Prayer vigils are being held around South Africa as Nelson Mandela remains in a critical condition in hospital. The focus of public attention is very much on his health rather than on the visit of US President Barack Obama.
It has been a difficult balancing act for President Jacob Zuma and his government – coping with the demands of a US Presidential visit while continuing to monitor Mandela’s health and keep a deeply concerned public fully informed.
The loudest voices about the Obama visit are of those opposed to it. In particular the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions, which is planning protests at venues in Pretoria and Soweto during the US president’s visit.
A statement released by COSATU and endorsed by several other organisations, including the South African Communist Party and the South African Students Congress states- “Our rejection is based on the USA’s arrogant, selfish and oppressive foreign policies, treatment of workers and international trade relations that are rooted in war mongering, neo-liberal super-exploitation, colonial racism and the disregard and destruction of the environment, thus making the realisation of a just and peaceful world impossible”.
The South African government’s response is somewhat less verbose- the International Relations Minister simply saying the country is “honoured to host President Obama”, but anyone has a right to peacefully protest against the visit should they wish to.
Underlying the somewhat muted public debate though is the fact that the Obama visit is very important indeed to South Africa’s immediate future. The bilateral talks due to take place between the Presidents on Saturday morning are substantive, not a mere meet and greet.
The focus will be largely on economic issues. Of crucial importance to South Africa and the continent as a whole is the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act passed by the US Congress and Senate in 2000 which creates preferential trade agreements between the US and Africa.
The Act is due to expire in two years time and the South African government will be seeking early assurances that it will be extended.
To understand its importance – 97 percent of South Africa’s exports to the US are “duty free” in terms of the Act, which makes the country’s products more attractive in the hugely competitive US economic environment.
Trade between the two countries amounts to about $22bn a year.
In addition there are about 600 US companies operating in South Africa, which provide an estimated $9bn a year in direct foreign investment.
Then there is the direct US assistance in the field of health. Since 2004, the US has committed more than $14bn to combat HIV/AIDS in South Africa- the size of these investments quite staggering.
Foreign policy issues will also be on the agenda in the talks. South Africa regarded as an influential player in the continent and beyond- and the US will be seeking direct South African backing for its emerging policy in the Syrian crisis and in other conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East.
So the talks are very important indeed, and could set the tone for continuing and deepening what has been a mutually beneficial relationship.