by Piet Coetzer

Obama’s African trip in perspective

American interests will always come first

Barack Obama, recently visited Africa and South Africa where he spoke at UCT.
Barack Obama.jpg

President Barack Obama has returned home after his trip to Africa, having announced a “new partnership” with the continent in which South Africa, as its biggest economy, is to play a pivotal role. But the continent, and South Africa, will do well to remember from history that for any American president the interests of America will always come first.

The late president, Charles de Gaulle of France, the famous US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and South Africa’s own late prime minster and president, John Vorster, on occasion all stated, “Countries don’t have friends. They only have interests.”

This is not a cynical view of international affairs but rather a reality. One would expect it from the democratically elected leader of any nation to always put the interest of his own nation first.

While the history of South Africa’s relationship with the United States is a chequered one, nothing illustrates the said phrase better than the American national attitude towards him and its president’s view of Nelson Mandela.

President Obama, during his visit to South Africa was lavish in with his well-deserved admiration and praise for Madiba, a view collectively shared by the vast majority of Americans.

It was, however, almost to the day, 51 years ago, that Nelson Mandela was arrested in Natal, after which he was tried and convicted of conspiracy against the state and sentenced to life imprisonment.

In June 1990 the Chicago Tribune revealed that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) played a key role in Mandela’s arrest.

The paper reported that a retired CIA agent told that “within hours after Mandela`s arrest, Paul Eckel, then a senior CIA operative, walked into his office and said approximately these words: ‘We have turned Mandela over to the South African security branch. We gave them every detail, what he would be wearing, the time of day, just where he would be. They have picked him up. It is one of our greatest coups.”

The context of this incident, made possible by the fact that the CIA had an undercover agent infiltrate the ANC structures in Durban, is important. The paper describes it as “one of the most shameful, utterly horrid” by-products of the Cold War struggle between Moscow and Washington for influence in the Third World.”

In 1962 the CIA's covert branch saw the African National Congress as a threat to the stability of a friendly South African government. At the time, South Africa had not only just signed a military cooperation agreement with the United States but also served as an important source of uranium.

In the late 1960s, the then South African minister of defence, the late P.W. Botha and prime minister Vorster, sent South African troops into Angola to confront the Cubans, having been led to believe by Kissinger that they had the backing and support of the US administration. American cargo planes were, indeed, observed at the time landing at the now famous Waterkloof air force base delivering equipment.

In the end, I was told by Vorster that Kissinger phoned him, telling him that regrettably, he would not be able to mobilise the support of the American congress. The then South African government was left carrying the can on its own.
The same Cold War background in the late 1970s saw the first black American ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, on behalf of the then Carter administration, vetoed economic sanctions.

In the early 1980s, then mayor of Atlanta and, among others, a director of Coca-Cola, told me on the sidelines of a think-tank event at Sun City that he was lobbying for South Africa to be admitted as a member of the African Union. He believed, against his personal experience in the American South during the days of the civil rights movement, that such exposure would speed up the process of change and reform in South Africa.

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin wall in the late 1980s and the end of the Cold War. In its wake, came the release of Mandela and South Africa’s internal political settlement.

In a changed, mostly single-polar world dominated by America, Africa and South Africa disappeared as priorities from the American agenda. Relationship between the two was cordial and cooperative but not on the front burner.

The rise of China as a major economic power, the development of a multi-polar world, as is evidenced by the establishment of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group of nations, and a looming energy crisis started the emergence of new global order.

This was accelerated by the global economic crisis, triggered by the financial crisis of 2007. A new scramble for resources and markets is well under way.

As consumer-driven economic growth in America and its Western allies stagnated, the mantra of “Africa rising”, is gaining momentum. With its youth-weighted demographic, surplus agricultural land, natural resources (including those delivering energy) and its rising middle-class, Africa is taking on new geopolitical importance.

It is against this background that Obama's pronouncement in his last speech in Africa at the University of Cape Town that “... one of the wonderful things that’s happening is,where people used to only see suffering and conflict in Africa, suddenly, now they’re seeing opportunity for resources, for investment, for partnership, for influence.”

There is no doubt that there should be opportunities and advantages for South Africa and the rest of the continent in the now prevailing “new partnership” approach of the US to Africa but it should be grabbed with eyes wide open.


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