Southern Africa: Will Biden Offer Any Change for SADC?

20 November 2020

Despite general pessimistic sentiments about United States President-elect Joe Biden's administration, regional leaders from the SADC region were probably the first to send congratulatory messages.

In the spirit of general diplomatic etiquette, President Mnangagwa sent his goodwill message on Twitter wishing President-elect Biden success in leading the American people and growing cooperation between the two countries.

"Zimbabwe wishes you every success in leading the American people. I look forward to working with you to increase cooperation between our two nations," President Mnangagwa said.

Although Zimbabwe has been under American sanctions for almost two decades, the Harare administration has been on a charm offensive in re-engaging the world including erstwhile indifferent nations. Despite the change of leadership under Democratic Barack Obama and later under Republican Donald Trump, sanctions on Zimbabwe remain for close to two decades now.

There is, however, hope that under President Biden, there would be a change in American policy towards Zimbabwe, given the various reforms that have so far been implemented. It was therefore not surprising that soon after news of Biden's victory started filtering, African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Ace Magashule urged Biden to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe.

South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa this week tweeted that he had a fruitful conversation with Mr Biden where he briefed him of the general situation in the region and continent and wished him well.

History seems to favour Mr Biden who as a young senator once challenged the US administration to consider its stance of supporting apartheid South Africa. This is probably one of the reasons why leaders like Namibia's Hage Geingob are optimistic that Mr Biden will take a conciliatory foreign policy route different from President's Trump's. In his congratulatory message, President Geingob hailed Mr Biden for his role in supporting the independence of Namibia and South Africa.

"During our struggle for freedom, we came to know him as a senator who opposed apartheid in South Africa and the region," President Geingob said on his Twitter handle, adding that he looked forward to working with President-elect Biden and fostering stronger bilateral ties. Trade experts are also optimistic of better trade ties through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), signed into law by Bill Clinton in 2000, a trade programme meant to establish stronger commercial ties between US and sub-Saharan Africa.

The trade legislation is designed to boost trade and investments in qualifying African countries by granting duty-free access to 6 500 exported products.

During his term in office, Mr Trump ignored Africa for most of his rule and on occasion ridiculed its leaders and the continent itself. His success in withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) further threatened the future of AGOA.

The Act is, however, due in 2025, Barack Obama pushed for its extension. The return of another Democrat into office offers a glimmer of hope that the act's intended goals will finally become a reality.

While it is given that Mr Biden would take a different approach from that of President Trump, it is also a given reality that he will be so much overwhelmed with domestic matters like the Covid-19 pandemic, the geopolitical contestation with China and Russia to pay much attention to Africa.

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