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The US-Africa relationship

- Wits University

Wits experts respond to questions around the relationship between the US and Africa.

Africa and the United States have had bilateral relations in trade and investments which spans over many years. More specifically, the cordial relationship between the US and South Africa strengthened post-apartheid and this made South Africa a strategic partner of the US. 

Today, SA is a strong ally of the US. Across Africa, the US has deepened its relationships with other countries in the continent also through trade, export and investment, while enhancing political and social multilateral relationships. In March this year, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made his first visit to Africa in an effort to further advance international relations between the two continents and cement Africa-US ties.

At the time of Tillerson’s visit to Africa, a new centre was established at Wits University. The African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) serves as an intellectual base for the study of the US and Africa. To promote this, ACSUS held a dialogue last month which provided a space for intellectual and cultural exchanges on the multi-faceted relations and interactions between African countries and the US with Wits University students and a group American students who were part of an Envision International Scholar Laureate Program. The dialogue sought to impart knowledge to students about the relationship between the US and Africa and South Africa in particular. Experts from ACSUS, Professors Tawana Kupe, John Stremlau and Gilbert Khadiagala addressed questions posed to them by students about Africa and the US. 

Professors John Stremlau, Tawana Kupe and Gilbert Khadiagala engaging students

What aspirations are there for Africans, especially for South Africans, and do those aspirations lead them to want to travel to the US and does that have an effect on the Africa-US relations?

Before 1994, South Africa was a very insular society looking into itself in many levels. During apartheid, there were some sanctions against South Africa and that limited movement of all types of people. Some of the people that went to the US before 1994 were people who were expelled by the apartheid regime, because if they opposed the apartheid system they were arrested. These people were often deported out of South Africa and given a “one way” passport, meaning they could not come back to the country. One of the reasons why South Africa was closed off to the rest of the continent was that the apartheid regime did not want a situation where South Africans understood the context where everybody had universal suffrage, where everybody could vote and all people were equal not as the apartheid regime was.

Africans are also not blind to some of the achievements that the US as a society and as a nation have achieved. Both the US and Africa have historical parallels, where they share the same history of oppression by the same colonial power. In Africa, people aspire for the positive and good things that might happen in the United States and see whether they are replicated here. Some people aspire to go and live in the US but there are constant movements between the two continents all the time. Also, Africans look up to the US in a broader cultural sense. Given this, there is a broader expectation that South Africans or Africans are also going to be cosmopolitan and the model of cosmopolitanism is the United States. Africans are trying to approximate the United States cosmopolitanism because it’s also a global cosmopolitanism.

What aspects of the US Constitution were adopted in the SA Constitution?

The US Constitution and the SA Constitution both begin with “we the people”, but we the people in this context is a country that is home to all who live here united in its diversity whereas “we the people” in the US Constitution is to form a perfect union of states, not people and human rights.

In “we the people” there is a similarity but there is a difference in what is meant in “we the people”. SA has one the best constitutions in the world, partly because it has inherited some of the best elements from other constitutions. The SA Constitution is a representation of some of the best constitutions around the world. SA’s Constitution did not only incorporate elements from other constitutions; it looked at the history of the country first. It looked at how and what South Africans suffered during slavery, colonialism and apartheid and how can the constitution be adapted so we do not repeat these. The SA Constitution is not just a recite of borrowing from other constitutions. There is a big distinction between the US and the SA Constitution. The SA Constitution not only promotes civil and political rights, it also protects socio-economic rights unlike the US Constitution.

What did the US do to move from being colonised to having an actual democracy and where could Africa have gone wrong?

There is no real democracy. More than 2500 years ago, the Greeks taught us that democracy is actually an approximation to their ideals and these ideals are participation, representation, accountability. Today, we refer to these as governance. In Africa, what we are trying to do is that we are trying to approximate on some of these big issues around how many people are represented in parliament. How accountable are our leaders? How open is our system? The question in Africa is why have we not build up much more stronger constitutional or democratic systems? One response is the question of time. Our constitutions are very young. Most of our constitutions are from 1960’s (only about 55 years), compared to French Constitution from 1789. African constitutions are relatively young and that’s the issue we have to confront. Secondly, our democracies are being negotiated under very difficult circumstances of poverty, of ethnic fragmentation, of all kinds of divisions. Other societies have confronted those issues and in doing so, they have done very well over the years. The US Constitution was not a linear thing that was created and all was well. The US Constitution was exclusionary in its long history. There was a time where women couldn’t vote and there was a time when blacks couldn’t vote. This is a society where people owned other people as slaves so the equality was for other people and not others based on unscientific things like gender because they or women or blacks. A route to democracy or to approximating the democratic ideals is never a straight line. The African countries in their own journey to create their own societies had two big intrusions, which were slavery and colonialism. Countries which were practising democracy back home colonised other countries and denied the people in those countries their democratic rights.

What possible strategies are there to overcome colonial inequality?

In South Africa, the issue has often come up that we have inherited a system of massive inequalities. How then do we begin to use public policy to actually right these historical wrongs? South Africa is trying to move to a context where it has a growing economy but also an economy that is addressing the problems of inequality. Although this is a very difficult balance, very delicate, we have to work at it. To address inequality we need public policy, we need engagement of all sectors to address that issue because it is a time bomb in South Africa.  Also people should always investigate alternative economic systems and what impact they might actually have.