South Africa Welcomes Biden Presidency

11 November 2020 Leighton G. Luke, Research Manager, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

Leaders from across Africa have been quick to congratulate US President-elect Joe Biden on his eventual victory in the 3 November election and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was no exception, tweeting on 8 November that:

We congratulate President-Elect @JoeBiden and Vice President @KamalaHarris and the American people on your election. We look forward to working with you and deepening our bonds of friendship and cooperation.

Comment

The likely positive effects of having a new occupant in the White House from 20 January also registered in the South African economy, with the rand even briefly nudging above 16.40 to the US dollar on 6 November, as counting and uncertainty continued in the US. On 9 November, the rand was trading above 15.52 to the dollar before settling at 15.55 as of 11 November. This week marks the rand’s best performance against the greenback since early March and, although South African exporters will be hoping that the local currency does not strengthen too much more, it is a welcome sign for the beleaguered South African economy.

The Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) also registered gains on the back of both a more settled approach to governance in Washington and the prospect of an imminent COVID-19 vaccine. Both the JSE and the exchange rate reflect the outlook that, by working to stem the dire COVID situation in the US, the Biden Administration will aid the return to health of the US economy, thereby helping to underpin global economic growth. Whether the South African indices can hold those gains remains to be seen, especially in view of the possibility that another COVID wave could break out in South Africa, which the country could scarcely afford. But, for now, at least, the economic news is brighter than it has been for some time.

President Ramaphosa will be pleased to work with Biden on such issues as climate change and attracting greater US investment into the South African economy, neither of which were priorities for the Trump Administration. The US is both South Africa’s third-largest export market and its third-largest source of imports; in both cases, ranking behind China and Germany.

South Africa enjoyed a US$2.4 billion surplus in its goods trade with the US in 2019, which had widened to just over US$5.1 billion in the first nine months of 2020. Major South African exports to the US are motor vehicles, parts and accessories; industrial machinery; diamonds, gems and jewellery; precious metals; chemicals; pharmaceutical preparations; fruit, frozen fruit juices and nuts; and wine.

Unfortunately for President Ramaphosa, as for other foreign leaders, the Biden Administration will be consumed by any number of pressing domestic issues, most especially responding to the public health and economic damage wrought by COVID-19. Complicating matters is the likelihood that the US Senate will be controlled by the Republican Party. While Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has already indicated that the Republicans will adopt a deliberately obstructionist stance in the Senate, that is probably most likely to manifest in the domestic sphere.

Thus, while a Republican Senate seems very likely to act as a brake on Biden’s domestic agenda, that same domestic focus may give the President comparatively greater leeway in foreign affairs. Even so, it will mean that, for US friends and allies, such as South Africa, the job of capturing the President’s attention will not have got any easier.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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