The United States is shifting its attitude towards Pretoria

The nomination of South African-born United States citizen Lana Marks as the US ambassador to Pretoria after more than 12 months of the post being vacant is a clear indication of a shift in US foreign policy towards South Africa.

Factors reflecting this change rest on two points. First, the calibre of the individual selected as US ambassador stands in sharp contrast to her predecessors — Patrick Gaspard, Donald Gips, Eric M Bost, Jendayi Elizabeth Frazer and Cameron R Hume — all of whom had a rich repertoire of experience in academia, politics or international relations. Each brought a unique set of skills and experience relevant to the maturity of the bilateral relationship between South Africa and the US.

Although it might seem woefully elitist to assume that ambassador-elect Marks would not be able to carry out her responsibilities diligently, one cannot simply brush aside her appointment without interrogating the possible reasons behind President Donald Trump’s decision to appoint her.

It is important to make a clear distinction between how the current US administration views South Africa in contrast to how previous administrations viewed it.

Historically, South Africa has been seen as a strategic partner for countries outside the African continent, specifically the US. This was expressed by former secretary of state John Kerry, who stated: “South Africa is playing an increasingly important global role, a very important leadership role on the continent of Africa, and, we are pleased to say, an important co-operative role together with the United States.”

This sentiment was amplified by former assistant secretary of state for the bureau of African affairs, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who said: “As one of our strategic partners in Africa, South Africa’s leaders continue to show tremendous creativity and co-operation in promoting regional peace and security … It lends a significant voice to the international community as a member of the Brics [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa bloc of] nations.”

Perhaps the best way to view the relationship between the US and South Africa is through the prism of the current trade war between China and the US. The trade war, reminiscent of the Cold War era, has ­polarised the world into those who support the US, under Trump, and those who support China, under the leadership of Xi Jinping.

Historically, South Africa’s membership and participation in Brics, as stated by Thomas-Greenfield, was seen as “lending a significant voice to the international community”. But, with the backdrop of the trade war, South Africa’s participation in Brics, and its co-chairing of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (Focac) this year, has, in the minds of many in the US, placed South Africa firmly in Xi’s camp.

The second factor reflecting a change in US foreign policy towards South Africa is that, for more than 12 months, the US did not appoint an ambassador to South Africa. It is assumed that, if South Africa was seen as a strategic ally, as has been the case with previous US administrations, an ambassador would have been appointed within six months of Trump’s election to office.

An illustrative point to make here is to highlight the ripple effects the lack of the appointment of an ambassador has had, the most relevant example being Trump’s tweet relating to a supposed “white genocide” and the issue of “land grabs”. 

The source of his information seemed to be Fox News, which presented a biased and uninformed insert about the ANC’s decision to amend the Constitution to enable it to expropriate land without compensation. The subsequent critique levelled at the Trump administration by the South African government was centred on the need to address such issues through official diplomatic channels rather than through social media.

Moreover, had the Trump administration had an ambassador in South Africa at that time, reliable and factual information about the land situation in the country could have been relayed.

Of course, the mere presence of a US ambassador in the country does not guarantee that there will be no more ill-advised Trump tweets. But it does strengthen the use of official diplomatic channels to express concerns, deal with misunderstandings and foster a greater bilateral understanding.

It is reasonable to assume that US foreign policy towards South Africa has changed, that South Africa is no longer seen as a strategic ally, that its proximity to China through multilateral forums such as Brics and Focac is seen as a problem and that the decision by South Africa’s ruling party to embark on the process of land expropriation without compensation is viewed as too left of centre, and, as such, too interventionist.

Fazlin Fransman is a senior researcher at Moja Research Institute, an independent, not-for-profit think-tank that serves as a hub for critical thought in media, development and global governance

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Fazlin Fransman
Fazlin Fransman

Fazlin Fransman is a senior researcher at Moja Research Institute, an independent, not-for-profit think-tank that serves as a hub for critical thought in media, development and global governance

Related stories

Covid-19 vaccines offer hope as world leaders plan for future

Hopes over Covid-19 vaccines have given a boost to virus-weary citizens across the globe, but the disease remains rampant and world leaders are urging people to be patient

Malawi elections provide a global lesson in democracy

COMMENT: Opposition candidates and party can increase their chances of success at the polls by putting aside minor differences and presenting a united front

Masterclasses in duck-and-dive

You didn’t need to be a genius or a prophet to predict that Bushiri would run or that Zuma would stall

Will Biden and Harris help us breathe again?

The United States’ newly elected leaders, Joe Biden and Kamala Devi Harris, must help recalibrate a global politics of hope and empathy

Bye-bye, Don. But is this the end of Trumpism?

If it hadn’t been for Covid-19, Donald Trump might have won the presidential election. Almost 48% of voting Americans believe in his brand of democracy, equality and justice.

The decline and fall of the South African auditing profession

Its reputation is not being helped at all by the crisis at its independent regulatory body

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

Sudan’s government gambles over fuel-subsidy cuts — and people pay...

Economists question the manner in which the transitional government partially cut fuel subsidies

Traditional healers need new spaces

Proper facilities supported by well-researched cultural principles will go a long way to improving the image and perception of the practice of traditional medicine

Did Botswana execute ‘poachers’ ?

The Botswana Defence Force’s anti-poaching unit has long been accused of a ‘shoot to kill’ policy. Over 20 years the unit has killed 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans

Limpopo big-game farmer accused of constant harassment

A family’s struggle against alleged intimidation and failure to act by the authorities mirrors the daily challenges farm dwellers face

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…