Pretoria walks a tightrope on US relations

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Biden’s administration is resisting hostility towards SA from Congress – but if Trump wins in November, all bets are off.

South Africa has been conducting a high-wire act in its relations with the United States (US). It is maintaining friendships with Washington’s enemies like Russia, Iran and China while trying to avoid disrupting its economic relations with America.

Tensions came closer than ever to breaking point this month as the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs passed the US-South Africa Bilateral Relations Review Bill (US-SA Bill). The law would require the government to comprehensively review its relations with South Africa.

While the committee debated the bill, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor was in the US to persuade officials and legislators ‘to rethink any intention to execute punitive measures of any kind towards our country.’

The US-SA Bill follows other hostile congressional initiatives, including House Resolution 145 of February 2023, which also called for a review of US-South Africa relations, and the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Renewal Bill of 2023. This demanded a review of South Africa’s participation in AGOA, which is up for renewal next year.

In essence, the animus in Congress towards Pretoria, mainly from Republicans but also some conservative Democrats, is inspired by their contention that, as the US-SA Bill says, ‘The [African National Congress’] foreign policy actions have long ceased to reflect its stated stance of non-alignment, and now directly favour [China], the Russian Federation, and Hamas, a known proxy of Iran, and thereby undermine United States national security and foreign policy interests.’

The bill, if passed, would require the US administration to report to Congress on its review of US-South Africa relations and state explicitly ‘whether South Africa has engaged in activities that undermine United States national security or foreign policy interests.’ A finding that Pretoria has undermined those US interests would almost certainly sink South Africa’s further participation in AGOA.

The US’ problem with Russia, as the US-SA Act details, includes South Africa’s decision to allow the US-sanctioned Russian cargo ship Lady R to dock in the Simon’s Town naval base and transfer arms in December 2022. There is also the joint naval exercise South Africa conducted with Russia and China in February 2023, on the first anniversary of the Ukraine invasion.

Issues with China include establishing the private Test Flying Academy in South Africa, which the US says recruits ex-American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization pilots to train Chinese pilots, among others.

Things started calming down last year, especially after South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa led the African peace mission to Ukraine and Russia, and Pretoria participated in the Ukraine Peace Formula talks.

But that changed when Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October 2023, killing about 1 200 and taking some 250 hostages, followed by Israel’s massive counter-attack on Gaza, which has killed roughly 30 000 people so far. South Africa accused Israel of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and in its January provisional ruling, the court ordered Israel to prevent genocide.

This move by South Africa more than anything else provoked Republican Congressman John James and Democratic Congressman Jared Moskowitz to table the US-SA Bill, which will now be debated in the full house.

In the foreign affairs committee debate last week, James called South Africa’s ICJ charge against Israel ‘politically motivated and grossly unfounded.’ He said the government ‘has displayed consistent and overt anti-Israel sentiment,’ citing the ICJ case, Pandor’s phone call with Hamas, and her meeting in Iran with President Ebrahim Raisi shortly after the Hamas attacks, as evidence.

Pretoria has been unapologetic about its position on Israel and Gaza. A week before leaving for the US to try to salvage relations and AGOA, Pandor urged pro-Palestinian activists to demonstrate outside the embassies of Israel’s five main allies. This was something of a high-wire act: to encourage protests at the US embassy one week, and visit the US the next to ‘affirm the very positive relationship between South Africa and the United States.’

As far as one could tell, Pandor’s mission didn’t go too well. She seems not to have met all the US officials or legislators she should have. At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, she dismissed a characterisation of Iran as an ‘authoritarian’ regime, which further annoyed South African detractors.

‘Certainly, the passage of the James Bill was foreseeable, and its sponsors were unlikely to be swayed by a last-minute appeal by the Foreign Minister, especially two months before South Africa’s national election,’ Anthony Carroll, retired adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, told ISS Today.

‘However, it should be pointed out that while US-South Africa have weathered storms in the past, including ARMSCOR, medicine control legislation, AIDS denialism, the Libya invasion and chicken trade disputes, the expanding influence of Russia and Iran in South Africa’s domestic and international affairs has deepened Washington’s concerns.’

Nevertheless, in his latest weekly letter to the nation, Ramaphosa said, ‘Our relationship with the US is characterised by mutual respect and a willingness to engage in constructive dialogue even on issues where we may differ.’

It’s true that the Biden administration and most Democrats still value the relationship with South Africa, even if they don’t always like Pretoria’s foreign policy positions. This was noted by Gregory Meeks, the senior Democrat on the House foreign affairs committee, in the debate on the bill last week.

Opposing the bill, he said: ‘South Africa is a key partner of the United States in good matters of both global and regional consequence,’ adding that South Africa had been critical in driving innovation, investment and trade in Africa. Meeks recalled that Biden’s sub-Saharan Africa strategy had stressed that ‘It is impossible to meet today’s defining challenges without Africa’s contribution and leadership,’ suggesting that relations with South Africa were critical in that endeavour.

The Biden administration evidently fears that alienating South Africa could drive it further into the Russia-China camp. And most observers in Washington don’t think the US-SA Bill will become law, perhaps because the more sober-minded and Democrat-controlled, Senate won’t take it up. As long as Biden is in office, it’s likely that for the reasons cited by Meeks and others, the US government will hold the line on relations with South Africa, even if that line stretches taut at times.

The worrying prospect for South Africa, though, is that if Donald Trump wins the November election, then all bets will be off, and the hostility evident in James’ bill could be transplanted to the White House.

Written by Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.