One MP was “shocked” to learn that the office of the public protector had received a $500 000 commitment from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID); others were merely “worried” or “concerned”.
The new public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, knew where they were coming from. She had a bit of state security experience, she assured the MPs, and knew the implications of donor funding.
The exchange between them last week was strange enough, but the conspiracy theory that followed — promoted aggressively but anonymously — was far, far stranger.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, it held, had made sure the treasury he controls (and which co-ordinates funding from foreign governments) funnelled USAID money to an organisation — the public protector — that could take out his enemies.
Gordhan’s enemies are, of course, President Jacob Zuma and all associated with him. So US money would be used by counter-revolutionary elements to, yes, effect regime change.
The many holes in this theory include that Gordhan was not appointed finance minister until many months after the aid deal had been signed, and technicalities that include a payment of US money to a German development agency to support a project for what is essentially a complex piece of office software were already underway.
The good news is that US is in no position to judge South Africa. Over the past few years, South Africa and the US had both individually seen some “turbulence”, the US ambassador to Pretoria, Patrick Gaspard, said on Wednesday. And, as much as the US would dearly like not to be judged based on “interesting headlines” (he did not mention presidential hopeful Donald Trump) so the US would not judge its relationship with South Africa based on “the spoutings of some backbencher in Parliament or the spouting of some regional political leader”.
This will come as some relief to those supporting rape victims and involved in HIV projects. Over the past two decades, according to figures compiled by the US mission in South Africa, USAID has pumped about $3.19-billion into projects, the equivalent of R44-billion at current exchange rates — and that is not taking into consideration the vast projects in HIV prevention by the awkwardly named US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief or Pepfar.
That funding started to flow almost as soon as then president Nelson Mandela in 1994 told the world that South Africa could do with a bit of help in some respects, such as for health and building organisational capability.
The scale of the HIV work dwarfs the rest of the US donations to South Africa, but other projects have made a major difference to some vulnerable groups. USAID is a major donor to the Thuthuzela centres that support rape survivors, it invests heavily in education evaluation projects, and has a large regional project underway on wildlife trafficking, which promises to help combat rhino poaching.
Potentially security-sensitive US to South Africa support includes funding the maintenance of military aircraft and the development of military support systems.
Notwithstanding the concerns of Parliament, itself a major beneficiary of foreign funding, none of those projects are in jeopardy.
“Of course, we understand that in the current political environment we find ourselves, there are some individuals who dream up some wild and irresponsible charges,” said Gaspard. “But this is not what defines our bilateral relationship. It does not speak to the nature of the partnership that we have.”
The overall budget for US foreign aid has been flat in recent years as that country struggles with its own budget constraints, yet support for humanitarian work in particular has retained broad bipartisan US support.
But recent research, some triggered in the scramble to understand Trump’s popularity, suggests that a large group of US citizens are of an isolationist bent, and others are questioning what benefit aid has brought the taxpayers who fund it.
Gaspard, an appointee of US President Barack Obama, says there is more than just a desire to do good behind US spending in South Africa — self-interest dictates the need for a helping hand in maintaining an environment in which hundreds of US companies can make money.
But US help, he adds, remains “at the invitation of the South African people and their representatives”.