South Africa: Politics, Economy and U.S. Relations*

By Cook, Nicolas | Current Politics and Economics of Africa, April 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

South Africa: Politics, Economy and U.S. Relations*


Cook, Nicolas, Current Politics and Economics of Africa


INTRODUCTION

In late June 2013, President Obama traveled to South Africa after visiting Senegal, prior to a visit to Tanzania. His trip to the African continent highlighted U.S.-African cooperation and policies in the areas of trade and investment, development, democracy, and peace and security, which the President addressed in a -framing speech" at South Africa's University of Cape Town. During the speech, the President also announced plans to host a U.S.-Africa heads of state summit in the United States in 2014 and the roll-out of Power Africa, -a new initiative that will double access to [electrical] power in sub-Saharan Africa."1 While in South Africa, the President held a meeting and a joint press conference with President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, which he described as a -critical partner" of the United States. The meeting focused on U.S.-South African bilateral relations, which the President said are -extraordinarily strong," and a wide range of regional and global political, security, economic, and development issues.2 Among other activities in South Africa, the President also held a town hall meeting as part of his Young African Leaders Initiative, initiated in 2010;3 met with the African Union Commission chair on continental issues and regional organization capacities; and visited the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Center. The latter activity sought to highlight community-based solutions to healthcare challenges, and the Administration's global health agenda, in particular efforts to help improve public health systems in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa.

President Obama's trip to Africa came at a time of growing concern, in South Africa and internationally, over the rapidly failing health of former South African President Nelson Mandela. Mandela, 94, was imprisoned for his anti-apartheid activities from 1962 until 1990 and was elected as South Africa's first black president in 1994 after the first post-apartheid universal suffrage elections.4 He is widely revered as an icon of the anti-apartheid struggle; for leading the transition to non-racial democracy, and efforts to foster national reconciliation and end socioeconomic inequalities created by apartheid; and for working to advance peace and democracy across Africa and globally. During his trip President Obama repeatedly paid tribute to Mandela's legacy, which he said had profoundly informed his own entry into a life focused on public and political affairs.

The State Department characterizes South Africa as a U.S. -strategic partner,"5 and President Obama's trip to the country underlined that bilateral ties remain close, as they have been since 1994, despite periodic differences on some foreign policy issues. Socioeconomic development is a key focus of bilateral cooperation; since 1992, South Africa has been a leading African recipient of U.S. aid, the bulk of which supports HIV/AIDS and related health programs. U.S.-South African trade ties are also important. Total trade (exports and imports) more than doubled over the past decade, reaching a record of $16.7 billion in 2011 before declining slightly in 2012. South Africa has enjoyed a significant but declining trade surplus with the United States and is a major export and investment destination for U.S. businesses in Africa. Security cooperation is another key area of engagement. In 2010, the two countries established a Strategic Dialogue centering on cooperation related to health, education, food security, law enforcement, trade, investment, energy, and nonproliferation. South Africa hosted two visits by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as by other top U.S. officials. First Lady Michelle Obama traveled to South Africa in 2011, as did Vice President Joseph Biden and his wife in 2010, when they attended the World Cup.

Congress has played an active role in U.S. relations with South Africa. This was particularly true during the struggle against apartheid, beginning in the late 1960s, through the first decade that followed the 1994 transition to majority rule. …

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