JOHANNESBURG – U.S. President Joe Biden has focused most of his energy in his first 100 days in office on taming the coronavirus pandemic on home soil. But in this short, frantic period, he has made a few important gestures that have been welcomed in Africa.
On his first day in office, he halted the U.S.’s plan to exit the World Health Organization. Biden’s reversal of his predecessor’s controversial decision to withdraw from the global body was greeted with near-universal approval, especially from African health experts, who said it could portend a more equitable world order.
Biden also pledged an additional $2 billion to the COVAX facility, which aims to provide equitable vaccine access to poorer nations.
And then, on April 20 — day 90 of his administration — he spoke words that echoed across the ocean.
“We can’t leave this moment or look away thinking our work is done,” he said on the eve of the verdict in the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd in police custody. “We have to look at it, we have to, we have to look at it as we did for those nine minutes and 29 seconds. We have to listen. ‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’ Those were George Floyd’s last words. We can’t let those words die with him. We have to keep hearing those words.”
Floyd, who was African American, was born in Houston and died in Minneapolis — but the African continent watched anxiously as a jury in April handed a guilty verdict to his killer, ex-policeman Derek Chauvin. Floyd’s slow suffocation the year before, pinned painfully under Chauvin’s knee as he cried for out for help and for his loved ones, sparked protests and calls for police reform in the U.S.
African analysts, like Asanda Ngoasheng, a Cape Town-based diversity trainer and gender and race scholar, welcomed Biden’s admission that the U.S. has a racial justice problem. South Africa is also struggling to overcome its own racial justice issues after centuries of colonialism and the brutal, racist apartheid government.
She also said Vice President Kamala Harris’ status as a powerful Black female leader lends weight to Biden’s desire to address racial justice — but said she wants to see more from the administration and from American institutions.
“We praise Kamala and I think it’s great that we praise her, but people of color in institutionally racist institutions very rarely are able to make any change,” she said. “And so, unless and until we deal with the systems and the structures that keep prejudice in place, we are not going to see many changes in the United States and globally. And so, yay and great for America and Biden. But can you please talk about the institutional change that they are going to make?”
Johannesburg-based commentator Brooks Spector said that while Biden hasn’t made any big changes to Africa policy, the fact that he isn’t making radical, impulsive changes — as critics accused former president Donald Trump of doing — is a welcome change in itself. Spector recommends that Biden work to strengthen and maintain the African Growth and Opportunities Act, a U.S. trade program.
“Much of what has to happen is going to be demonstrated by doing things on the ground in a slow, steady, consistent pattern, rather than these hectic policy changes of chopping and changing,” he said. “If you want to demonstrate your support for economic growth on the continent, then you carry out the policies that encourage economic growth.”
Spector, who served as an American diplomat overseas for several decades, says time will tell in Biden’s impact on Africa. Presidential legacies, he said, are built over years, not days — even 100 of them.