Africa and the US under the Biden administration: A response to Moeletsi Mbeki

This article is written in response to “The US once again has something  Africa wants: competent leadersby Moeletsi Mbeki published in the Mail & Guardian on 21 January 2021

The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice-president of the United States, respectively, has inspired hope in America’s revival as a responsible and committed player in multilateralism. 

Indeed, former president Donald Trump set such a low standard for the US presidency that he has inadvertently and retrospectively rehabilitated George W Bush’s presidency. Trump’s administration was everything that an American presidency should not be. 

Four years of Trump were characterised by race-baiting, white supremacy and an insular brand of politics that blackmailed institutions such as the World Health Organisation and treaties such as the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Accord, and also issued subliminal threats to organisations such as Nato. 

Trump seems to have a penchant for strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. He was also on cordial terms with Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, largely because of the two leaders’ common antipathy towards multilateralism, which Johnson expressed through his outspoken support for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. 

Unsurprisingly, Africa did not feature much in Trump’s worldview; throughout his presidency, he never made a single visit to the continent. He has also described Africa in very offensive terms. He described South Africa as a mess, ridden with alarming levels of crime. It is, thus, understandable that Moeletsi Mbeki has hailed Biden’s triumph as a positive development for Africa. 

Mbeki writes glowingly about the Biden administration, calling its personnel “competent”. He lambasts African governments, South Africa’s in particular, for internal blemishes that undermine the continent’s development and partnerships with non-African players. After the Trump years, just about any new US administration had a fair chance of being a better one. 

It is important to understand the historical and political context that coloured Mbeki’s perspective. He is of the mould of South Africa’s generation that endured exile because of apartheid and was, thus, reliant on the mercy of international solidarity. The Democratic Party, and Joe Biden in particular, provided a sympathetic ear for the ANC and the general struggle against apartheid.

However, the world has considerably changed since the Cold War era. Today the US remains a deeply divided country in its domestic affairs and an increasingly paranoid player on the global stage, with a rising China being the biggest source of this paranoia. To safeguard its place at the top of the perch of global politics, the US is likely to continue to hamstring China, irrespective of the party that occupies the White House. 

Africa risks being a pawn in the tussle for global prominence; the continent could only be of instrumental value to the Biden administration, should this be the case. If there is a positive, albeit cynical, characteristic that attached to the Trump presidency it is that, for a long time, the US did not have to wage wars elsewhere in the world: it was a country at war with itself. 

A Democratic administration, on the other hand, is likely to revert to the US’s default position on global affairs, which entails the export of American values, and waging wars in countries that prove impervious to such values. 

This possibility should temper Mbeki’s optimism about the personnel whom Biden has hired, many of whom are relics of the Obama administration that was responsible for misadventures in Libya, for example. One of the popular fallacies about appraising the Obama administration, especially by Africans, is that it was beneficial to Africa, mainly because Barack Obama was the first African American president. However, closer scrutiny  shows that Obama did not substantially contribute towards improving Africa’s lot. Opinion that appears to be openly adulatory towards the Biden administration raises questions about the interests of the writers: What do they gain from the incoming administration? 

Trump’s transactional administration was mostly tailored towards inward-looking economics. Importantly, Mbeki, drew attention to the arms race in the Indian Ocean, the rise of radical and fundamentalist Islam, and authoritarianism in Africa. The presence of the US in the Indian Ocean should not just be a matter of limiting China’s growing influence in the so-called Indo-Pacific. The Indian Ocean dynamics influence African politics to a great degree. Africa’s relationship — not only with China, but also with parts of the world — has been influenced by events in the Indian Ocean, starting with issues such as piracy. 

Even the nomenclature of the Indian Ocean should be questioned: it is still called the Indian Ocean, even though Africa has the longest coast along the said ocean. One would expect that, as part of recognising Africa and breaking the legacy of colonialism, the Ocean should either be given a neutral name, or even called the African Ocean. 

Another shortcoming of the Mbeki article is that it conspicuously left out the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on Africa. Covid-19 poses, perhaps, the biggest threat to Africa, in terms of security and economics. The Biden administration should engage Africa in searching for ways that the continent could access the desperately needed vaccines

Trump’s administration allowed other countries, such as China, to grow in stature in the eyes of other players in the international system. A proactive approach by the Biden administration might cause some needed competition between the US and its closest competitors. 

Amid all this, African agency will be crucial. We should not attach an unnecessary amount of importance to the Biden administration, because the US will still want to enjoy dominance of world affairs. 

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David Monyae
David Monyae is the director for the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg

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