The timing of United States President Barack Obama’s two-day state visit to South Africa was less than ideal. Overshadowing the political arena was a looming, distracting historical backdrop: former president Nelson Mandela’s faltering but determined struggle to live.
Both leaders were acutely aware that they had to avoid any perception of insensitivity to the prevailing national mood of gloom. Neither, however, wanted to forgo what political traction they could extract from the visit: Obama to establish an African legacy that until now has been virtually invisible, and President Jacob Zuma to maintain a feel-good momentum as the 2014 election approaches.
The prospect of Zuma sharing a podium with Obama was not one to gladden a South African heart. Could there be a more glaring study in contrasts? On the one side there is the urbane, articulate and cerebral Obama and on the other there is Zuma, who is none of those things.
In fact, the SA president acquitted himself with considerable aplomb. Zuma has an engaging demeanour and even those who rubbish his leadership must concede that it is difficult not to warm-up to the man.
Zuma applied this trait to good effect, with winningly fulsome praise of the US president’s anti-apartheid credentials, respect for Obama’s empathy with his “personal hero” Mandela, and in sketching flattering parallels between the two men. He enjoined Obama, somewhat incongruously, to have a “happy visit” to Robben Island where “Madiba and many freedom fighters” were imprisoned, modestly refraining to remind us that he was among those, having spent 10 years incarcerated there.
Beyond diplomatic niceties, however, neither man will feel particularly pleased by the visit. Obama, unlike the glory days of foreign aid largesse presided over by George W Bush, has a constrained budget and his scope for grand gestures was limited.
Zuma, for his part, will feel disappointed that most of the assistance that Obama is dispensing – in excess of $7-billion – will be continental in scope, benefiting SA only tangentially. His likely degree of chagrin can be discerned in the ambitious shape of his initial hopes.
At the start of the visit, Zuma set out a lavish wish list, much like a youngster covering all possible bases with Father Christmas. There was, he said, a whole range of “bankable projects” on the table.
Zuma fancied that Uncle Sam might be enticed to deliver infrastructural development, youth skills development, investment in the School Capacity and Innovation Programme, investment in primary education and teacher training, and investment in vocational training and the Further Education and Training colleges. Oh, and by the way Mr President, an extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), scheduled to expire in 2015, would also be nice.
Much of this was never going to happen, indicative of the civil servants involved in compiling the list being hopelessly out of touch with reality. Few donors are going to channel aid via state coffers, given this government’s reputation for corruption and incompetence. Fewer still will put money into state education, given that the SA government is already spending 5.3% of GDP on this – among the highest rates in the world – to produce paltry results.
Zuma got his wish with AGOA, but with nothing else. And since AGOA is another continent-wide benefit, it’s a bit like being gifted a dull board game that you can only play with your pals, instead of all the hot toys that you can play with on your own.
Finally, Zuma urged Obama, given the economic and financial challenges that are faced by the US and Europe, “to encourage our traditional supporters not to abandon their pledges to Africa”. The sting of Britain’s recent decision to end its R270-million of annual foreign aid to SA is clearly still smarting.
Ah well, there are always the Chinese to tap. They do believe in Father Christmas, don’t they?