The third South African government group to visit the United States (US) in a short space of time touches down on Wednesday (7 June), but not much should be expected from it, a defence expert cautions.
Unlike those before it, this group is not on a lobbying mission. The delegation is a 20-strong Department of Defence (DoD) one tasked with attending the 19th RSA/US defence committee meeting, according to Siphiwe Dlamini, DoD Head of Communication (HOC).
The meeting will be in Washington with an agenda that includes “a range of defence-to-defence and military co-operation matters”.
The previous pair of South African visits to the country headed by President Joe Biden were aimed at shoring up economic relations between Washington and Pretoria and came in the wake of the Lady R docking in Simon’s Town and an Ilyushin Il-76 landing at Air Force Base Waterkloof to deliver ‘diplomatic mail’ to the Russian Embassy in Pretoria. One was led by national security advisor Sidney Mufamadi and included Presidential legal advisor Nokukhanya Jele and deputy international relations and co-operation minister Alvin Botes. The second was a Democratic Alliance (DA) effort with party leader John Steenhuisen at the helm to protect AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) particularly as regards South African agriculture.
Acting Secretary for Defence (SecDef), Dr Thobekile Gamede, as head of department, along with SA National Defence Force (SANDF) Chief of Staff (CoS) Lieutenant General Michael Ramantswana, lead the delegation of “senior officials and DoD subject experts”.
In a statement, Dlamini writes: “The 19th defence committee meeting is the continuation and consolidation of the strategic defence relationship and partnership between the two countries and will deliberate on a range of issues, including continued discussion on issues raised in previous defence committee meetings in 2017 and 2019”.
“The parties will strategise the way forward for the next number of years and conclude a defence co-operation plan to give effect to all decisions taken and deepen the high level of co-operation between them.
“The bilateral relationship between the RSA and the US was formalised with the signing of a Defence Co-operation Agreement in 1995 which provided for establishment of an RSA/US defence committee. It was established on 29 July 1997 with the signing of terms of reference by former Minister Joe Modise and Secretary William Cohen. Meetings are to be held every twelve (12) months alternately in the RSA and USA.
“The defence committee remains an important and consistent forum of bilateral co-operation and evolved over the past years to constitute multiple work groups.”
The statement gives no indication of what areas the work groups cover, stating only the country-to-country defence relationship “realised a range of engagements and exchanges at various levels, such as the recent Exercise Shared Accord and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future”.
The US recently offered the SA Air Force (SAAF) surplus C-130H Hercules transport aircraft and this may be on the agenda.
African Defence Review (ADR) director Darren Olivier noted an initial high level of co-operation between the American and South African militaries, as seen in the minutes of these committee meetings, declined sharply after 2003/2004 following South Africa’s refusal to sign an Article 98 bilateral immunity agreement indemnifying US personnel from International Criminal Court (ICC) extradition.
“The American Servicemembers’ Protection Act (ASPA) prohibited the US government from providing any financial support (FMF) or training (IMET) to any ICC member who refused to sign a bilateral agreement. While elements were later relaxed the relationship never recovered,” Olivier stated.
New initiatives proposed almost 20 years ago included a ship rider programme, SA Army Rooikats participating in US Army National Training Centre exercises, artillery co-operation, exchanges, training, excess defence article transfers and substantial foreign military financing. Nearly all were abandoned, according to Olivier.
“We should not expect much of this year’s US/A defence committee meeting, as these have been downscaled substantially over the past 20 years and seldom result in visible outcomes except for the semi-regular Exercise Shared Accord, port visits and air show appearances,” he concluded.