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Middle East tensions a new test for SA, US relations

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Picture: Jacoline Schoonees/DIRCO Minister – Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Dr Naledi Pandor hosting US Secretary of State of the United States of America, Mr Antony Blinken, for the SA-US Strategic Dialogue. 8 August 2022

By Dr Sizo Nkala

South Africa will host the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) summit in November as confirmed by the US in September. There had been talks of moving the summit to another country after South Africa and the US had a geopolitical fallout around the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

A bipartisan group of influential US Senators asked US President Joe Biden to consider moving the summit to another country following allegations by the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, that the latter may have exported weapons to Russia when a Russian vessel docked in Simon’s Town, Cape Town, in December last year. The South African government strenuously denied the allegations and appointed a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the matter. President Cyril Ramaphosa promptly deployed a delegation to the US led by the national security advisor, Sydney Mufamadi, to try and lobby the Biden administration not to pull South Africa out of AGOA in reaction to its stance on the Russia-Ukraine debacle.

South Africa exports goods worth almost $3 billion to the US under the AGOA arrangement which offers the participating countries duty-free access to the US market. As such, it is not surprising that Ramaphosa was fretting over the possibility of losing the significant benefits accruing from the scheme. The Commission of Inquiry cleared the government of any wrong-doing as it did not find any evidence that arms were loaded onto the Russian ship. The results of the investigation may have influenced Washington’s decision to stick with South Africa as the host of the AGOA summit.

However, the summit could not have come at a more awkward time for both South Africa and the US. It will come in the midst of the Palestine-Israeli war which has divided global opinion with South Africa and the US on the opposing sides once again. While the US has pledged its support for Israel arguing that the Jewish state has a right to defend itself from the Hamas attack, South Africa has laid blame on Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territory and pledged its support for the people of Palestine.

This after Pretoria downgraded its embassy in Israel to a liaison office in 2022. What’s even worse, Hamas released a statement on Wednesday claiming that South Africa’s International Relations Minister, Naledi Pandor, pledged her support for the organisation in a phone call with one of its leaders. Although the South African government later denied the claim that the Minister offered support to Hamas, the perceptions it creates will certainly make South Africa’s relationship with the US even more awkward going into the summit. This is not least because trade arrangements such as AGOA are used by great powers as an instrument to cultivate and maintain a sphere of influence in a particular region for geopolitical reasons.

Having one of the biggest beneficiaries of AGOA – South Africa – siding with the US’s foremost geopolitical rivals like Russia and China on major global issues undermines the intentions behind the programme. The question on everyone’s mind is how the US is going to react to South Africa’s foreign policy that is clearly not in line with Washington’s interests.

The US cannot dictate what South Africa’s choices on the international stage should be since that would be a violation of its sovereignty. South Africa has correctly insisted on its right to pursue an independent foreign policy that advances its national interests. Be that as it may, the US still has leverage through AGOA where it has the power to decide who qualifies or does not qualify to participate in the scheme. The list of qualifying countries for the scheme is always changing as the US removes and adds countries depending on the state of bilateral relations with the countries concerned. Indeed, one of the conditions for countries to qualify for AGOA benefits is that they desist from acting in a manner that undermines the interests of the US. Could South Africa’s foreign policy choices be deemed as violating the interests of the US? This is a matter of interpretation.

If the US wants to remove South Africa from AGOA it can always do so. South Africa is aware of the possibility of being eliminated from the scheme and the huge economic setback that could happen as a result. This is why the Ramaphosa administration lobbied very hard for the summit to be hosted in Johannesburg as planned. It will lobby even harder to protect South Africa’s eligibility for AGOA.

On the other hand, the US does not want a deterioration of its relationship with South Africa. The country still retains strategic significance for the US as a regional powerhouse in Africa hosting significant US investments and upholding shared values of democracy. Removing South Africa from AGOA would push it further into the arms of its geopolitical rivals – China and Russia – to whom it has already lost considerable turf in Africa. As such, the US will continue to express its frustrations over South Africa’s foreign policy including through threatening a withdrawal from AGOA. The two countries will learn to co-exist with their differences.

*Dr Sizo Nkala is A Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies