6 Reasons the US Needs to Keep the Focus on South Africa

Even with Nelson Mandela gone, the country remains an important ally of the United States.

South Africans pay tribute to South African President Nelson Mandela following his death in Johannesburg on Dec. 6, 2013.  ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

It’s tempting to forget about South Africa, now that Nelson Mandela has found his final resting place.

But the South Africa he transformed is still changing in interesting and surprising ways. The nation is already the economic powerhouse of the continent and has recently muscled its way onto the world stage. It will see watershed elections next year, on the 20th anniversary of its transition to democracy, and that vote may for the first time be heavily influenced by a burgeoning black middle class. Yet the nation still struggles with many problems such as crime, inequality and a horrific rape epidemic.

It’s a potent mix of problems and promise, with a panoply of interesting personalities, from firebrand politician Julius Malema to the truly irreplaceable Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Here, then, are six (of many) reasons to continue paying attention to “the rainbow nation.”

1. It’s the Economy, Stupid

South Africa is the undisputed financial hub of Africa, with the continent’s most advanced banking sector and a growing manufacturing base. That affects the United States to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year. Trade between South Africa and the U.S. clocked in at $22 billion dollars in 2011, the U.S. government says. That makes South Africa the nation’s 36th-largest trading partner in the world.

South Africa is also a beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows African nations to export goods tariff-free to the U.S. As in many African nations, South Africa’s exports are mainly raw materials—but in a departure, you might be surprised to learn that one of South Africa’s main exports to the U.S. are motor vehicles. South Africa exports some $2.2 billion worth of cars to the U.S. each year. Even if you didn’t buy a South African-manufactured BMW, the guts of your car may come from the rainbow nation: South Africa also exports a large number of catalytic converters.

2. Africa’s Advocate

South Africa recently joined BRICS, an economic bloc composed of Brazil, Russia, India and China. It was a big step toward the nation’s goal to be taken seriously on the world stage, and the other BRICS nations have repeatedly dubbed South Africa the “gateway to Africa.”