Current Status of U.S.-South African Relations

Johnnie Carson
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs
Woodrow Wilson Center
Washington, DC
June 10, 2009

Thank you very much for that warm welcome. In nearly two decades on the Hill, as a Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, and now at the Wilson Center, Howard Wolpe has dedicated himself to Africa and a better U.S.-Africa relationship. Thank you for putting together this excellent program.


I am pleased to be here today as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. I will talk a little about the current state of our relationship with the Republic of South Africa and discuss the path forward for our bilateral relations and shared interests.


I am honored to be joined in this discussion by such a distinguished panel of Dr. Moletsi Mbeki, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, and Ambassador Nhlapo. I am looking forward to this discussion – and hearing what my co-panelists have to say. Your Excellency, Ambassador Nhlapo, it is good to see you again.


By any standard, South Africa is one of the most important countries on the African continent. Without a doubt, it is the continent’s economic locomotive and the most important and influential country in the SADC sub-region. It is a country that the Obama Administration views as crucial to the success of Africa and the continent’s long term growth and stability. Since South Africa’s transition to genuine democracy in 1994, it has not been content with living in the shadow of its past, but has sought to play a bigger role on the global stage with its leaders participating in G-20 summit meetings, helping to develop NEPAD and organizing and hosting events like the World Cup.


In 2001, Goldman Sachs coined the acronym “BRIC” -- B-R-I-C -- to describe the four most important and rapidly growing emerging market countries -- Brazil, Russia, India, and China – countries that in a few decades could well eclipse the combined wealth and influence of many of today’s developed countries. Goldman Sachs made a small mistake. It should have added the letter S to make it the BRICS -- with the S for South Africa. For South Africa deserves its spot at the table as one of the most important emerging markets and regional states.


On May 9, I was honored to participate in the U.S. delegation that attended the inauguration of South Africa’s new President, Jacob Zuma. It was clear to me, in witnessing first-hand the outpouring of goodwill in the international community for South Africa, that despite our current global economic challenges, South Africa has a lot to offer and to be optimistic about.


South Africa’s recent elections were an enormous success and reflect the county’s continued strong commitment to democracy. South Africans deserve full credit for their effective organization, for their transparency, for the participation of over two dozen political parties, and for a close to an 80 percent voter turnout.


South Africa’s democratic success serves as a powerful example for all of southern Africa – as it does for much of the rest of Africa. In the remaining months of 2009, Botswana, Mozambique, Angola and Namibia are all expected to hold presidential and/or parliamentary elections, and I am certain that regional observation teams from those countries will share with the election officials in their countries the positive lessons learned from observing South Africa’s successful elections. As we end the first decade of the 21st century, South Africa stands with us as a beacon of multiracialism, multiparty democracy, free market economic principles, and a strong defender of civil liberties and human rights.


The American message for South Africa today is clear and positive. The United States is a committed partner of South Africa. We recognize the importance of our growing bilateral and commercial relationship. We also recognize South Africa’s leadership on the continent, and in the rest of the world. As both of our countries wrestle with the challenges brought by the global economic slowdown, we must continue to build and nurture our economic and commercial relationship. This is one of the reasons why President Obama selected the United States Trade Representative, Ambassador Ronald Kirk, to lead the U.S. delegation to President Zuma’s swearing-in.


As we Americans address our own economic challenges, so do South Africans. To take one pertinent example, the combination of a weakened Rand and falling global commodity prices has affected the South African government revenue. Thus, hard times make it ever more incumbent that our two countries forge ahead with a mutually beneficial economic collaboration.


The United States is the third largest importer of South African goods. There are over 600 American businesses operating in South Africa. And U.S. investors are among South Africa’s largest portfolio investors. Americans can take pride in this record and look forward to working to strengthen our existing ties while seeking creative ways to grow these numbers.


I am a firm believer that events like this one at the Wilson Center provide each of us with an opportunity to help advance our shared bilateral goals and interests. Today’s exchange allows us to speak openly about where we are and, more importantly, where we want to go. As a result, there’s a lot of incentive for us to share our opinions and ideas today. But even more importantly we are here because we want to celebrate this significant milestone for South Africa. And by so doing, we want to show our support for the new government led by President Zuma.


In forging a stronger relationship with South Africa and its newly elected government, we will build on some excellent programs and cooperation from the past. Although it has been little noticed, our most robust and effective collaboration with South Africa has been carried out under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). With over five million cases, South Africa has been hit hard by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In 2007, PEPFAR funds helped support over $550 million in community programming, health care service delivery, testing and ARV treatment in South Africa. While this number may appear high, it is far less than what South Africa has dedicated to the struggle against AIDS. The Obama Administration is committed to continuing this successful partnership with South Africa.


As part of our existing partnerships, we have over 120 Peace Corps volunteers currently engaged in educational and NGO work in South Africa.

Our Peace Corps presence has been there since 1997, and they have been very successful in partnering with local and provincial governments to develop a strong culture for learning in South Africa. Our volunteers also employ these educational skills to incorporate HIV/AIDS awareness and learning as part of broader educational initiatives. The work the Peace Corps does – and its long-term benefit to South Africa – is priceless.


Currently, we are also working with the South African government to increase our cooperation on nuclear issues. A long standing proposal to secure a Memorandum of Understanding for Nuclear Research and Development is in the final stages of review with the South African government and will hopefully be signed soon. We are also sending a planning team to Durban and possibly Cape Town this month to discuss the implementation of the Megaports Initiative for the Durban port – and to sign an agreement with the South African government to implement this. The Megaports initiative is a Department of Energy initiative designed to enhance port security measures for U.S.-bound cargo traveling by sea.


We are optimistic about where South Africa is headed. As our relationship evolves over the next years, we would like to see South Africa step into a greater continental leadership role and strengthen its capacity to provide greater maritime and peacekeeping security support in Africa. This capacity building will be crucial to South Africa’s ability to play a leading role beyond the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. South Africa should embrace this challenge.


On human rights issues, we will look to South Africa to build upon the examples set Nobel Peace Laureates Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, both of whom exemplify the moral leadership needed in an evolving and young democratic society like South Africa. South Africa’s civil society is strong, the country has a free and open press, and our cultural and education exchange programs strive to grow the cultural connections between our two countries.


The ties between our two countries extend far beyond the official, government-to-government relations that are my daily focus. Private American citizens and institutions have been engaged with all levels of South African society for more than a century. Whether they came as teachers, doctors, nurses, or on Sister City exchanges, they opened up an important and progressive dimension to our bilateral relationship long before governments did so. In fact, their hard work pushed our own government to oppose apartheid more aggressively.


So where do we stand now? Where is our relationship with South Africa headed?


On March 19, Secretary Clinton met with Ambassador Nhlapo and the then South Africa Minister of Foreign Affairs to discuss potential areas for bilateral cooperation. In that meeting, the two ministers agreed to talk more about planning and identifying those issues of mutual interest following the outcome of the South African elections. With a new South African foreign minister in place, we intend to continue our discussions. We will focus on:


  • Broadening our economic ties and strengthening trade and investment opportunities.
  • Promoting the exchange of energy technology to include alternate and renewable fuels.
  • Continuing our assistance in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS and to treat those afflicted.
  • Working collaboratively to treat tuberculosis.
  • Strengthening educational, scientific and cultural exchanges and programs.
  • Collaborating on nuclear non-proliferation issues and working together to counter the global threat of nuclear weapons – where South Africa has been very helpful in the past.


These areas provide a great deal of scope for moving our relationship forward and serving as a roadmap for establishing a positive agenda for collaboration between our two countries. In addition to further developing our bilateral relationship, we will continue to collaborate on key regional issues including the situation in Zimbabwe, regional trade, and peace and security initiatives. Success will depend on our shared commitment and willingness to work together transparently.


In closing, we in Washington and Pretoria must find the proper mechanisms by which to build and strengthen our relationship in order to help South Africa fulfill its ambitions and dreams. President Obama is pushing for this as well. In a demonstration of his commitment he recently announced his intention to nominate one of his closest political associates, Mr. Donald Gips, to serve as the next Ambassador to South Africa. If confirmed, Mr. Gips will bring a valuable set of political skills and close ties to the President with him when he arrives in South Africa.


Promoting economic growth, improved health and a safer and more democratic world are key shared objectives for both our nations. It is a pleasure to be here to recognize the importance of South Africa and the commitment of the Obama Administration to forge a stronger relationship with one of Africa’s most important and dynamic states.


Thank you again for this opportunity.