The United States government is hoping Hillary Clinton’s visit will pave the way to US military bases on African soil. And President Jacob Zuma’s government could be more receptive to the prospect than previous administrations have been, US officials believe.
US Secretary of State Clinton arrived in South Africa on Thursday as part of her seven-nation visit to Africa. HIV/Aids and Zimbabwe follow military interests on the expected agenda of talks she will have with South Africa’s government.
Clinton’s visit aims to win South African support for the controversial US Africa Command (Africom). The only US military base in Africa so far is in Djibouti and African leaders differ about the advantages for Africa of a US military presence on the continent.
Under former president Thabo Mbeki South Africa was opposed to the US setting up military bases in Africa, but the administration is expecting Zuma to take a softer stance. Meetings between Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and US defence officials have given the Americans hope that Africom will get support from the South African government.
But decisions about Africom will be made at higher levels of government than the defence ministry, the Mail & Guardian understands.
Relations between South Africa and the US were frosty during George W Bush’s presidency and government insiders say the ANC has had a historically difficult relationship with the US.
Said one: ”They used to call us terrorists, so we were uncomfortable with that. When [former president Bill] Clinton came it got better, but then came Bush.”
Former ambassador Eric Bost, a political appointee of Bush, famously complained to everyone who would listen that he wanted to give money to the police force but no one in government returned his calls.
Zuma met US President Barack Obama at the recent G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, one of two bilateral meetings that Obama had at the summit. US government insiders say Obama liked Zuma and was impressed by him.
There is relief within the US government that Zuma reappointed Trevor Manuel, who is now the planning minister, to the Cabinet, but there are concerns that Zuma is a ”default president” who leaves the running of the country to senior officials.
Clinton is accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson and ambassador-designate Donald Gips, who is scheduled to take over the US mission in Pretoria in September.
Clinton is expected to put pressure on the government to act more decisively on Zimbabwe and to lead the way in rebuilding the country.
”The US and South Africa have much in common. [Clinton] will use this to strengthen an important relationship in South Africa with a country which is the engine of that region’s growth.”
US government insiders say that although Obama has visited Ghana and has family in Kenya, South Africa will remain the focus of the US in Africa. ”They know you can’t do anything in sub-Saharan Africa without going through South Africa,” said one. Obama is expected to visit South Africa next year.
Gips is a close associate of Obama and contributed to his election fund. He was appointed director of presidential personnel after the 2008 election and is a communications expert. He also spent four years at the consultancy firm McKinsey, but has no previous diplomatic experience.
Some observers applaud his appointment, saying he has Obama’s ear and so will give South Africa a higher priority on the US’s foreign agenda.
”South Africa should be encouraged to use its leadership role as a member of the Southern African Development Community and as a guarantor of the Global Political Agreement [on Zimbabwe] to step in and mediate [in] the disagreements that have [arisen] and will arise,” Gips told the committee on foreign relations in the US congress. He said the US expects South Africa to continue playing a leadership role in the resurrection of Zimbabwe.
Zuma was initially worried about US perceptions of him personally, and his visit to the country shortly after becoming ANC president was not encouraging. But efforts by the US government since his appointment to the national presidency have changed this picture, the M&G understands.
But there are still doubts about South Africa’s importance to the US.
”Now we have to find out how we feature in the US’s plans. These people have 20-, 30-, 40-year plans and we have to find out how we fit into that, if at all,” a close Zuma aide said.
Clinton kicked off her tour in Kenya and will visit Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Liberia and Cape Verde after South Africa. She is expected to meet Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the minister of international relations and cooperation, and to pay a courtesy call on Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. She will not be meeting Zuma.