How the US and South Africa became friends again

The realisation of the US’s economic importance to South Africa is one of the factors that has changed the relationship between the two countries. (AFP)

The realisation of the US’s economic importance to South Africa is one of the factors that has changed the relationship between the two countries. (AFP)

It was a record-fast apology from a South African government official. 

Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Kebby Maphatsoe apologised and withdrew his statements that public protector Thuli Madonsela was linked to the CIA within just four days last week.

“These chapter nine institutions were created by the ANC but are now being used against us, and if you ask why, it is the Central Intelligence Agency. Ama [the] Americans want their own CEO in South Africa and we must not allow that,” he said. 

Maphatsoe first made the statements at an event on a Saturday, confirmed it to a journalist on the Sunday and by the following Tuesday had withdrawn the statement. 

In that time, he came under a fair amount of pressure to do so from two quarters: the public protector herself, who threatened legal action over the statements, and the United States embassy in South Africa. 

The US ambassador, in a series of tweets following Maphatsoe’s original comments, condemned the statements, and later said he would lodge a formal complaint. The very next day Maphatsoe issued a statement of apology and retraction. 

The last line of the statement made it clear whose pressure held the most weight. 

“However, the behaviour and conduct of the public protector remains a source of concern to us,” Maphatsoe said in a final kicker aimed at the public protector, given her reports into senior figures within Maphatsoe’s party, the ruling ANC. 

While he has since expanded on his disdain for Madonsela in subsequent interviews, he has been very careful to steer clear of ever invoking the US’s ire again.

This shows how far South African and US diplomatic relations have come in our recent democratic history. 

These days it is unthinkable that a member of cabinet could make such insinuations about a foreign country. 

But it wasn’t so long ago that our president himself had said worse about the US. 

Mbeki’s attacks on the West
Former president Thabo Mbeki, at the height of his paranoia and Aids denialism, delivered a blistering attack on the West and their views on the Aids epidemic in South Africa. 

In an address to ANC parliamentarians at a caucus meeting on September 28 2000, the Mail & Guardian reported at the time that Mbeki accused the CIA of working covertly alongside the US pharmaceutical industry to undermine him as he posed a risk to drug company profits.
In a subsequent BBC Hard Talk interview, Mbeki denied the story as a “pure invention”, despite numerous MPs confirming the comments.

“These comments during the Mbeki time were very common,” said Dr Scott Firsing, an international relations expert with Monash University. “It was common practice from 1994 to earn political points with the ANC by bashing the US and the imperialists.” 

Mbeki’s disastrous Aids denialism would continue for some years, and the US’s Aids work in the country made things worse. In 2003 the US under George Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar). 

A US embassy official who worked in South Africa at the time spoke about the strained relationship. 

“Under the Mbeki years things got difficult. To be frank, at the beginning of Pepfar there was a real crisis so we worked through a lot of NGOs [nongovernmental organisations] ... to get the response out there as quickly as possible, at times not going through the department of health.” 

In official responses the US embassy noted that it had spent $4.2-billion on HIV and Aids programmes in South Africa over the past 10 years.

In addition, when Pepfar started, the US themselves were vastly unpopular under Bush’s tenure, thanks to the wars in Iraq and Afganistan. This reflected on US diplomatic relations across the world and, compounded by the particular issues of the Mbeki regime, led to an all-time relational low between the two countries.    

“At the point where it was the Mbeki administration it was a low point for the US around the world. Under the Bush administration the US was incredibly unpopular,” said Christopher Woods, researcher in economic diplomacy with the South African Institute of International Relations. 

There was a rumour on the diplomatic circuit that at the lowest point Mbeki had entirely stopped talking to one US ambassador. 

‘Obama effect’
So how did the relationship improve so dramatically that a few tweets by an annoyed US ambassador could effect such a quick apology?

A number of factors, the experts agree, which include the ‘Obama effect’, the realisation of the US’s economic importance to South Africa and, quite simply, having a different sort of ambassador under Gaspard, a close Obama aid who is a visionary and media-savvy leader himself. 

“The US embassy previously was quite closed,” said Firsing. “Ambassador Gaspard has been quite open – almost like a celebrity on TV. 

The US diplomat agreed. “I can’t think of many other countries in Africa that gets a close friend of the president as an ambassador ... He was running the democrat party in America.”

Gaspard has a background in trade unions and civil movements. In contrast, previous ambassadors, such as Eric Bost, who was in South Africa between 2006 and 2009, were very closely related to Bush, with a background in the Food and Drug Administration in Texas. 

“Jendayi Frazer [US ambassador to South Africa before Bost] and Bost were both political animals in a way and they did not appreciate the way the South African government was responding to America and certainly the Mbeki administration returned the favour,” said political analyst and former US diplomat Brooks J Spector. 

Meanwhile, the election of a different kind of president in America, particularly a black man, eased the tensions between the countries under President Jacob Zuma’s new administration in South Africa, and the sticking points around HIV and Aids were done away with. 

Economic incentives
And then there were the economic incentives of the relationship. 

“The numbers for SA are extraordinary,” said Spector, referencing the job benefits of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) .  

US embassy spokesperson Jack Hillmeyer noted that Agoa has been a boon to South Africa. “It’s a one-way trade concession that we have been giving to African countries since 2000,” said Hillmeyer. “The 60 000 cars exported to the US in 2012 would never have been assembled here in South Africa if it weren’t for Agoa.”

Spector estimated that, with knock-on effects, Agoa had created 150 000 jobs as a whole in South Africa. 

“There was a sort of sudden: ‘Hey, this matters, it is not an ideological thing. The diplomatic relationship matters because they affect the welfare and well being of the country’.”

And Gaspard’s tweets in that context probably came as a surprise. 

“He basically said you can’t just say this stuff. You can’t just fling these charges around without there being a response and I suspect the local folks were a touch startled by that,” said Spector. “Now there is an understanding that you can’t lightly say someone is an agent of someone’s intelligence community without there being a repercussion of some sort – especially when it isn’t true.” 

The relationship between the ANC-led government and the US in South Africa is perhaps not as strong as it was under Nelson Mandela and the Bill Clinton administration immediately after South Africa’s move to democracy. But it’s certainly come a very long way from where it was under Mbeki and Bush.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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