US & SA – Part 2: What The New Presidency Means For SA

US & SA – Part 2: What The New Presidency Means For SA

US & SA – Part 2: What The New Presidency Means For SA

We’re not going to cover the US elections, political system or ideologies in detail in this blog. For reference you can read our previous blog entry.

In the second part of this article, Rand Rescue will focus on the US presidency and its implications for South Africans, both local and abroad.

SA-US relations in a nutshell…

Since SA’s new democracy, we have enjoyed mostly amicable bilateral relations with the US, and have benefited from certain trade agreements.

There are some noteworthy exceptions, such as the AGOA debacle which saw SA bullied into certain health policy relaxation with regards to US poultry imports to remain part of AGOA, but for the most part we have had an amicable relationship.

This relationship seems to have frayed a bit in the past few years, not due to outright animosity, but rather a kind of indifference from the sitting president in the US. The indifference was not wholly aimed at South Africa, but rather the African continent. Given a new president has now been elected, Trump would be the first president in decades to forego visiting Africa—or any African nation—during his tenure altogether.

This indifference, although subtle, was felt more strongly after Trump’s reference to African nations as ‘sh*thole countries’ and statements by Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, claiming that Trump stated Mandela was a bad leader and that all countries run by black leaders are toilets.

Divided views: what saffas think

As is the norm, there are rather polar views on the US election and presidency. This is not entirely surprising. Not only is the increasing polarisation of society a worldwide phenomenon, but many South Africans see the US as a type of reflection of their own society.

Whether you be liberal or conservative, given SA’s history it’s somewhat impossible to concern yourself with US news and not feel a type of empathy, distaste, outrage or fear sparked by experiences on home turf.

We have lived through racism and are living through it still. We have experienced corruption, misleading information by leaders, election woes and bear witness to inflammatory leadership on both poles of the political spectrum. There is a type of emotional investment in the events playing out in the USA which is somewhat anomalous and not shared by people who do not know South Africa or have not lived here.

But this invisible string which tethers us to a country far removed from our own also tends to be the fatal flaw in our observation and opinion of a nation. Such is the longing to find representation among the different US camps that we are blinded to fact.

As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, an important thing to remember is that it needn’t always be one or the other. One does not need to choose between two extremes, it is possible to support a leadership while still being aware of its flaws and critical of its actions. In fact, it is a necessary part of logical reasoning which is often obscured in the bickering and mudslinging which follows publications from either camp or in support of either camp.

What does a Biden presidency mean for SA?

We’ll cover a few topics below and possible benefits or pitfalls for SA and South Africans.

Biden’s links to Africa

Though many people may not be aware of this, Biden’s daughter-in-law, Melissa Cohen Biden, is a South African expat. Melissa hails from Johannesburg and married Hunter Biden in 2019 in a secret ceremony, ten days after the pair met.

Melissa’s family still resides in South Africa.

Though Melissa’s position in the White House will be unofficial—in that she will not serve in a professional capacity—she is also uniquely positioned to serve as a voice for South Africans within the inner circle of the US president.

Joe Biden, who had served in the US Senate during the apartheid era, had also been one of the most vocal leaders in the US government against apartheid. On his visit to SA in 1976, Biden had refused to be separated from his Congressional Black Caucus and had slammed the US government for not intervening in human rights violations.

Of course, Biden had also been right-hand-man to former President Barack Obama, who had ties to Africa himself. These ties have made saffas hopeful that a Biden presidency will be favourable for South Africa.

The saffa camp who had looked towards Trump to intervene—or in the least be aware—in how land expropriation and farm murders were being dealt with, may also an unexpected reprieve under a Biden presidency. Though Trump seemed to show support for South Africans concerned with these matters in a Tweet in 2018. He seemed to promptly fall back into a position of indifference thereafter. Groups like Afriforum had noted their hopes for a Republican re-election, but perhaps it is important for these groups to note that Biden may be more open to visiting the country and staying abreast of South African affairs.

The problem, of course, is that conservative South Africans align themselves predominantly with the ideals and views of the Republican party, and making a leap from this position to consider an audience with Biden may be a stretch too far. South Africans are sensitive about our apartheid past, and Afrikaners in particular tend to feel personally slighted by mention of this period. It is a natural response. The response may be rooted in Biden’s famed 1986 speech where he deemed his favourites the people who were repressed by the ugly white regime. But Gabriel Crouse for the Institute for Race Relations states that one would be remiss to instantly move Biden’s words outside the lens of its 1986 context—that one should focus on the message which is a fight for the rights of those who are undermined by a corrupt government. Although there is a ray of hope for conservative Afrikaners under the Democratic presidency, it is also probable that many would not notice the possibilities in what they may view as a travesty and tragedy.

Interestingly, the far right camps in SA’s voices were echoed by far left factions like the EFF, who claimed that Biden’s presidency would mean nothing for marginalised groups and slammed the US government for its lack of interest in African and black affairs. 

Of course, there is the chance that Biden would not acknowledge such qualms from either camp. Some hope that his insight into humanitarian issues may benefit both sides of the spectrum, while others believe he will need to prioritise the needs of one camp over the other which will further divide South Africans along racial and cultural lines. One will have to wait and see what the future holds.

Immigration rules

Another hope is that South Africans who want to live and work in the US will find it easier to move to this country under a Biden Presidency.

Though the US had not imposed any immigration restrictions specifically for South Africans, the Trump presidency did apply more stringent rules across the board, and has used travel and immigration restrictions against other nations with whom he had bumped heads.

The problem with these restrictions is that it was not applied consistently. Trump had been vocal in the past about his dismay with Islam, and had sought to restrict travel from ‘Muslim’ nations to the US, but he’d made noteworthy exceptions for nations with whom he had amicable relations, such as Saudi Arabia.

Though the travel and visa ban had initially been opposed by the courts, it was later upheld by the Supreme Court who’d stated that the president had authority under federal law to suspend entry to the US.

The ban had initially applied to Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea and political officials from Venezuela. It was later extended to prohibit immigration from Nigeria, Eritrea, Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan as well as barring participation in the diversity visa for Sudan and Tanzania. 

This blanket ban echoed frustrations with the US handling of asylum seekers (such as those entering via Mexico). Problematically, the law does not allow for seeking asylum while outside US borders, and individuals who wish to do so need to be within US borders before they can apply. Seeking asylum is also perfectly legal, yet most asylum-seekers in the past few years have seen immediate detainment on entry to the US.

Fears that bans and restrictions would extend to other parts of the world, including South Africa (or for South African citizens) had been weighing on many people’s minds. In fact, latest surveys indicate that most South Africans who had previously considered the US a favourable immigration destination had changed their minds in the past few years. With Biden in the White House, South Africans are once more keen to consider the US as a new home—this is especially true for South Africans between the ages of 30 and 45 who are economically active.

Protecting the environment

In addition to exiting the Paris Agreement, Trump had also repealed or reversed 84 environmental protection rules or bills, and has 20 more in progress thus far. As the country with the second-highest CO2 emissions in the world, such backtracking on environmental issues affects all countries worldwide. The more environmental degradation that occurs worldwide, the higher the likelihood of raised environmental taxes, trade restrictions based on behaviour and so forth.

Though lower activity under Covid-19 has seen the USA (and other nations) emit less CO2 in the past few months, the US has been slowly slagging off in reducing emissions, unlike other nations which have been actively reducing carbon emissions.

But, of course, the other concerns are not merely to do with carbon. Though the GOP has claimed that these rollbacks of environmental legislation were aimed at deregulation which would—in turn—make it easier for the EPA to provide cleaner water, air and land, experts such as Hillary Aidun who tracks deregulation at the Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law states that it has not achieved anything of the kind. In fact, it has achieved quite the opposite.

  • Among these rollbacks include:
  • weakening greenhouse gas standards for vehicles
  • revoking a state’s ability to set stricter tailpipe emission standards
  • withdrew legal justification for limiting mercury emissions from coal power plants
  • replaced government regulation of carbon emission with authority for states to set their own regulations
  • removed requirement for oil and gas companies to report methane emissions
  • eliminated methane emissions standards for oil and gas facilities and limiting restrictions to certain compounds and certain facilities
  • withdrew rules designed to limit toxic emissions from major industrial polluters
  • relaxed emission regulations on power plants which safeguarded communities from pollution
  • relaxed rules aimed at reducing air pollution in national parks and wilderness areas
  • repealed rules aimed at reducing leaking and venting of hydrofluorocarbons from refrigeration and air conditioning systems
  • barred the use of calculations used to determine long-term economic benefits of CO2 reduction
  • withdrew instruction for federal agencies to include greenhouse gas emissions in environmental reviews
  • revoked previous executive order aimed at reducing federal government emissions by 40% over 10 years
  • lifted ban on use of E15 gasoline
  • withdrew rules aimed at reducing pollution at sewage treatment plants
  • discarded most of the proposed policy to tighten pollution standards for offshore oil and gas
  • relaxed requirements for monitoring and repairing leaks at oil and gas facilities
  • proposed a rule limiting individuals and communities’ ability to challenge EPA pollution permits
  • lifted freeze on new coal leases on public lands
  • finalised plan to open Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil and gas development
  • lifted ban on logging and construction in Tongass National Forest, Alaska (largest intact temperate rain forest in the world)
  • approved construction of Dakota Access pipeline less than a mile from Standing Rock Sioux Reservation
  • rescinded water pollution regulations for fracking on federal and First Nations lands.
  • removed requirement to prove ability to remove oil rigs in the Gulf stream
  • exempted the state department from environmental review for cross-border projects by moving approval to the office of the president
  • replaced executive order for preservation of ocean, coastal and Great Lakes water with policy for energy production
  • relaxed offshore drilling safety regulations aimed at preventing oil spills
  • proposed opening US coastal waters to offshore gas and drilling
  • proposed easing approval for oil and gas drilling in national forests
  • withdrew proposed restrictions on mining in Bristol Bay, Alaska. A salmon habitat.
  • proposed rescission of regulation on offshore oil and gas exploration by floating vessels in the Arctic.
  • approved use of seismic air guns for gas and oil exploration in the Atlantic Ocean
  • limited time frames for environmental impact studies to hasten approval of infrastructure projects
  • revoked flood standards for federal infrastructure
  • overturned guidance which ended US government financing of new overseas coal plants
  • revoked directive for federal agencies to minimise impact on water, wildlife, land and natural resources when approving development projects
  • restricted Interior Department environmental studies to one year and 150 pages
  • removed policies designed to maintain and improve natural resources affected by federal projects
  • altered application of Endangered Species Act to reduce protection of wildlife from climate change impact
  • ended automatic application of full protection for threatened plants and animals
  • overturned ban on lead ammunition and fishing tackle
  • overturned ban on predator hunting in Alaskan wildlife refuges
  • reversed ban on baiting to kill grizzly bears for sport hunting in Alaska
  • removed restrictions on commercial fishing in protected marine reserve
  • revoked ban on dumping mining debris in local streams
  • withdrew proposed rule requiring groundwater protection for uranium mines
  • rejected proposed ban on pesticides linked to developmental disabilities
  • removed copper filter cake from hazardous waste list
  • repealed energy-efficiency standards for light bulbs
  • amended policy which prohibited using sand from protected ecosystems
  • finalized rule limiting 401(k) retirement plans from investing on funds focused on the environment
  • stopped payments to the UN Green Climate Fund

In order to bypass trophy hunting, following protection to certain species in other countries, as well as a ban on trophy imports, the Trump administration had merely redefined trophy hunting. Although calling trophy hunting a ‘horror show’ and stating that he aimed to steer US policy on the matter, the administration had merely rebranded ‘trophy hunting’ as ‘conservation hunting’. Of the 16 council members who made the decision, only two were not advocates for trophy hunting. The remaining council members were all part of international safari and rifle associations.

Though many may claim that trophy hunting has its place in society, the problem with these restrictions being lifted is that it is done without assistance or oversight from environmental groups and local communities. The International Wildlife Conservation Council of the Trump administration is an advisory board which promotes trophy hunting. Experts state that the problem is exacerbated by trophy hunters opting for regions where regulation and restriction is lax, and persistent issues of corruption and environmental degradation present.

Trade relations

In the wake of a protracted US trade war with China, South Africa is one of many countries who had been caught in the crossfire. Although we saw a bump in exports to China, the sharp tariff hikes imposed on Chinese exports to the US meant that South African exporters either had to lower their prices, or make do—once more—with lower exports.

The Trump administration had boosted SA wine exports for a while by bumping tariffs on our competitors with 25% (including France, Spain, Germany and Britain). This had improved South African wine imports by 16.4% for 2019. But problematically, with the worldwide lockdown whatever headway was made was swiftly wiped from the cards, and the future is uncertain for South African wine farmers.

The jury is divided on whether or not a Biden presidency will be favourable for SA’s economy.

One camp believes that such tariff hikes made under Trump favoured SA’s imports to the US, and that Biden may relax such tariffs which will once more lead to tighter competition. These persons also believe that while Trump was mostly apathetic towards South Africa, Biden may impose stricter requirements for trade benefits—such as environmental, humanitarian and economic policy changes or tightening to hold SA to a certain standard.

Another camp believes that Biden will focus on relieving restrictions on emerging economies which would see greater economic development. This camp believes that his focus on humanitarian and conservation efforts would see improved living standards for South Africans and greater investment from the US in social and economic growth. 

These two camps are at odds with what renewed US interest in Africa could mean for our economies. On the one hand, one may look forward to increased investment, but on the other, African nations may be pushed to choose loyalties between nations such as China, Russia and the USA. Conversely, it could also halt callous destruction of African resources and exploitation of African people.

There is hope that the US’s renewed focus on South Africa would expedite the weeding out of corrupt officials and governmental compliance with international business standards. Regulations around tax and pensions may also be scrutinised more carefully by international governments, and protect the interests of all South Africans.

One thing which may see an immediate economic boost for SA is Biden’s positive view of SA as well as his ties with the country: Saffa Tourism! This positive view may well see a renewed focus on SA as a hub for worldwide travellers.

International relations and travel

In line with the Tourism boost mentioned above, a Biden presidency may ease animosities between other nations in the world. This is not a given, of course, but a possibility.

Without the divisive rhetoric which has burdened the Trump regime, other leaders may fall in step and return to a position of diplomacy. One cannot, of course, state that the current state of global politics is Trump’s doing. But one cannot ignore the fact that leaders the world over have increasingly resorted to public mudslinging on social media, in press conferences and media statements.

Violence begets violence, and this holds true for political debate and international relations. If such violence is eased, there is a possibility that the world could be more favourable to international guests, international work opportunities, travellers, learners, businesses and investors. Unfortunately we cannot predict how the world will react in the wake of the election, and in the persistent vice of an international pandemic.

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