Two overarching narratives emerged in the wake of President Barack Obama’s announcement that South Africa’s agricultural exports would lose Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) eligibility from January 5, 2016, unless South Africa took urgent steps to resolve outstanding issues relating to restrictions on US poultry, beef and pork exports.
The first narrative was that the dispute provided yet more evidence that the South African government, under President Jacob Zuma, was little more than a blunderer; one so focused on building relations with its floundering Brics allies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, that it had lost sight of important existing ties with countries such as the US.
The second was the entrenched, albeit tired, argument that the US was little more than a bully and the quicker South Africa extricated itself from trade and investment relations with the US the better.
The two narratives so easily captivate the public imagination because they both contain kernels of truth.
To be sure, the South Africa government does have serious strategic, policy and practical deficiencies across a broad range of areas, from higher education funding and water management to implementation of economic policy.
The US, on the other hand, is not generally subtle when protecting its interests and the interests of its companies. In addition, it seems prone to applying double standards and not only in the areas of trade and investment.
Nevertheless, as they relate to Agoa, the storylines lack nuance and are deeply problematic. They hide the complexities of bilateral trade diplomacy and are blind to the exceptional nature of Agoa, which is applied unilaterally and is not the outcome of a trade negotiation.
They also obscure the fact that South Africa and the US have, since 1994, developed genuine partnerships in a number of important domains, not least in the areas of human health and energy.
Even in the area of Agoa, the Obama administration has, hitherto, been a keen proponent of sustaining South Africa’s eligibility, notwithstanding some bipartisan blowback, which arose primarily as a result of the fact that South Africa has effectively blocked American chicken imports for 15 years.
There is a case, I believe, for an alternative narrative around Agoa; one that accepts that such disputes are only natural as South Africa’s trade diplomacy evolves, but also healthy in ensuring that the interests of both domestic and American farmers are balanced. America’s frankness in raising its objections to measures taken by an ally is equally natural and healthy.
In a truly good relationship, the participants should have no fear of debate, or the occasional disagreement. But sustainable relationships also require give and take and compromise, without compromising fundamental values. South Africa looks set to make a mutually acceptable ‘three meats’ compromise to safeguard the still substantial benefits associated with Agoa eligibility.
The next test of the relationship is not far off, however, with the US having already raised serious objections to a clause in the Private Security Industry Regulation Amendment Bill, stipulating 51% local ownership in security companies. South Africa will have to determine whether such ownership is truly fundamental, as losing preferential access to the world’s biggest market will probably be at risk once more.