New ambassador keeps eye on US assets

By Marianne Merten | Cape Argus – Independent Newspapers

New US ambassador Patrick Gaspard has sounded a warning note in one of his first interviews in South Africa.

He stressed his key focus was building effective partnerships in the fields of investment, health, education and youth unemployment. And he said he hoped for effective partnerships with counterparts in the government to create a stable investment environment here that would allow the country to remain on the leading edge of economic development on the continent.

The potential was here, with more than 600 US companies, but “serious (US) concerns” over level investment playing fields needed to be resolved.

“While we want to do everything we can to be a catalyst for development, we cannot allow our companies to work at a disadvantage against a European counterpart because of tariffs.”

The deadline for the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act is 2015. This allows several South African exports duty-free access to US markets. However it was up to the US Congress to renew it.

Obama’s recent visit had underscored economic relationships, and South Africa remained a beacon of democracy, said Gaspard. More Americans “are recognising that economic outcomes here in South Africa have an economic impact back home”.

Gaspard, a self-proclaimed “New York nationalist”, became involved in the trade union movement representing health-care workers – and politics.

He was a Democratic Party politician, the national political director of the Obama for America 2008 election campaign, and headed the committee overseeing Obama’s re-election. Between 2009 and 2011 he served as an assistant to the president and the office of political affairs director.

During discussion of concerns among investors rising from recent local labour disputes Gaspard allowed his trade union roots to show.

He cautioned that “one has to be concerned about the difficulties that exist here in the pact between labour, industry and government” and that institutions created to “foster a better conversation, more transparent negotiations” had to be strengthened.

“It’s all good to make wage demands… but at the end of the day you need to make sure there’s going to be an industry for your members to operate in, to thrive in.”

US priorities included assistance with unemployment, particularly among youths, and support in health care and the structures to deliver services, as well as contributing to teacher training and literacy skills. He was impressed with the co-operation he had already seen on security issues. – The Cape Argus