Youth jobs top agenda of US ambassador

By Marianne Merten | Pretoria News

BUILDING effective partnerships between the US and South Africa, not only on investment, but also health and education – and to help address youth unemployment – is a key focus of American ambassador Patrick Gaspard.

“I hope I get to partner effectively with my counterparts in the South African government to create a stable investment environment here that will allow the country to continue to be on the leading edge of economic development on the continent,” the ambassador said in an interview yesterday.

With more than 600 US companies in South Africa, the potential was there, but “serious (US) concerns” about the need for a level investment playing field must be resolved. “We want to do everything we can to be a catalyst for development, but we cannot allow our companies to work at a disadvantage against a European counterpart because of tariffs. Those issues really will have to be resolved.”

Next year is the deadline for the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows several South African exports, including light vehicles, duty-free access to US markets.

While President Barack Obama is a keen supporter, and indicated so during his visit to South Africa, it is up to the US Congress to approve the renewal of the act.

However, South Africa remained an important US partner – Obama’s visit underlined economic relationships and that South Africa remained a beacon of democracy, said Gaspard – and more Americans “are recognising that economic outcomes in South Africa have an economic impact back home”.

One lesson of the two-week shutdown of the US government last month – the latest of about 24 in the past 40 years, triggered when Congress failed to pass timeously legislation appropriating funds amid party politicking – was an appreciation by more and more Americans of economies being linked and of global interdependence.

Amid oft-expressed investor concerns about South African labour disputes, particularly in mining, Gaspard’s trade union roots emerge. “That movement allowed me to be in a position to give a collective voice to Americans much like my mother who were providing essential services to others, but not receiving their fair compensation or benefits that would allow them to raise their families,” he said.

It also provided the consciousness and ability to participate in the anti-apartheid movement in the US, where Gaspard was a lead organiser for Nelson Mandela’s 1990 visit.

However, he cautioned, “one has to be concerned about the difficulties here in the pact between labour, industry and the government” and that institutions set up to “foster better conversation, more transparent negotiations” needed to be strengthened. “It is important that labour (unions) in South Africa work with their membership and with aspiring workers throughout the country to help them appreciate the stake they have in the success of the industries in which they work,” he said.

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

The US was ready to help in redressing unemployment, particularly among the youth. “Anything we can do through our government-to-government relationship, through US companies, to create a legacy of real workforce development, it’s going to be terribly important.”

US priorities also include support in health care and structures to deliver services – Gaspard admits to having played “a modest role” in Obama’s health reform for better access. On the education front, work continued with South African authorities in teacher training and literacy skills.

Co-operation on security matters, including concerns about threats by violent extremists, was a reality.

“I’m impressed with the co-operation and partnerships I’ve seen between our intelligence apparatus and the South African intelligence and military forces.”

Gaspard has been in South Africa for almost two months, and for him it is a return to the continent of his birth.

“There’s nothing like being back in Africa with my children and going to the Hector Pieterson memorial, Soweto, Robben Island, and re-experiencing this through their eyes and questions.”

Gaspard was born in Congo-Brazzaville, where his parents, lawyer-teacher Michel, and home health attendant Constance, worked for eight years after arriving among 200 professionals following a call from then leader Patrice Lumumba.

In Haiti, Gaspard’s father’s pro-democracy activism had coincided with the rule of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier.

“It was not the best time to advocate for elections in Haiti. My father was compelled to seek opportunities elsewhere.”

Following Lumumba’s ousting, the family moved to the US. Gaspard became involved in the trade union movement representing health care workers – and politics.

A noted Democratic Party politician, he was the national political director of the Obama election campaign in 2008, and headed the committee overseeing his re-election. Between 2009 and 2011 he was an assistant to the president, and the office of political affairs director.

Originally published in the Pretoria News, 11/07/2013