/ 19 May 2023

ANC still wary of trusting US ambassador Brigety

Fikile Mbalula.
Fikile Mbalula. File photo

The ANC said it was still early days to speak of rebuilding trust with the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, which was damaged by a row over South Africa’s alleged supply of weapons to Russia.

A bilateral meeting held on Wednesday was not enough to reassure the ruling party, its spokesperson, Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri, told the Mail & Guardian.

“How do you test sort of a rebuilding sense of trust? It can’t just be over one meeting. The meeting was just meant to begin the process of clearing the air,” she said. “Next week we are having a bilateral between him and his delegation and the [ANC’s] national executive committee [NEC]subcommittee on international relations. I think it’s only after that engagement we can really formulate a strong view on matters related to trust.”

As pressure mounted for South Africa to pick a side in the Russian war against Ukraine, the ANC reiterated its non-aligned stance to the United States during this week’s meeting between the party’s secretary general Fikile Mbalula and Brigety.

This was after the US ambassador hosted a dozen South African journalists last week where he characterised Washington’s relationship with the governing party as “hostile”. Brigety said that since taking up his post in August 2022, he had “repeatedly” tried to open dialogue with the ANC, which had only recently responded to the US’s inquiries.

ANC treasurer general Gwen Ramokgopa has already pushed back against Brigety’s comments, saying she had met him personally on at least three occasions. 

She said the US ambassador had been “very frank to raise his concerns about some of the resolutions that the ANC had taken” during these meetings.

Brigety said Washington “cannot understand” the hostility from the ANC towards the US “given the openness and unprecedented generosity we provide South Africa to our market, which we have done for nearly a quarter of a century”.

Brigety said Washington had taken offence at ANC resolutions adopted during its December elective conference, which he said attributed the Russia-Ukraine war to the expansion of Nato, an intergovernmental military alliance between European and North American countries.

Although both the ANC and Brigety put the matter to bed during this week’s meeting, Mbalula was firm in saying only an ANC conference of its delegates could change the party’s stance on the war in Ukraine. 

“The secretary general made it very clear that this is a resolution of conference, we are happy to take you through that resolution both in terms of the actual text but most importantly the context of that resolution, and he went on to explain the history that we have with the US as a party not as government,” Bhengu-Motsiri told the M&G.

“He took them through that the US abetted the apartheid system in South Africa, took them through post 1994, then there was some kind of rebuilding of relationship mainly as a government. 

“He was very clear that we have our own views as a party. We moderate those when we go into government because we understand the geopolitical situation and how we need to navigate that space. He was very emphatic about the resolutions of our conference. We were totally unambiguous about that.”

The spokesperson for the US mission to South Africa, David Feldman, told the M&G that the embassy stood by Brigety’s comments. This contradicted the ANC and the government’s earlier statements that the ambassador had apologised. 

An insider privy to Wednesday’s meeting said Mbalula advised Brigety to have discussions with the ANC’s subcommittee on international relations to explain why he believed the party’s resolutions were out of order.

“Maybe they will reiterate that they stand by their statement in that meeting but that is not what they said to the secretary general,” the insider said. 

An ANC leader stationed at its Luthuli House headquarters said the party was inundated by calls and letters from branches demanding that Brigety be thrown out of the country. 

They said this view had also been expressed by members of the NEC, the party’s highest decision-making body between conferences.

Insiders in the NEC said there was a feeling that Washington had planted a seed of doubt in South Africa’s non-aligned stance, with next year’s general elections in mind. 

Some party members even held the view that the US was trying to dislodge the ANC because the Democratic Alliance was a much more favourable ally. 

“It’s not tested but I understand why comrades would resort to this thinking. Even if we say this matter is put to bed, Brigety has betrayed trust and this is not the first time,” one NEC member said. 

ANC Veterans’ League leader Snuki Zikalala said this was not the first time Brigety had flouted diplomatic processes, but added that he believed trust could be rebuilt with the US ambassador. 

Last year Brigety sent out a security alert to US citizens in South Africa warning of a possible terror attack in Johannesburg’s wealthy Sandton area without providing evidence. He was quickly criticised by the government, which denied that there was any evidence pointing to a terror attack in Sandton.

“There is a trust deficit, its true, but it’s up to the ambassador himself to do an introspection about his public utterances and to make sure that before he makes any pronouncement, he must be certain of what he says, and of course there is nothing wrong with him picking up the phone and calling for bilaterals with minister Naledi Pandor,” Zikalala said. “We are really disappointed by his behaviour.”

In a statement issued after Wednesday’s meeting, Bhengu-Motsiri said Mbalula had made it clear that the ANC’s approach to international relations “is rooted in the national democratic revolution [NDR] and is directed by its historical mission and the principle of the Freedom Charter that ‘there shall be peace and friendship’.

“Since its formation, the ANC’s political, economic, and ideological ethos has been progressive internationalism, pan-Africanism and international and continental solidarity. Our historical mission is to contribute to the building of a better Africa and a better world that is humane, just, equitable, democratic, and free,” she said. 

“The ANC moves from the premise that our international relations policy is informed by our domestic policy and vice versa. Human rights, poverty eradication, economic development, employment creation, workers’ rights, and other NDR objectives are all intertwined with our pursuit of long-term regional and continental peace and development.” 

Bhengu-Motsiri added that although there may be points of divergence between the ANC and the US on certain issues, the ruling party remained committed to diplomatic engagements to resolve problems on shared interests.