Clinton’s SA visit: It’s hardly US vs them

The economic rise of Africa and foreign military intervention on the continent top the agenda as the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, continues her working visit to South Africa this week.

Touching down at Waterkloof airbase on Sunday, Clinton has made South Africa the fifth stop on her diplomatic trip around Africa, and comes after brief stopovers in Kenya and Malawi at the weekend.

Her stay in South Africa will see her undertake an intense programme of meetings and engagements in the hopes of deepening ties between South Africa and the United States.

Although billed by department of international relations spokesperson Clayson Monyela as a meeting to "consolidate ties", the visit will likely see several burning issues dealt with.

Firstly, South Africa will aim to reassert its geopolitical influence, after developments that were seen to undercut its diplomatic efforts.

The toppling of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and foreign supported military intervention in the Côte d'Ivoire are only two examples of situations that have left not only South Africa but the African Union on the back foot, if not actively undermined by the West.

"We were simply walked all over during the Libyan crisis and could do nothing when foreign soldiers intervened in the Côte d'Ivoire," Shadrack Gutto, professor at Unisa’s centre for African Renaissance Studies told the Mail & Guardian.

"I hope we learnt a lesson from that, so we can prevent it from happening again. We must not be so pliable."

For things to change, it will be a difficult road to navigate for South Africa as ideally it would still want to remain on good terms with the US, but not be seen as too compliant  with the US's wishes.

If it were seen to be overly generous in its dealings with the US, or even appearing to be disproportionately flexible, South Africa could alienate its number one trading partner, China.

The US and China have enjoyed practical but tense relations since the Asian superpower's emergence on the global economic stage.

Rapid growth has seen China emerge as the world’s second largest economy, with its economic growth over the past decade easily eclipsing America.

With this in mind, South Africa would not want to give too many diplomatic advantages to the US, in case it alienated China.

Domestically, President Jacob Zuma will also not want his government to be seen as  especially cosy with the American administration so close to the ruling ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung.

America is still seen by many in the party – particularly the ANC Youth League – as an imperialist force not to be trusted. If Zuma’s government is seen as being too friendly with the US, the president may see his chances of being re-elected dented.

Away from intercontinental and local politics, there could also be a push by the US to deepen the US's economic standing in South Africa and Africa.

Forecasters predict that while African economic growth will face a raft of challenges in 2012 and in 2013, the continent can still expect a collective growth rate of over 4%  each year.

Africa is therefore seen as an attractive investment to not only the US but also Europe, as the effects of the eurozone crisis continue to result in sluggish growth for both regions.

While the US is currently South Africa's third largest trading partner, behind the EU, and enjoys extensive economic ties with the majority of the African continent, China is seen as already having a firm economic footing in Africa.

With the majority of its top 10 major foreign investments going to African countries, China has often used South Africa as its gateway to the rest of the continent.

"The US is at a crossroads," said Gutto. "It needs to be seen as in control, both economically and politically, so as not to lose face in light of China’s successes on the continent."

Talks may also touch on the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act in 2015, allowing for certain South African exports to be traded duty-free on the US market – a possible incentive the US could offer in return for cooperation.

Gutto said South Africa will need to do its best to ensure that any deals it makes are not lopsided.

"The US is a very important international partner for South Africa, but it's a question of building those ties in such a way that is beneficial to South Africa as much as it is to America," he said.

But, in as much as South Africa could hope to dictate its positions and demands to the US, nothing more than strategic diplomacy is expected to take place during Clinton's visit.

America also has a habit of bullying nations into doing what it wants, and South Africa is no different.

Oil imports from Iran have ceased entirely since June after decreasing significantly in March, following a veiled US threat to impose economic sanctions on South Africa had they failed to do so.

As such, any great diplomatic change between the two nations is unlikely.

When approached for comment on South Africa’s objectives going into the meeting, Monyela played down its importance.

"South Africa and the US will be having a strategic dialogue and this is merely another episode in those conversations – don't expect anything big to come out of it," he said.

The US is also tight-lipped about what it hopes to gain from the meeting.

"A lot of issues are still in flux at the moment, so we won't be able to issue any statement at this time. We will look to addressing the media later in the week," Brian Denver, spokesperson for the US Embassy in Pretoria, told the M&G.

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