AS WINTER recedes, or so we hope, SA’s season of international summitry is well and truly upon us. After the African Union in steamy Malabo and the Brics in crestfallen Brazil, President Jacob Zuma will go to Victoria Falls in the middle of next month to attend Robert Mugabe’s comeback show at the Southern African Development Community.
But unarguably, the really hot tickets are for Barack Obama’s US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington next week. Metaphorically, they are sold out.
The Americans promoted the event due for next Tuesday and Wednesday as the biggest and the best, not to mention the first gathering of a US president with nearly all of the African leaders.
Now into his second and final term, Mr Obama has finally been allowed to be all of what he is, the US’s first black president after 43 paler-faced predecessors.
Up to now, caution seemed to deter Mr Obama and his team from pushing the African connection too hard. Worries about the latent racism of white voters previously held sway, reducing his visits to Africa to an absolute minimum despite the voguish appeal which much of the continent has been enjoying. Whatever rednecks might believe, its growing importance in the affairs of the world owes almost nothing to Mr Obama’s Kenyan antecedents. Whether as a supplier of vital commodities, as an expanding economic market and, yes, as a theatre of worsening conflict that if nothing else reminds outsiders how much is at stake, the time for modern Africa to sweep into the White House en masse has surely come.
In truth, the US government had been running the risk of missing the African bus. China is already far ahead, if trade volumes and infrastructure contracts are the main yardsticks. On the political front, Beijing will take centre-stage in Cape Town at the next Forum on China-Africa Co-operation summit with Africa next year, and the European Union — with France and Germany in the vanguard — appears to be shaking off nagging injuries and returning to the field of active play. Japan is busy, too.
So Mr Obama will be well aware that there is no shortage of suitors circling the majority of African countries. Depending on which mirror one uses, SA is probably still the fairest of them all. Its economy is the most advanced in Africa, its professional skills the most sophisticated and its stability the most rooted, however soiled its governance apparel can look at times. Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies was less than subtle this week when he reminded Washington that there are plenty of competitors for SA’s favours and that restricting access to the US market would be ill-advised. The precise context was the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), a highly successful piece of legislation dating back to 2000 which the US Congress is renegotiating with African partners. Mr Davies will be fighting SA’s corner in the Agoa ministerial forum on Monday, a trade gathering on the eve of a fairly business-oriented summit.
The tone struck by some in Mr Zuma’s government, suggesting that SA’s natural home is the eclectic and lop-sided Brics group comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA, cannot have pleased the Obama administration and there seems to be no chemistry between the US and South African presidents. Washington is not the only western capital wondering what SA’s foreign policy is all about, if indeed one can be said to exist.
More important, are SA’s realities still as different from those of the rest of the continent as they were 20 years ago? Has the rapprochement which Mr Mbeki wished and worked for pretty much failed?
The gulf in national interests, whether about security, human rights, leadership, religious conflicts and economic development, sometimes seems unbridgeable.
Hopefully, this summit with Mr Obama will provide some pointers.