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Senator pledges support for AGOA renewal as South Africa spotlights Atlanta

Senator pledges support for AGOA renewal as South Africa spotlights Atlanta
Published date:
Saturday, 29 June 2024

Framing boosting ties with Africa as a spiritual and moral imperative, U.S.Sen. Rafael Warnock pledged to support a trade policy crucial to the continent’s economic prospects.

The Georgia Democrat in March assured a visiting delegation from South Africa that he would work to renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, which without congressional action will expire in 2025.

“You can hear my commitment to making sure that happens,” said Mr. Warnock to applause from a small but influential crowd at the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

The group had traveled across the Atlantic from South Africa on a mission known as “Atlanta Phambili,” borrowing the Zulu word for

Conceived by U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety and enacted in partnership with Prosper Africa, the intiative’s driving ethos is that Atlanta — with its Black business successes, strong historically Black colleges and African diaspora communities — should be the new nexus of the U.S.-South Africa relationship.

Joining Mr. Brigety were leaders of various South African companies and government and private-sector trade and industry associations who spent three days engaging with the “rich ecosystem” in Atlanta, Mr. Brigety said.

Ever the preacher, Mr. Warnock said during his opening remarks that Atlanta, as the cradle of the civil rights movement, shares a kinship with South Africa, whose struggle against apartheid was informed by Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of his day, though the U.S. itself was slow to condemn the segregationist system.

“While we know Georgia and South Africa are thousands of miles apart, our stories have parallels that run through our history farther than any distance,” Mr. Warnock said.

Leaders like Dr. King and Nelson Mandela knew that humanity is woven “in a single garment of destiny, as King said, and caught up in an “inescapable network of mutuality.”

That’s why the U.S. should see African prosperity as vital to its own interests, Mr. Warnock said.

“Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. That is the moral basis for strengthening our trade relationships,” he said. “We’re inspired by our story: Black people on both sides of the Atlantic, dealing with systemic oppression and racial discrimination. But they never gave in. They never gave in to lies and bigotry. And they never gave in to hate. They saw the spark of the divine even in those who made them the victims of subjugation.”

He added that the pursuit of partnership is in a way the continuation of the vision of Mandela and King.

“I think your coming here today signifies that we’re still dreaming new dreams, and we’re committed to making sure that those dreams come true.”

Mr. Brigety agreed that the city’s civil rights heritage is indicative of the shared values of the two countries.

He added that the U.S. is still a preferred business partner and market for African companies and producers, and that U.S. firms like Equinix, which in 2022 announced a $160 million data center in Johannesburg, continue to invest in Africa.

“These investments represent a powerful vote of confidence in South Africa’s skilled workforce and a commitment to our bilateral relationship,” Mr. Brigety said.

For Atlanta Phambili to achieve the “deeper framework” envisioned, it’s going to take more than the first step the March trip represented, the ambassador said.

“Let me say in this context: Atlanta Phambili is not simply an event; It is going to be a process. It is going to be an ongoing journey together to focus Atlanta as the focal point of the affirmative agenda between the United States of America and South Africa.”

Trade, he said, should grow as the two sides get better acquainted.

“Currently, the bilateral trade between Atlanta and South Africa is over $240 million. With respect, that’s nice, but it’s nothing compared to what it could be,” Mr. Brigety said.

Zoom out to Georgia and the picture is a little rosier: $540 million in imports from South Africa, led by vehicles, versus $137 million in exports of Georgia food, transportation equipment, chemicals and more, bringing total trade to $677 million.

Prosper Africa coordinator British Robinson said those assembled, including organizations serving Black- and diaspora-owned businesses, were an extension of the U.S. government’s efforts.

“This delegation is about assisting us in helping to de-risk trade opportunities for all of you, all of your members,” she said, noting that the U.S. Africa Trade Desk had just opened as a way to put African products in front of U.S. buyers.

In June, the first deal assisted by the desk, a $56 million purchase of South African table grapes, was announced at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York.

When he spoke to the group in Atlanta, Mr. Warnock had just left Cape Town, where he visited a citrus farm that was benefiting from AGOA.

Anthony Costa, director of investment for the Office of the President in South Africa, who accompanied Mr. Warnock on his visit, said it was good for the senator to see in person the quality of South African produce.

The bilateral relationship, he said, too often focuses on high-level policy issues where the two sides don’t always see eye to eye. 

“And yet, that’s not something that you or I can directly influence,” Mr. Costa said. “What we can influence is business investment and ensuring economic returns. The senator said this is not a zero-sum game; I think that’s the real magic of trade and investment, that it’s going to benefit both parties.”

On June 27, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office held an annual virtual hearing on AGOA, and the biennial report that determines countries’ eligibility is due this year.

AGOA was enacted in 2000 to provide duty-free access to the U.S. market for now 1,800 made-in-Africa product categories. The goal is to encourage an embrace of free enterprise and drive economic growth. Countries can lose the benefits if they violate human rights or backslide on market-oriented policies.

Zanele Sanni, executive head for export promotion at South Africa’s Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, said Mr. Warnock’s support on the pending AGOA renewal is critical as her team and other stakeholders promote South African products around the world.

“I don’t think there’s a better piece of news that we could take back home coming out of this engagement here.”

Mr. Warnock, for his part, added that he would work to extend the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, beyond the one-year that Congress has approved. The funding for antiretroviral drugs and AIDS education enacted in 2003 by President George W. Bush has been credited with saving 25 million lives across the continent.

“It is so very necessary, and, in my view, short-sighted that my colleagues in the House have so far re-authorized it for one year,” Mr. Warnock said. PEPFAR, which has allocated more than $90 billion since 2003 to fight HIV/AIDS, has until March 2025.

The evening before the breakfast forum, members of the delegation enjoyed a dinner with civil rights legend, former Atlanta mayor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, once again underscoring similarities in the Atlanta and South African struggles for justice and equality.

“We both share some of the aspirations, visions — that we’ve overcome hardship, that we have great resilience and we believe not just in economic growth but inclusive economic growth,” Mr. Costa said. “As Ambassador Young said last night, capitalism and human rights go together. And I think that speaks very much to the South African spirit.”

In addition to those present at the breakfast, other U.S. government officials who interacted with the delegation included:

Overall, the delegation also included executives from top African banks including:

  • Standard Bank Group, represented by Sim Tshabalala
  • Rand Merchant Bank, represented by Nana Phiri
  • Development Bank of Southern Africa, represented by Mpho Mokwele

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