Johannesburg — US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Pretoria Tuesday spending time with her good friend, Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and disproving suspicion that bilateral ties between South Africa and the United States have eroded in recent years.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed her trip to South Africa as the "centrepiece" of her visit to the African continent. Clinton arrived in South Africa Sunday amid much speculation about the exact nature of the relationship between South Africa and the United States.
The American press was rife with speculation that the relationship between the two countries was severely strained by South Africa's "obstructive" stance in the United Nations Security Council despite public declarations to the contrary. But while American diplomats attest to a cordial bilateral relationship in public, in private they complain they are treated with suspicion by their South African counterparts. For their part, South African diplomats disregard the American complaints, reiterating their belief that South Africa and the US are indeed friendly. They point out that the Minister of International Relations and Co-Operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and Hillary Clinton are friends beyond their work.
So on Tuesday when Clinton called on Nkoana-Mashabane at the OR Tambo building in Pretoria, the personal bond between the two women was evident. As one journalist put it, "It's always a love-fest with these two." Their personal bond however does not smooth over the more prickly aspects of the relationship between the countries they represent.
Speaking Tuesday morning, Clinton said, "As crises and opportunities arise, there are tough issues we have to tackle together, from nuclear proliferation to climate change, security crises, the situation in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or Syria.
"We do not always see eye-to-eye on these issues. I don't know if people always do and certainly not two nations. Sometimes we will disagree as friends do."
Syria is perhaps one of the most divisive issues in world affairs today, and the softly-softly, more cautious stance assumed by South Africa has been at odds with the more robust position of the Americans, who have repeatedly called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. And though Clinton warned against the threat of terrorists and proxies taking advantage of the Syrian conflict, her message was significantly toned down, no doubt in respect of South Africa's position.
"We must figure out ways to hasten the day when the bloodshed ends and the political transition begins," Clinton said.
Responding to a question from The Washington Post on whether South Africa would now consider supporting sanctions against Syria, Nkoana-Mashabane was keen to emphasise that the South African position on Syria was not likely to change any time soon. "South Africa's position is and has always been that no amount of bloodshed would ever take the place of a political solution to the crisis in Syria and everywhere else where a nation finds itself with an internal conflict growing." she said. "We all agree that the carnage has to stop but we are all grappling with the how."
And while Clinton has been bullish in warning other African states of the dangers of opening their arms and markets to the Chinese, she was far more reserved Tuesday in her criticism of the Chinese when she stood beside Nkoana-Mashabane. She sought to extoll the virtues of American businesses which, she said, come to South Africa charged with the responsibility of ensuring that whatever business they do benefits South African people.
"It is only natural for South Africa to want to expand business with everyone in the world. It would be political malpractice if the government did not seek out economic opportunities everywhere," she said. "The United States does the same. We trade all over the world including in China. Competition and increased trade are good for the global economy."
Nkoana-Mashabane stressed that South Africa did not afford preferential treatment to any of its trade partners. "From the South African point of view we look at compatibility and collaboration. And we agree with both our partners, the US and China, that the time for just focussing on extraction of mineral resources from our continent to take somewhere else has ended," she said.
According to Nkoana-Mashabane, President Zuma has sought to imbue South Africa's dealings with China with such a philosophy. "We were in China a few weeks ago, and President Zuma was very, very clear when he participated in a focus meeting as to the unsustainability of extractive industries that don't bring any beneficiation. And we got a commitment even there that this is what we expect," she said.
Nkoana-Mashabane likened the tug of war between China and the US over African markets to a love triangle. "We love this love affair that's growing from both east and west as long as we agree on the terms as determined by us," she said.
In response, Clinton said, "What we ask for, and what I think you heard (Nkoana-Mashabane) saying, is 'Let's be sure we have a level playing field. Let's be sure we have rule of law, that contracts are respected, that intellectual property is protected, that we have the rules of the road, so to speak, up to international standards and norms.' And as an emerging economy and a democracy, South Africa brings so much to the global economy."
In this vein, Clinton said the Obama administration hopes South Africa would continue be a beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) when AGOA comes before congress for renewal in 2015, adding that she disagreed with those who would exclude SA from coverage under the act by virtue of its middle income industrialized status. (On 2 August, after contentious debate, the US Congress cleared an extension of the 'third country fabric' provision of AGOA - through to 2015. This provision allows African garment manufacturers to use third country fabric in garments destined for export under the terms of AGOA and this decision should help preserve many thousands of jobs in Africa's clothing sector across the continent, although South Africa itself is not a beneficiary of this provision.)
"I can tell you," she said, "that the United States is strongly committed to strengthening the AGOA. It is the centrepiece of our (Africa) policy. We want to see South Africa included in our extension.
We are going to start working on this when the new congress comes in after the elections this year. So I can promise you our best efforts to make the case to get it extended, to make sure South Africa included in it. That's the position of the Obama administration and we're going to do our very best to make sure that is done."
Nkoana-Mashabane issued a thinly veiled warning against a South African exclusion, pointing out that South Africa contributed some diversity to the kind of goods traded under the auspices of the agreement. "We welcome this commitment that comes from President Obama's administration brought to us through Secretary Clinton and we want to take this opportunity to thank your administration for that," she said, adding, "Reality is if you remove us from the list you remain with commodities entering the American market through the AGOA process and that does not necessarily strengthen the pronouncement that was made by President Obama on the outlook for the future strategic vision on how the American administration would want to engage sub-Saharan Africa."
Clinton affirmed US commitment to helping South Africa grow its economy.
"We are building a relationship that adds value, saving and improving lives, adding opportunity, sparking economic growth, strengthening the institutions of democracy and so much more," she said. Still, a future exclusion of South Africa from AGOA could prove far more damaging to bilateral ties than any squabbles in the Security Council.