(Left to right) US Secretary of State John Kerry takes his seat with Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete and Ghana's President John Dramani Mahama during the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington on Monday.  Picture: REUTERS
(Left to right) US Secretary of State John Kerry takes his seat with Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete and Ghana's President John Dramani Mahama during the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington on Monday. Picture: REUTERS

WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State John Kerry threw down the gauntlet to African leaders gathered in Washington on Monday, by asking whether they sincerely wanted to convert their countries’ potential into solid economic progress.

Mr Kerry issued the challenge at the start of a day of trade talks that were the important curtain-raiser to President Barack Obama’s US-Africa summit, the first such meeting in history and tangible evidence that he wants to recapture ground lost to China.

The White House said President Jacob Zuma was one of 49 African heads of state and government attending the summit on Tuesday and Wednesday, a spectacular turn-out by the 54 members of the African Union.

Mr Kerry opened one of the highlight events earlier on Monday, a ministerial forum of countries that benefit from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa). This watershed legislation — allowing access to the US market for a host of products and services from African countries — was passed by Congress in 2000 during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

It expires in September next year and this summit appears to be marking the start of more than a year of hard negotiations.

"Africa can be the marketplace of the future. Africa has the resources. Africa has the capacity. Africa has the know-how," Mr Kerry said in his speech at the forum, staged at the headquarters of the World Bank.

"The questions Africa faces are similar to those confronting countries all over the world: is there the political will, the sense of common purpose to address challenges? Are we all prepared together to make the hard choices that those challenges require?" he asked, without defining which challenges he had in mind.

They certainly include red tape, a skills shortage and, to a dogged degree, insecurity.

But he called Africa and the US "natural partners".

In a speech across town, Mr Zuma strongly supported Agoa, saying it had transformed the economic landscape for many African countries and for SA.

"We advocate the renewal of Agoa for another 15 years, with the inclusion of SA," he told the US-SA business forum. Unexpectedly, and inappropriately in some eyes, Mr Zuma chose the occasion to introduce an overtly political message criticising Israel’s military tactics in Gaza.

"Allow me before concluding to express our outrage at the continued violence that is claiming scores of lives of civilians in Palestine," he said at the event at US Chamber of Commerce.

"We add our voice to that of the United Nations in condemning strongly the senseless shelling of civilian shelters by Israel," he said at the conclusion of a 25-minute address vaunting the attractions of the South African economy to US-based investors.

The choice of Mr Zuma’s target — key US ally Israel — was clearly a carefully chosen one and hardly a deviation from policy since SA has been unequivocally supportive of Palestine since 1994. However, it was not immediately clear why Mr Zuma chose a high-profile business gathering to make the point.

The rest of his speech spelt out how SA — and other African countries — are open for business. The continent is one of the world’s fast-growing regions in economic terms and demographically.

But conflicts still abound on the continent and are crippling countries in a wide belt of territories.

The outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in parts of coastal West Africa, which began in Guinea in February and is spreading through Sierra Leone and Liberia, is also a reminder that development is even more important for ordinary citizens than it is for corporate tycoons.

Total US two-way trade in Africa has actually fallen in recent years, to about $60bn last year, which is far eclipsed by Africa’s trade with the European Union, at more than $200bn, and China, whose $170bn is a huge increase from $10bn in 2000, according to a recent Africa in Focus post by the Washington-based Brookings Institution, Reuters reported.

Kotch’s trip to Washington was partly funded by the US State Department.