US president-elect Joe Biden. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE
US president-elect Joe Biden. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE

By Sunday afternoon Donald Trump was yet to concede after being defeated — soundly in the end — by Joe Biden in the race for the US presidency.

But the rest of the world is moving on, especially the traditional allies who have seen the US led by a man who ridiculed relationships dating back to World War 2 and favoured strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

“Welcome back” was the headline in the Washington Post, reflecting hope for a move away from the crude “America first” approach and back to an embrace of multilateral solutions to the world’s pressing problems, from climate change to the need to revive world trade in the wake of the economic disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Even Trump’s staunchest allies, such as Benjamin Netanyahu and Boris Johnson, the prime ministers of Israel and the UK, have congratulated Biden.

Africa has had its own taste of the destructive role the US has played in international organisations. In October, the continent was ready to celebrate the rise of Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the first woman and African to lead the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

A former finance minister, World Bank MD and the chair of Gavi, the alliance that seeks to facilitate the provision of vaccines for poorer countries, Okonjo-Iweala came with a big reputation and was supported by 160 other members. Yet her bid to head the trade body stalled because of the US, which somehow questioned her qualifications. With a meeting to confirm the appointment that was set for this week postponed, Trump's defeat makes it more likely that she will eventually get the job.

At the African Development Bank, the re-election of its president, Akinwumi Adesina, another former Nigerian minister, was almost derailed when the Trump administration insisted on another investigation, even after the board had cleared him of charges that he abused his office. Led by former Irish president Mary Robinson, an independent panel vindicated the bank’s ethics committee and dismissed all allegations against Adesina.

While there is no doubt that having the US led by someone who doesn’t talk about Africa in derogatory terms — that this is even a standard to measure it by is testament to the lows of the Trump presidency — is a good thing, it is too early to judge how the relationship will be reset in the coming months or years. Even when the US had a half Kenyan president, Barack Obama, Africa and SA were not exactly top of its agenda, despite the continent’s economic potential.

That’s not to say SA has been an innocent player. From Zimbabwe to Venezuela, the country has squandered its moral standing in international bodies and acts as if it sees opposition to the traditional super powers as a badge of honour, no matter how indefensible its position may be.

SA has struggled to find a balance that is beneficial to the national interests when it comes to the relationship between its Brics partners on one hand, especially China, and the Western countries that remain our most important economic partners on the other — despite the growing importance of China as a customer for the continent’s commodities and source of finance for infrastructure projects.

For example, goods trade with the US was at $14bn ($218bn) in 2018, according to data from the state department, which also says about 600 US businesses operate in SA, many using the country as a regional base for the continent.

SA would do well to look to South Korea and how it has been able to balance a crucial economic relationship with China while maintaining an alliance with the US. It is notable that the US’s favoured candidate for the WTO job, Yoo Myung-hee, is South Korean. That’s a tribute to that country’s skill in striking the balance between selling goods to China and maintaining a relationship with a US administration that dismissed the WTO as “terrible” and accused it of doing China’s bidding.

The change in government in the US is an opportunity for SA. We just need the diplomatic nous to make the best of it.

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