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Why Obama’s visit is important for South Africa


South African Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs is leading Barack Obama on a tour of the court in 2006 during his visit in SA. Photo courtesy of the American Embassy in South Africa.

South African Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs is leading Barack Obama on a tour of the court in 2006 during his visit in South Africa. Photo courtesy of the American Embassy in South Africa.

As Barack Obama is about to embark on his historic tour of Africa, many South Africans are asking why it should matter to them. There are numerous reasons why a visit from the President of the United States is an historic occasion.

First, the U.S. helps save South African lives. Since 2004, Washington has committed more than $4 billion to combat HIV/AIDS in South Africa, making it the largest American investment for HIV/AIDS worldwide. At one point over the past decade, U.S.-supported NGOs provided treatment for approximately 80 percent of all South Africans on HIV/AIDS drugs, and American programs paid staff salaries for more than 20,000 health workers.

In 2012, money from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program totalling $500 million provided antiretroviral treatment to 1.7 million South Africans. Moreover, it was U.S. government monetary assistance, combined with funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the South African government, that supported scientists in finding two HIV-infected women who produce antibodies capable of neutralizing and killing 88 percent of known HIV strains, which may eventually help lead to a cure.

The U.S. also helps save lives through the training of South African military and law enforcement. The U.S. military frequently trains and supports South African military in various fields like peacekeeping and maritime security. This cooperation will be further strengthened in July when Exercise Shared Accord 11, a joint military exercise, takes place to improve South Africa’s capacity to conduct humanitarian operations. Additionally, Washington contributes $2 million a year in training and support to bilateral law enforcement programs.

Employment is another crucial area where the U.S. assists South Africa. There are more than 550 U.S. companies operating in South Africa, employing thousands of locals and providing more than $9 billion a year in foreign direct investment. The U.S. Agency for International Development also recently contributed to this job creation endeavour by making $150 million in funding available to more than 300 small and medium enterprises, which could potentially create more than 20,000 jobs in South Africa.

We could analyze the economic data until the cows come home, but most importantly total trade between the two countries is around $22 billion, with 97 percent of South African exports entering the U.S. “duty free” due to the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

South Africa is a popular tourist destination for Americans as well. Visitors from the U.S. were South Africa’s second biggest overseas market in 2012, after those from Britain, with tourist numbers up by 13.6 percent (to 326,643).

Lastly, both countries understand the power of education and have been working together on this crucial issue since 1994. Last year, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the $500 million Opportunity Grants Program for disadvantaged South African students to study at American universities. South Africa is also a popular “study abroad” destination for American students. In 2011, South Africa was the 12th most popular destination for American students studying overseas, with 4,337 enrolled in South African higher education institutions.

With that said, the real future of U.S.-South Africa relations could possibly lie in the energy sector. America already helps supply electricity to thousands of South Africans, but this could grow to millions via $2 billion in credit guarantees for the development of the renewable energy sector, as well as a $805 million loan to Eskom for the purchase of engineering and management services related to a new coal-fired plant.

However, the U.S. is after the “big boy,” or the future of South African electricity, via nuclear power. We might have a better sense of their chances after the Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa and South Africa’s DTI complete their industry mission to the U.S. in July. If that proves fruitless, there could be U.S.-South Africa cooperation on the shale gas front. It is a rapidly increasing source of natural gas in America due to availability and improved technology, albeit a controversial one due to environmental concerns. South Africa has a major sedimentary basin containing thick organic-rich shales, making it the fifth largest country in the world in terms of estimated recoverable resources.

The bottom line is that the relationship between the two countries is one that significantly affects the lives of South Africans. Although Obama’s visit is more ceremonial in nature, these trips, like Bush’s in 2003 and Clinton’s in 1998, are a strong indication of the value the U.S. places on its relations with South Africa and help pave the way for a more prosperous future for both countries.



Scott Firsing

Dr. Scott Firsing, an American residing in South Africa, is an expert on US-Africa relations. He is the Director of the North American International School (NAIS) in Pretoria, an Adjunct Research Fellow at Monash University, South Africa, an Executive at the Aerospace Leadership Academy and CEO of LINK Advisory, a consultancy helping American businesses enter Africa. Also a founder of the African NGO Young People in International Affairs, Scott is the former Head of International Studies at Monash, a former employee of the United Nations, Department for Disarmament Affairs, and a former fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).