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For 12 days in March and with a caravan of thousands in tow, US President Bill Clinton hopped, skipped and jumped across the African continent, leaving in his wake enough flattery, contrition and promises to wilt the hardiest skeptic, it seemed. Is this just the ghost of Cecil John Rhodes in the era of jet travel and footloose capital or is there more afoot? (Hein Marais) (dkc)

vol 13 no 3

Clinton in South Africa: Another scramble for Africa
Hein Marais

Printable Version
Southern AFrica Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 3, May 1998
Page 8
"Southern Africa"



For 12 days in March and with a caravan of thousands in tow, US President Bill Clinton hopped, skipped and jumped across the African continent, leaving in his wake enough flattery, contrition and promises to wilt the hardiest sceptic, it seemed. Is this just the ghost of Cecil John Rhodes in the era of jet travel and footloose capital or is there more afoot?

Hein Marais' new book, South Africa: limits to change - the political economy of transition, has just been published by Zed Books.


From Accra to Cape Town, Clinton talked up the African "renaissance," marvelled at Africans' fortitude and proposed a "dynamic partnership" which could propel the continent into the new millennium, into what he called "Africa's century."

He kicked off his sojourn in remorseful mode, offering one of the largest crowds ever to gather in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, something akin to an apology for the slave trade. With that out of the way, he turned to the rhetorical cornerstone of his trip: the US's desire to be part of what he called "the beginning of a new African renaissance."

"A decade ago, business was stifled," he said. "Now Africans are embracing economic reform. Today from Ghana to Mozambique, from Côte d'Ivoire to Uganda, growing economies are fuelling a transformation in Africa."

In Uganda he spoke of the need to unfetter Africa's huge potential, and struck a deal with eight nations (Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, D. R. Congo, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Tanzania), ostensibly to help develop and integrate them deeper into the global economy. In Senegal, he promised to ask the US Congress for US$1.6 billion in debt relief for African countries.

During a jittery stopover in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, Clinton waxed repentantly as he recalled the US's studied inaction while hundreds of thousands Tutsis were slaughtered by Hutu extremists in 1994. "All over the world," he said, "there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror."

Well, not quite, as Mark Gevisser has pointed out in The Nation. In fact, Clinton chose to sit on his hands, pointedly ignoring a CIA report that had forecast the genocide, "because it wasn't in his political interest to act."

Crisis response

But with haughty flourish, Clinton used the Rwandan genocide to boost approval for a US-supported African Crisis Response Initiative. Most of his hosts gave the proposal an in-principle thumbs-up, although Nelson Mandela lectured Clinton that he would not allow South African troops to serve under US commanders. Other African leaders seem to harbour no such scruples; US Special Forces teams are already training Senegalese troops as a prelude for such a security "partnership."

Elsewhere, he appreciatively noted the emergence "everywhere (of) a growing respect for tolerance, diversity and elemental human rights," and again proffered Washington's helping hand in safeguarding such achievements.

Again, his cocksure rhetoric was hardly matched by a respect for facts. In Uganda, one of the US's closest African allies, Yoweri Museveni continues to resist introducing a multiparty democracy. These things take time, US special envoy to Africa, Jesse Jackson, told one inquiring journalist. As for Nigeria, Angola and Gabon - hardly avatars of democracy and human rights but a trio that just happens to rank among the US's four largest trading partners on the continent - Clinton's travel agents deftly avoided stopovers there.

It wasn't until the US President touched down in South Africa that the rhythm of obsequious receptions he had savoured elsewhere was upset. While politicians waited in Cape Town to hear the first US head of state address the South African parliament, protesters called on him to lift the US embargo against Cuba and urged him to add his signature to a world-wide ban on the use of land mines, while Muslim groups condemned Washington's policy towards Iraq and its indulgence of Israeli intransigence.

But inside Parliament sat people with their own, subtler misgivings - among them President Nelson Mandela and his deputy, Thabo Mbeki.

In an interview broadcast by Radio France International on the day Clinton began his visit to the "South African miracle," Mbeki chided one of the main themes of Clinton's African tour: a shift away from development aid and towards forging new trade and investment links with African countries that toed Washington's line on political and economic reforms.

"We have been speaking out against the reduction of aid to the African continent," Mbeki declaimed. "It is wrong, it doesn't help ... What all of us want to see achieved is sustained and sustainable development on the African continent. I don't think you can exclude aid if that is the objective."

At Mbeki's urging, the South African government initially refused to endorse the US-Africa Growth and Opportunity Bill, saying closer economic ties should not be made conditional on prescribed political and economic reforms. He also complained that it would benefit American businesses more than African people.

Marketing the bill

If there was a definitive sub-text to Clinton's foray, it was his bid to market that Bill which is currently before Congress. It aims to establish a US-African Economic Forum (modeled on the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum), which is seen as a precursor to an eventual free trade pact the US hopes would embrace key states in sub-Saharan Africa. Washington hopes to have that pact in place by the year 2020.

The bill also promises African nations that introduce IMF-type economic adjustments greater access to US markets through reductions in tariffs and import quotas. To sweeten its appeal, the US is mooting debt relief to countries that introduce the required reforms, loan guarantees to spur investment by US firms and improved technical support to boost African countries' abilities to take advantage of the "new market opportunities."

Whether or not African countries qualified for support would be determined by Washington's satisfaction with their political systems, human rights performances and economic adjustments. Sound familiar? Indeed. According to Rob Davies, chair of South Africa's parliamentary portfolio committee on trade and industry, the Bill sports very few reciprocal features: "It is a rather one-way determination and it is just straight, direct conditionalities." Beneath the tinsel he detects "the usual, uneven process of liberalization."

Yet SA has been a lone dissenting voice, despite the highly qualified support it has now offered to the initiative. Other African countries have scoffed at SA's qualms - in late March, Museveni saw fit to lash out at the government for recoiling from this "golden opportunity."

At face value, SA's ambivalence seems puzzling. The country ranks among only a handful in Africa that currently can meet the conditions attached to the US Bill. Moreover, its economic strategy hinges on attracting massive capital inflows and boosting its manufacturing exports, precisely the carrots dangled by Washington.

But the SA government's thinking appears to be more canny than most observers realize. Informing it is a more sophisticated understanding of the global economic context and of the manoeuvring space the country might be able to elbow open.

Coveted prize?

Acolytes of the "African renaissance" draw heavily on recent statistics that, in broad strokes, conjure a picture of sturdy continental revival. The International Finance Corporation (the private investment arm of the World Bank) noted last year that, continentally, "GDP may have increased by more than 5% in 1996, the best in more than 10 years," and that, "more interestingly, growth has been more widespread, exceeding 3% in nearly 30 countries and 5% in 20."

All this encourages the notion that the continent has again become a coveted prize for the dominant economic powers, and that a new "rush for Africa" is at hand. If Washington is to be believed, a new Eldorado is there for the taking.

According to the US Commerce Department, the average annual return of investment in Africa is 30%, compared to 12% in Latin America, 13% in Asia and 17% in the Middle East. "I hope they are listening back in America," Clinton told a business audience in South Africa in March, adding: "This is a good deal folks."

The Coca-Cola corporation seems to agree. It has embarked on a five-year US$600 million spending program in Africa. "We believe we can obtain sustained double-digit growth in Africa for many, many years to come," predicts its senior vice-president Carl Ware. The firm is showing the way in South Africa, too, where it intends investing US$100 million over the next 5 - 7 years. Meanwhile, US exports of telecommunications equipment to Africa have grown by more than 60%, largely thanks to the upgrading of privatized telecommunications networks.

But before you break out the champagne, consider the following. Although increasing in absolute terms, Africa's share of global foreign direct investment (FDI) in 1996 reached its lowest ebb since the early 1980s. According to a 1997 World Investment report by Unctad, "on average, Africa's share of developing country inflows has more than halved, from 11% during 1986-1990 to 5% during 1991-1996," dropping to 3.8% in 1996. Unctad's conclusion is sobering: "Africa has not participated in the surge of FDI flows to developing countries."

In sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria attracted 44% of the FDI inflows - the other 46 countries together garnered a mere 0.6% of global FDI flows. In fact, Malaysia and Poland respectively attracted more FDI in 1996 than sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. The latter's share of global trade, meanwhile, has dropped from 3% in the 1950s to around 1% in 1995. Its share of global manufacturing amounted to only 0.3% in 1995. In short, measured against global trends, there is little evidence that sub-Saharan Africa stands on the threshold of a revival that could eventually rival that of the South-East and East Asian regions.

Neither do current US relations with the continent alone explain Clinton's rhapsodic courtship. The continent barely features in the economic vista of the US: exports to Africa amount to only 0.9% of total US exports, while imports make up 2% of the country's total.


Like Clinton, Thabo Mbeki himself ceaselessly talks up the "African renaissance," but it's highly unlikely that he is ignorant of these trends. Priming the misgivings he shared with Clinton is a concern that the role being carved out for the US in Africa might be mainly "predatory." Galvanizing it is the desire to preempt EU efforts to append attractive African economies to its own regional bloc.

A new, secret South African intelligence report concurs with this view. The US, it argues, is engaged in a struggle for economic hegemony on the continent. At stake, its authors claim, are Africa's huge energy reserves and massive, dormant markets. A strong alliance of US government, industry and intelligence services is propelling the economic engagement, the report claims.

What the report misses (but other South African analysts are alert to) is that this hegemonic struggle between the US and EU needs to be couched within the frame of a distinct reading of globalization. Underway is not an unequivocal trend towards a single integrated world economy but rather the emergence of a more regionally segmented world system - which requires the "incorporation" of weaker regional blocs in the developing world into contending economic cores in the industrialized world.

The overtures to Africa therefore need to be seen, says South African researcher Dot Keet, as a part of the "neo-mercantilist rivalries" between economic powers that are "striving to pre-empt the other by carving out ... de facto global spheres of pre-eminent influence." Within that process, those powers are engaged in contests to acquire dominion over or privileged access to foreign markets, natural resources and the absorption of new technologies.

Spurring the US, too, has been its failure to extend the North American Free Trade Agreement further southwards into Latin America. That objective has, perhaps temporarily, been forestalled by the creation of the powerful Common Market of the Southern Cone (Mercosur), which has concentrated on building intra-regional trade and investment relations.

Clinton's agenda . . and Mbeki's

"With the demise of the super-NAFTA project, Clinton has to look for an alternative," argues one South African analyst. "Africa is the only alternative one. Poor and undeveloped Africa may be now, but it is a continent with immense potential." Or, as Clinton's put it in Cape Town: "As Africa grows strong, America grows stronger."

This tempts the view that the US sees SA as an important economic and political launchpad for its African forays. Clinton made a point of encouraging such aggrandizement when he told politicians in Cape Town: "We seek to be your new partners in the work that lies ahead. I came here to say simply this: Let us work with each other. We, like you, need strong partners to build prosperity."

But in the short-term, South Africa's importance to the US venture probably hinges less on its role as an economic staging post for US penetration than on its political/diplomatic authority on the continent. (Similar motives underpin Washington's dalliance with Museveni, but there they're augmented by broader, geopolitical ones that see Uganda as a regional bulwark against Islamic influence from the north and as the lever for rupturing French dominance in the Great Lakes region.)

Underway, in other words, is not so much a scramble for Africa as a jostle between the US and the EU to get their feet in Africa's door. And at the hub of Mbeki and Mandela's cocksure chats with Clinton lay the hope that it's in the midst of that skirmish that SA could carve out some bargaining space for itself.

* * *

High diplomacy, the "New South Africa" style? According to such a reading, increased US economic links with South Africa would serve mainly as incentives to cement the requisite political and diplomatic relationships. Although Mbeki and key government advisers are somewhat irresolute at the moment, there are signs they believe the current conjuncture could offer South Africa greater bargaining leverage vis-à-vis both the US (with respect to the interventions like the US-Africa Growth and Opportunity Bill and even in relation to some of the injunctions of Bretton Woods institutions) and the European Union. After all, SA remains embroiled in laborious dickering with the EU around a free trade deal, which is being held up by disagreements over conflicting concessions sought by Pretoria and Brussels. Using the US outreach as a catspaw, SA may hope to make to make gains on that front too.

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