SA Shines Brightly at Africa Summits in US Capital

The Sunday Times | 08/17/2014

President Obama’s new model of long-term partnership sees the US and Africa as equals, writes Patrick H Gaspard

Just as Africa is changing, we need to change the way we think about the continent and put aside old stereotypes

IT was a great time to be in Washington as Africa took centre stage for two full weeks recently. South Africa can be proud that it was one of the star performers as President Barack Obama hosted two significant summits reinforcing the importance he places on the continent and highlighting its influence on the future.

It all began when 500 of Africa’s brightest young professionals came together after spending six weeks in leadership and professional training at universities around the US on the first Young African Leaders Initiative Washington Fellowship programme.

It was inspiring to connect with the 46 young South Africans who were representing the country during an event hosted by ambassador Ebrahim Rasool at the South African embassy. The energy, drive, and promise that these amazingly talented men and women displayed that evening set the perfect tone for the two weeks of meetings and events. The president and first lady Michelle Obama, along with many other high-level US government and business leaders I talked to, were all encouraged and galvanised by the time they spent with them. On July 28, during his town hall session with these young African leaders, President Obama announced that he would double the programme from 500 to 1 000 participants in 2016, establish four regional leadership centers in Africa, including one in South Africa, and honour the country by renaming the programme the Mandela Washington Fellowship. What better way to inspire the future leaders of the continent than by linking it to one of history’s greatest leaders?

The following week, Africa’s government and business leaders came to town for the US-Africa Leaders Summit. President Obama made it clear from the beginning that he wanted this summit to reshape the US’s partnership with Africa. “Just as Africa is changing, we need to change the way we think about the continent, put aside old stereotypes and respond to Africans’ desire for a partnership of equals where Africans take the lead in their own development,” he said.

President Jacob Zuma began the week at the US Chamber of Commerce, where he addressed top US business leaders who are looking for opportunities to invest in Africa. He acknowledged the more than 600 US companies already in South Africa, but he made it clear that he would like to see that number continue to grow. His words and engagement all week demonstrated why South Africa remains one of the top investment economies in Africa.

While Zuma was speaking at the US Chamber, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies was with other African trade ministers at a forum to discuss the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), the legislation that gives South Africa and most other countries on the continent duty-free access to the US market. He joined the US trade representative’s call for a longterm extension of the act when the US Congress reviews it next year.

Agoa has contributed to Africa’s economic success over the past 14 years as exports from sub-Saharan Africa to the US have more than doubled. US exports to Africa have grown substantially during the same period, supporting about 250 000 American jobs. South Africa is the number one beneficiary of Agoa for manufactured products and its renewal would ensure that South Africa and the US continue to benefit beyond 2015.

All week, President Obama highlighted how a new model of partnership could benefit both the US and Africa. That was the message the second day at the US-Africa Business Forum jointly hosted by the US Department of Commerce and Bloomberg Philanthropies. CEOs from the largest American and African companies joined political leaders from both sides to identify new ways to strengthen business ties for greater economic progress. During this forum on August 5, President Obama announced $37-billion (about R390-billion) in new funding by the US government and American companies, a further example of the long-term investment by the US in Africa’s progress.

In doing so, he reiterated that “the United States is determined to be a partner in Africa’s success, a good partner, an equal partner and a partner for the long term”. The president’s Power Africa initiative will receive $12-billion of those new funds to add 30 000MW of additional capacity and expand electricity access to at least 60 million households and businesses in Africa.

Although South Africa is not a Power Africa focus country, it is sure to play a large role in the projects that are being developed. For example, a major New York-based investment firm, Blackstone, announced a $5-billion deal with a Johannesburgbased company to invest in power and power infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa. The last day of the summit saw the largest gathering to date of heads of state at the White House and the State Department. In his final press conference, President Obama reaffirmed US support for the AU to strengthen its peacekeeping institutions through the new African peacekeeping rapid response partnership. It was heartening to hear that my president’s message had come through loud and clear. A new Africa is emerging. It is a region no longer defined by conflict and poverty, but one that is strengthening and growing — and ready for investment. The US is looking to invest in Africa like never before. It is now up to Africans to take advantage of the opportunities for both of us.

Gaspard is US ambassador to South Africa