/ 15 June 2023

SA, US both lose if Washington breaks off relations with Pretoria

Ramaphosa Biden
File: US President Joe Biden shakes hands with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on September 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. The two leaders reaffirmed the importance of enduring partnership, and discussed their work together to address regional and global challenges. (Photo by Pete Marovich-Pool/Getty Images)

Despite all indications by Washington that South Africa risks losing its most valued trade relationships at the height of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some in the government and political analysts believe the US also stands to lose significantly should it break off relations with Pretoria. 

The US fired another salvo at President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government this week when its foreign affairs senate committee heads exerted pressure on Joe Biden’s White House to break ties with South Africa. 

This happened just hours before government officials were due to travel to Russia and Ukraine on an African peacemaking mission during which they will meet their counterparts from the two countries. 

It also comes as South Africa grapples with the headache of how to deal with Vladimir Putin’s likely attendance at the Brics summit in August while there is a warrant for his arrest issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged crimes linked to the war in Ukraine.

While the South African government has remained coy over its economic ties with the US, Washington took a firmer stance, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s office issuing a subtle warning to Pretoria.  

Blinken’s spokesperson, Matthew Miller, said Washington shared congressional concerns about South Africa’s potential security relationship with Russia.  

“Russia is waging a brutal war against the people of Ukraine, and we are constantly working to cut off support and funding for Putin’s war machine, and to undercut Russia’s ability to carry out this conflict,” Miller said.

“As part of those efforts, we have strongly urged countries not to support Russia’s war, but I’m not going to get into the contents of our private conversations.”

Miller insisted that Washington had a “strong” relationship with South Africa, which was going to continue based on the priorities of the American people and their South African counterparts.

“We are committed to an affirmative agenda and will continue to find ways to work with each other to bring our respective priorities to the table,” he said.

“These include issues of global peace and security, further growing our robust bilateral trade, working together on our shared health agenda, and finding ways we can collaborate with South Africa on its energy challenges through a just transition to renewable sources of energy as well as continued partnerships related to addressing climate change.” 

Miller said the US government had raised concerns about South Africa’s security relations directly with multiple officials.

South Africa’s international relations spokesperson, Clayson Monyela, took to Twitter in an attempt to allay fears over the  US’s suggested intention to cease trade relations.

Monyela said Pretoria had noted the US senate letter, adding that there was no decision by the White House to move a US-Africa trade summit to be held in Johannesburg to another venue. The forum will bring together US officials and African leaders whose countries benefit from export concessions under the African Growth and Opportunity Agreement (Agoa).  

Monyela said South Africa’s diplomats in Washington continued to discuss these matters, adding: “South Africa enjoys the support of the US government, the Africa Group and Business in hosting the Agoa Forum which is planned for November. The relations between South Africa and the United States of America are mutually beneficial — even in the context of Agoa.” 

Political analyst Ongama Mtimka said if the US were to pull its trade agreements with South Africa, it would have dire consequences. Given the large volumes involved and the current economic climate, he said, South Africa cannot afford any disruption to the export revenue that it collects under Agoa.

“The question is, do the US stakeholders see it as strategic in the long term to continue to be seen to be a bully and an imperial country that seeks to compel others to align with it from a foreign policy perspective regardless of the free will of that country based on its domestic politics?” Mtimka said.

“The history of Africa and the US has not been rosy even when they have come with deep pockets in as far as development. There have been allegations of bullying in the same way as Russia has had rogue elements.” 

Mtimka said he hoped cool heads would prevail in Washington and officials there would recognise that beyond seeking to influence South Africa, there are limits to how far the US could go with its coercive diplomacy.  

He noted that when right wing elements in South Africa attempted to influence the US to put pressure on Pretoria on various matters including its foreign policy, the Biden administration had shown restraint and other angles were explored. 

“That attitude was appreciated by many of us who have studied international relations notwithstanding some of the machinations taking place pushed by elements high up in Washington. In the final analysis, keeping relations with South Africa still remains important. I doubt the US measures will go beyond what is seen as a signalling strategy.” 

A South African diplomat said the recent uproar by Washington towards South Africa could also be driven by next year’s presidential election in the US, and that Biden’s Democratic Party administration wanted to be seen as intolerant towards trade allies who have ties to Russia. 

“The elections place very heavy pressure on the current administration. If you are seemingly lenient on South Africa during this time, you give the Republican Party ammunition to use against you, and Biden and the Democrats cannot afford that,” the diplomat said.

During a routine weekly briefing on Monday, presidential spokesperson Vincent Magwenya said talk of sanctions was “rather reckless” and undermined the government’s efforts to shore up South Africa’s battered economy. At the time of speaking, Magwenya was not aware of the letter signed by US senators.

The New York Times broke the news that members of both the Democratic and Republican parties had asked Blinken to take punitive steps in response to what they termed South Africa’s support for the invasion of Ukraine.

The letter was co-addressed to Blinken, national security adviser Jacob Sullivan and ambassador of US trade Katherine Tai last Friday.

“The annual Agoa Forum offers an important opportunity for US and African leaders to bolster economic and diplomatic relations, and we support your continued work to convene a forum in Africa this year,” the letter read.

“However, we wish to express serious concerns with current plans to host this year’s Agoa Forum in South Africa. South Africa’s government has formally taken a neutral stance on Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, but has deepened its military relationship with Russia over the past year,” the senators wrote. 

Agoa gives preferential access to the US to exports from qualifying African countries but it is due to expire in 2015. The summit is expected to see discussion about extending it.

South Africa’s minister of trade, industry and competition, Ebrahim Patel, will lead a delegation to Washington next month to make the case for South Africa to continue benefiting from Agoa.

The country has a clear interest in how this unfolds. In the first three months of this year, its exports to the US under Agoa totalled nearly $1 billion.

The summit is slated to take place soon after the Brics summit of the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa scheduled for 22 to 24 August, which has turned into an international relations nightmare for Pretoria over Putin’s likely attendance.

An inter-ministerial committee has advised Ramaphosa and the cabinet to expedite efforts to ensure the summit is hosted by another Brics member or aspirant member. At the same time the government should approach the ICC and initiate consultations under Article 97 of the Rome Statute.

This section allows a state to consult the court on a problem that impedes its execution of a request. Article 97(c) provides a mechanism to alert the court if complying with a request would see it “breach a pre-existing treaty obligation undertaken with respect to another state”.

It is understood that Ramaphosa plans to raise the difficulty he faces with Putin when they meet at the Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg at the end of July.

Much can happen in the next two months, which is also the deadline for the inquiry into the Russian vessel Lady R’s docking at the Simon’s Town naval base in December to deliver its findings to Ramaphosa.

South African Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago warned last week that international markets were behaving as though secondary sanctions were about to become a reality.

Negative investment sentiment, informed by South Africa’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was manifest in the sale of South African bonds and shares, he said.

Ramaphosa could, as head of government and commander of the armed forces, have chosen a number of ways to investigate whether Lady R uploaded a consignment of arms, as claimed by US ambassador Reuben Brigety.

His hope in establishing an inquiry chaired by respected retired high court justice Phineas Mojapelo, was to calm the diplomatic storm blowing in across the Atlantic, and to meet Washington’s condition that it would only release whatever proof of arms trade it claims to have to a “credible inquiry”. 

Sanusha Naidoo, a senior research assistant with the Institute for Global Dialogue, said  South Africa found itself caught up in an increasingly aggressive international system in which exercising non-alignment could have economic implications.

The country was in a chain of “provocation and reaction” and in a situation where the US was also determining how to deal with the changing situation around Brics and of multilateral institutions.

Naidoo said that the emphasis by the US on South Africa’s relations with Russia, as opposed to those of India, a fellow Brics partner, may indicate a decision to counter the bloc by singling out a specific member.

Countries were also no longer able to use non-alignment as it was conceptualised in the 1950s and 1960s because of the shift in international dynamics and the development of a “much more punitive” international system today.

“South Africa finds itself in a corner. It’s damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t,” Naidoo said.