/ 21 June 2023

SA always faced being axed from US trade deal

President Putin Of Russia Meets With African Leaders
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)

For all the noise and bluster over South Africa’s possible expulsion from the United States’ “hallowed” African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) because of our stance in the Russia and Ukraine war, we should remember that our membership to the club of 36 countries has always been on a knife’s edge.

Industry lobby groups in the US have argued that South Africa shouldn’t be classified as a “developing country” and therefore shouldn’t benefit from tariff free trade with the world’s biggest economy. As the most industrialised nation on the continent, the Washington-based World Bank defines us as an upper middle income country.

When the deal is up for renewal in 2025, South Africa’s continued membership will be up for discussion once again. So is the threat of expulsion really about the European War and the Russian vessel, Lady R, that docked in Simon’s Town or about a long simmering unhappiness about the strength of South African industry?

At the back end of 2015, then US president Barack Obama was being pushed to kick us out because chicken and egg farmers in Delaware and Georgia were unhappy that their goods weren’t getting into South Africa, while ours was heading into their backyard, tariff free. Eventually, we welcomed American chicken and ensured our continued participation in Agoa.

In 2025, Agoa is set to be renegotiated and you can imagine our membership being questioned again and our continued membership only ensured with further compromises. This is the game our trade representatives have been playing for more than 20 years.

There is a strong lobby group in the US that doesn’t want us in Agoa and should there not be a Democratic president in the White House, and instead a Republican such as Ron DeSantis or, God forbid, Donald Trump, we face the real prospect of being dumped. A Democratic in Obama renewed the Africa trade deal in 2015 for a decade, the prospect of a Republican doing the same doesn’t fill me with any sense of optimism. 

That is our future. The US furore over whether South Africa armed Russia in its conflict with Ukraine is just building the case for our expulsion now. I was long taught that US foreign policy is, and has always been, centred on what is in its economic interests. 

So what are we to think about the Agoa threat; are we to truly believe it’s just about our relations with Russia and its New Age “tsar”, our closeness with China through Brics or a chance to settle a long-running dispute over our eligibility — especially its effects on farmers in Middle America? Is this not weaponising trade policy? 

It’s a real question we need to ask because we are now in rather treacherous waters when it comes to foreign policy. We must not be panicked into hasty decisions or be pushed into taking positions. Mass hysteria is the last thing we need, especially off the back of threats long in existence such as our membership of Agoa.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration should remain focused on the issue at hand, the commission of inquiry into whether the country — or even more scarily, a rogue element here — supplied arms to Russia. Those findings, expected in a matter  of weeks, need to be made public.