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Forging a new era in US-South African relations


Forging a new era in US-South African relations

Forging a new era in US-South African relations
Photo credit: Chris Kirchhoff | MediaClub South Africa

As Anthony Carroll details in the Africa Center’s newest report, Forging a New Era in US-South African Relations, the United States has a significant stake in South Africa’s future. The country has the potential to serve as a peacekeeper and economic flagship for the whole of Africa.

Executive summary

As one of the African continent’s largest and most sophisticated economies, South Africa offers a myriad of opportunities for engagement with the United States on diplomatic, commercial, security, and social fronts. It is a self-sufficient, complex, and dynamic country in a struggling, complex, and dynamic region.

Yet, the centrality of South Africa to the United States’ relationship with the wider continent is underappreciated by Washington’s policy community, which has become distracted by the displays of dysfunctionality and high-level corruption that have come to characterize South African politics. These political dramatics have knocked US relations with South Africa off track by obscuring the enduring social inequities at the heart of South Africa’s problems, both in media depictions of South Africa and in serious policy discussions.

This report offers a snapshot of South Africa on the heels of several important events – the close but unsuccessful vote of no confidence against President Jacob Zuma in the South African Parliament on August 8; the National Policy Conference of the African National Congress (ANC) in July; and the International Monetary Fund’s Article IV Consultation in June – and in the run-up to the ANC’s conference in December 2017: a meeting that will decide the identity of South Africa’s next president by determining the presidential candidate who will run atop the ANC’s ticket during national elections in 2019.

South Africa stands at a fork in the road. The next iteration of the ANC’s leadership will either resuscitate the venerable liberation party or preside over the end of its era. Public support for the ANC has been steadily eroding, and the party has already ceded control of three major municipalities to the opposition Democratic Alliance. While the ANC is almost certain to win the 2019 presidential election, future polls may well be up for grabs – unless the ANC can reinvent itself, becoming not only the organization that lifted South Africa out of apartheid, but the instigator of a new, post-racial politics. With South Africa’s political opposition parties still in a formative stage and unready to lead the nation, the success or failure of the ANC may determine the fate of the nation.

The United States has a stake in this outcome. South Africa has the potential to serve as a peacekeeper and economic flagship for the whole of Africa. Currently, it falls far short of this potential – but the upside trade and security benefits of an improved relationship between Washington and Pretoria are significant. At the same time, the downside risks of ignoring the relationship are severe: increased social unrest in South Africa would have disastrous, continental consequences.

This report assesses the potential role of the United States in assuring South Africa’s passage through this difficult period, and recommends a new high-level effort to attempt to achieve measurable objectives on four tracks:

  1. Trade Liberalization: Laying the groundwork for a free trade agreement in anticipation of the expiration of the African Growth and Opportunity Act in 2025

  2. Business-to-Business Relations: Focusing on the next generation of American investor interest in South Africa

  3. Government-to-Government Relations: Using “Track 2” diplomacy to reinvigorate formal ties

  4. University and Think Tank Collaboration: Galvanizing joint research and mobilizing support from civil society to change public opinion

Finally, the report seeks to incentivize collaboration between Washington and Pretoria by highlighting some of the many commercial successes that have already emerged between the two economies. It describes South Africa’s unique contributions to the African continent including economic modernization, thought and business leadership, technology transfer, and regional integration.

South Africa is a strong and independent nation, and relations with the United States have been strained. The findings of this report suggest a need – on both sides – for a stronger and more vigorous relationship between Pretoria and Washington.

Download: Forging a New Era in US-South African Relations (PDF)


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