South Africa is poised for stronger economic growth but faces big challenges in making itself more inviting to international business, U.S. Ambassador Eric M. Bost said Oct. 3 in an appearance at Fordham University.
Controlling crime and delivering basic services like utilities and public education are South Africa’s two biggest challenges, he said. But the country is making progress—”They finally acknowledged that they do have a crime issue,” Bost said.
The ambassador appeared at the Lincoln Center campus to address Fordham students who visited him in South Africa in August during a foreign study program. He touched on many topics including HIV/AIDS, life in the diplomatic corps and African perceptions of the U.S. presidential race.
He also continued a relationship with Fordham that began in March, when he agreed to speak at the University after meeting Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, and John Tognino, president of the Fordham University Board of Trustees, at an event in London.
Bost spoke at Fordham in April, and has opened his doors to Fordham students during their travels in South Africa.
“He has been extremely gracious in hosting all our students,” said Tognino, who appeared at the Oct. 3 event along with McShane and Stephen Freedman, senior vice president for academic affairs/chief academic officer at Fordham.
Bost said South Africa has the resources to improve itself if it chooses. He compared the country to a table that’s missing a leg. It has three legs already – wealth, a clear understanding of its problems and a plan for fixing them. All that’s missing is action.
Still, the country is ahead of other African nations that have no table at all, he said.
Domestic issues will play a big role in South Africa’s upcoming elections, he said. African National Congress President Jacob Zuma will likely focus on concerns about inadequate housing, schools and water and electrical systems, Bost said.
He said another election, the U.S. presidential race, is drawing intense interest in Africa, where most people support Illinois Sen. Barack Obama because his father was from Kenya.
The most frequent question he gets is “Mr. Ambassador, who’s going to be president?” He sometimes has to clarify that Obama, if elected, “will be president of the United States, not the president of Kenya.”
He uses these conversations to talk about American democracy, in which losing candidates accept the will of the people and exit the stage.
“They don’t say, ‘Let’s do a power-sharing agreement,'” Bost said. “They don’t say, ‘I don’t want to go, let’s shoot everybody.'”
He told the students about troubles in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe’s forces have used brutality and intimidation to win votes. Four to 5 million people are on the brink of starvation because Mugabe won’t allow nongovernmental organizations in to provide food, he said.
Bost said he’s proud of bringing more U.S. business to South Africa and improving its relations with the United States. He said he’s most proud of helping to deliver more antiretroviral drugs to South Africans infected with HIV. The U.S. government has doubled its funding for the drugs, to $30 billion over five years, he said.
“That translates into savings lives,” he said.
But there are 2.3 new infections for every person placed on antiretroviral drugs, he said.
The problem feeds on itself because parents who die of AIDS leave behind children who may succumb to prostitution to support their younger siblings, he said. And the men who exploit them refuse to use birth control. South Africa has at least 250,000 households headed by children, he said.