason? Kigali has chosen not to import clothing woven and sewn in Asia, worn and tossed out in America, then sorted and cleaned in India before finally being dumped into East Africa.

Apparently the reluctance of Rwanda and its East African Community partners, their combined GDP less than Hawaii’s, to welcome unlimited container loads of the rich and careless world’s detritus has been doing the US a damage. We are told it is  threatening the livelihoods of some 200 000 Americans and costing the “industry” that would employ them $124 million a year in lost sales.

That, at any rate, is what the industry’s Washington swamp rat, the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, or SMART, would have the office of the US Trade Representative believe, pulling the numbers from one of its anatomy’s darker places. The lobby presents no basis for its claim other than untested “member surveys”.

Donald Trump’s trade enforcers have accepted this hogwash. Previous administrations, receiving similar petitions, have politely tossed them into their round files, suppressing gag reflexes as they did so. But not the minions of a president who describes the continent in scatological terms. Nothing can make them gag.  They have gone to bat for the scavengers.

Their bludgeon is denial of access to the world’s largest market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Do as we say or we will drive away the very investment in garment manufacture AGOA was meant to help you attract. We will force you to thrust back into poverty the thousands of women employed in the factories we gave you incentives to build.

What is particularly galling is the way in way the new US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, has used the AGOA cudgel to divide the East African Community, all of whose members initially stood together to protect their nascent industries from America’s degrading hand-me-downs. But one by one, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have been bullied into kissing Washington’s ring. Rwanda alone has stood firm.

It was alright for Alexander Hamilton, America’s first treasury secretary, now the subject of a Broadway musical to which no ordinary mortal can afford a ticket, to erect tariffs behind which a fledgling US industrialised. But let Africa erect a wall against products that America does not make, only soils, discards and sends to India to refurbish, and Africa must be punished.

Of course, the argument is made that used clothing is all many people in EAC countries can afford at this point and, besides, provides livelihoods to countless traders. But that is precisely the colonial paradigm from which Africa is surely trying to break free, which is why the EAC acted as it did.

Without industrialisation and the emergence of robust regional value chains and markets, the majority of African nations are likely to remain exporters of raw commodities and importers of goods to which value has been added elsewhere. Isn’t breaking out of that  dead end historical path what the Continental Free Trade Area is all about?

Not all of Washington is as narrow-minded as Trump’s trade heavies. Congress, thanks to the leadership of old-fashioned Republicans like House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce and Democrats like Delaware’s Senator Chris Coons (a statesman when not in the thrall of Big Chicken) are pushing through measures to fund investment in Africa’s economic integration.

But they are having to deal with a demoralised, deskilled bureaucracy headed by a reality TV star/failed casino owner whose views on trade are no more sophisticated than those of a heroin hustler fighting for his turf in the Bronx he came from.


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.

Go for impact

My favorite tweet this week was by Shakespeare, or an impostor, commenting on a new BBC series about the Trojan War. The bard was not a fan. “Cassandra gave me her review of #TroyFallOfACity a week ago. I should have listened.”

My second favourite social media post was from Brian Levy, a friend on Facebook and also in real life. He was worried by an editorial in Monday’s Business Day subheaded, online at least, “What Ramaphosa can get cracking on with urgency is reconfiguring and co-ordinating the government.” It bought out the Cassandra in him, and remember, Cassandra spoke the truth.

Levy, a veteran World Banker who now divides his time between the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and the Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice at the University of Cape Town, is author, most recently, of “Working with the Grain: Integrating Governance and Growth in Development Strategies”. He knows how governments function in settings such as SA, of which he remains a proud and engaged son.

“I am hugely wary of the swamp of “reconfiguring and co-ordinating government”,” he writes. “I led the World Bank’s Africa public sector team for five years. I know first hand that gains on this path come slowly at best — and all too often lead nowhere…It’s a recipe for inaction.”

Instead, Levy argues, the focus should be on a limited number of “high impact” initiatives, say four to six, that can yield tangible near-term results, “build positive momentum” and “deepen optimism”. Sorting out the mining charter would be be a good example and Levy is pleased that President Ramaphosa has it high on his agenda.

Don’t misunderstand, Levy is all for thinning out the bloated herd of ministers and deputies Zuma left in his baleful wake. Cull, he says, but don’t “get overly preoccupied with the micro-details of reorganising.” Playing with the deckchairs is super tempting for politicians who want to be seen doing something. But the temptation must be resisted by those, and Ramaphosa is clearly one of them, who want to get real stuff done. Government is messy at the best of times. Live with it, for now at least.

Says Levy:””Reconfiguring and co-ordinating” is a marvelous agenda for large teams of highly-paid consultants. It offers them an endless work stream — and when the process turns out to be slow and doesn’t show results, they then call for patience (and more contracts), arguing that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

I can relate to that after my years with Brand SA, an organisation in a constant state of reinvention after its first CEO, Yvonne Johnson, was given the heave-ho by Essop Pahad for knowing what she was doing. Enter then the armies of consultants and facilitators with felt pens and white boards, the constant decamping to the Midrand conference centre archipelago, the orgies of organograms, matrices and flowcharts, and finally the complete triumph of process over action, process being what organisations use to convince themselves and those to whom they answer that they are making an actual contribution.

Talking of which, what is (italics is) Brand SA doing these days? They have blocked me on Twitter, I think for correcting their spelling, and I haven’t heard or seen mention of them in ages, unless you count the odd sighting of the logo. Is one of the Gupta brothers still on their board? If they are still around and Ramaphosa is in reconfiguring and co-ordinating mode, why not hand them back to the Government Communications and Information Service? Then turn over the reputation management and investment promotion side of things to credible third party endorsers and explainers in the private sector. They’d have more impact. Might be a lot more cost effective too.