On Friday the American Presidential carrier, Air Force One, touched down in South Africa, bringing with it President Barack Obama and family, for a landmark visit. There has been the usual pomp and ceremony that usually follows the visit of an American head of state- not to mention extensive security detail, which included over four hundred secret service agents and massive liaising with the South African Police Service. Amidst the excitement, the inclusion of South Africa on the itinerary- which is part of the American’s three nation tour of Africa, has gotten the business community abuzz about the economic implications of this visit.
In the years since Barack Obama was historically elected as the first African American of the United States of America, he has not- as many expected- paid a great deal of attention to the continent. While having inherited two wars and a struggling economy from his predecessor, the Obama administration seems to be repenting its neglect of the continent. A neglect that is surprising to many, because Barack Obama with his African heritage would be in a most enviable position to create connections with African countries.
In the years following the global economic crisis and the absence of the American shadow on the African scene, its economic influence has been usurped by the Chinese. The tussle for dominance between the United States and China on a global stage, be it on a political level or an economic one, is hard to miss, and with the European economy still staggering and Asian markets reaching a saturation point, the East vs. West battle has touched down on our continent. And clearly China has the first mover advantage.
The Chinese economy which wasn’t brought to its knees by the global financial crisis like many, due to its relatively closed financial system, has been in a prime position to pour investments into the continent and cement economic ties with African nations. This is something the Americans have noticed, and are not comfortable with. As the Secretary of State, John Kerry put it “China is all over Africa––I mean, all over.” A sentiment shared by the average man on the street in Africa.
While attention from China, to the chagrin of many, has resulted in the notorious dumping of low quality goods on the continent, it has increased investment in Africa tenfold- helping to boost development and create jobs. In the global search for new markets and resources China’s well laid foundation in Africa will be a juggernaut to be challenged, and while photo ops with the American President are all nice and well, business with the west is not always viewed pleasantly.
China, unlike its western competitor , does not mix business with politics. American ties in Africa have traditionally been linked to development and aid, and these have often come with political strings attached, requiring governance and democratic reforms. Playing catch-up to China will be difficult. There was a time when the west was the dominant aid benefactor of the continent and many-a-state felt bullied into submission for aid, now China is offering investments and aid, without the ultimatums.
A diplomatic tight-rope is being walked by the Americans on which they will try to balance, their need for new markets and greater economic ties with the continent, and their desire to spread their political ideology. Something China doesn’t have to worry about. While the west is quick to take the moral high ground on issues of governance, whether they will be able to maintain this and woo Africa from its oriental benefactor is yet to be seen.