Clinton's African safari: all style, no substance?

Author:Nevin, Tom
Position::Cover Story
 
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President Bill Clinton's much heralded tour of Africa is finally over. He was greeted efffusively in Ghana, but as he proceeded further south, it became increasingly clear that his mere presence on African soil was not enough. America was being asked to deal with serious African questions seriously. Did he do this?

President Bill Clinton came to Africa to shake many hands as possible, spin his charismatic magic and lend his personal weight to the three major initiatives he believes will stimulate the African economic renaissance. In South Africa, two were glossed over without much comment, but the third was roundly drubbed by government members, the most vociferous being President Nelson Mandela's political heir, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki.

The three American initiatives are: (1) continued and increased American development aid; (2) at least part of Africa's major debt burden to be written off by the United States and multilateral institutions; and (3) the vigorous implementation of America's Africa Trade Growth and Opportunities Bill to promote trade and investment through a healthy economic policy.

The first two sound a lot better than they'll probably turn out to be, and the recipients would be wise not to spend the money just yet. President Clinton is keen to distribute abroad some of the windfall largesse made available through a rare US budget surplus. But he is unlikely to find much support on Capitol Hill where his colleagues would rather use the money in tax relief for their constituents (1998 being an election year).

Probably correctly Mr Mbeki interprets the third as the "trade not aid" bill whose implementation depends on African countries being assessed by America to be correct in their political and economic behaviour. Criticising the bill as "prescriptive" and "flawed," Mr Mbeki maintains that South Africa needs both the trade and the aid. "I have always pleaded against the diminution of aid to Africa which we see happening," he said. "A majority of African countries still need development aid. South Africa's economy today cannot generate the resources necessary to solve the problems of poverty that we face."

The intention behind the US African Growth and Opportunity Bill, already passed by the House of Representatives and currently before the Senate, is to encourage trade with Africa by removing various tariffs and quotas in exchange for investment opportunities, tax breaks and the privatisation of parastatals. In return African countries must make their economies more transparent, drop trade barriers and implement democratic reforms.

In South Africa this has quickly been interpreted as compromising to national sovereignty, and an exercise in neo-colonialism. President Clinton puts a different, placatory, spin to it. "In the past," he told parliament in Cape Town, "it was asked what could be done for Africa. The right question today...

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