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South Africa’s relations with US ‘not under duress’ over Ukraine, says American ambassador

South Africa’s relations with US ‘not under duress’ over Ukraine, says American ambassador
Reuben Brigety, US ambassador to South Africa. (Photo: Supplied)

President Joe Biden invited Cyril Ramaphosa to the White House last month both to persuade him and reassure him.

The sharp differences between South Africa and the US over Russia’s war against Ukraine have not placed the Pretoria-Washington relationship “under duress”, says America’s new ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety II.

While the US has fully backed Ukraine and is giving it with billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to try to expel the Russian invaders, South Africa has been studiously maintaining a “non-aligned”, uncritical position, for example by abstaining from every one of the several United Nations General Assembly votes condemning Russia’s aggression and its recent annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine. 

Yet, despite – or because of – those disagreements, President Joe Biden invited President Cyril Ramaphosa to a meeting in the White House last month, a rare honour. DM168 asked Brigety whether this invitation meant that relations between the two countries had not been badly affected by their differences over Ukraine? Or did it mean that Biden wanted an opportunity to try to persuade Ramaphosa to change his mind over Ukraine?

“I don’t think those are mutually exclusive,” Brigety said in an interview in Cape Town. “I think the United States and South Africa have a broad relationship covering a variety of matters in terms of bilateral engagement and also in terms of our ongoing consultations on a variety of global matters, which of course includes Ukraine in this instance.

“But the fact that we may disagree or may take different approaches on any particular issue, even an issue of great significance, doesn’t mean that the relationship is in any way under duress. 

“In fact the more we are talking and engaging with each other, the better we’re able to understand each other and hopefully find areas of commonality.”

Read in Daily Maverick: “Ukraine’s foreign minister baffled by SA’s abstention from UN resolution condemning Russia

He noted that Ukraine had been discussed several times at the highest level, not only by Biden and Ramaphosa but also by their foreign ministers, Antony Blinken and Naledi Pandor.  

“So, our countries remain in contact. I believe we are in agreement that the war needs to end immediately. The South Africans have stated that as well.”

Punishing African governments

In these talks, the US had also received “loudly and clearly” the South African government’s opposition to legislation before the US Congress that could punish African governments and companies for doing business with Russian companies and other entities. 

DM168 had heard that Biden had assured Ramaphosa that he would veto the “Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Bill”, which has been adopted in the US House of Representatives but not the Senate.

But Brigety said it would be premature to talk about Biden signing or not signing the legislation when it was not even clear if the bill would be taken up by the Senate. Congressional aides recently told DM168 that the Senate had no intention of taking up the bill which it regarded as “ill-considered”. 

Brigety also shrugged off concerns that Biden’s strong support for Ukraine could be scuppered if the Republicans take over Congress in next month’s midterm elections, as they are widely expected to do.

Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives – who will become Speaker if the Republicans take the House – threatened this week that a Republican Congress would cut back on US military support to Ukraine. Other Trumpians also want to ease off Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

But there are sharp divisions in the Republican Party as many leaders strongly support Ukraine . 

Brigety said: “I am confident that the president will continue to work with Congress regardless of what the partisan make-up is and continue to pursue this policy.”

Just energy transition

Brigety also clarified the US position on the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) between Western nations and South Africa, after Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan took a swipe at some of the financing partners for not putting their “banknotes” on the table.

In 2021, the US, UK, European Union, Germany and France agreed to put up $8.5-billion in financing for the JETP which aims to help South Africa transition from its heavy dependence on coal-fired electricity to renewables, while safeguarding the livelihoods of coal workers and communities. 

Read in Daily Maverick: “Why Africa must care about Ukraine’s struggle for freedom

Brigety said the US would provide about $1-billion of that amount. Almost all of it would come from America’s Development Finance Corporation (DFC), not in the form of cheques but as loan guarantees. These would mostly support loans to finance private-sector projects to create green power generation or transmission.

But Brigety noted that the US was still waiting for bankable projects from South Africa which the DFC financing could support. He also explained that the additional $45-million which Biden had announced when meeting Ramaphosa would essentially take the form of grants to finance the “just” part of the JETP – such as helping communities transition with training. 

Brigety clarified the US response to Ramaphosa’s announcement to Biden that South Africa had calculated that it needed an additional $38-billion over and above the $8.5-billion to finance a just energy transition.

“Our perspective is: let’s get this $8.5-billion right first, to make progress and approve concepts. And then we’re happy to have a further conversation beyond that,” he said.  

The matter of Agoa

The ambassador would not say what the Biden administration’s position was on whether or not to extend the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) when it expires in 2025.

He said it would be premature to do so before Congress had decided whether to keep it as it is, to change it or not to renew it at all. “And I can’t predict what Congress is going to do.”

Read in Daily Maverick: “Losing your trade marbles on Agoa

The legislation, adopted in 2000, gives the exports of eligible African countries duty- and quota-free access to the rich US market. It has been particularly valuable to South Africa, boosting exports, especially of autos and fruit. 

Brigety said the US had heard “very loudly and clearly” from Pretoria and other African governments about how important Agoa was to them.  But because Congress would have to re-authorise the legislation, it first had to be convinced. So, the African governments would have to have “meaningful discussions” with Congress.

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He noted that more than 600 US companies were invested in South Africa, employing more than 220,000 people, and both sides would like to grow that investment. 

However, he noted that US investors had the same concerns as everybody else – mainly accessibility to electricity. 

“It’s hard to know how you can have nationwide significant economic growth when you have… a modern industrial base but with challenging access to reliable electricity supply.”

There was also concern about corruption, which Biden had raised with Ramaphosa in their meeting. “So, to continue to fight against corruption is one of the things that has to be done to ensure investor confidence over the long term.”

On the other hand, Brigety said, the fact that South Africa was a democracy, with strong courts and a strong rule of law, was a great attraction to investors. 

He also disclosed that the Biden administration had no intention of scrapping the high tariffs on steel and aluminium imports – including from South Africa – which former president Donald Trump had imposed.

Ramaphosa appealed to Biden to lift these tariffs, but Brigety said that “for a variety of reasons” – not related to US relations with South Africa – there was “no movement to revisit our tariff regime across the world, across commodities”. DM168


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    So he is more Diplomatic and mature than our “don’t tell us what to do ” Amateurs.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    That “not under duress” may change if Russian oligarch Alexey Mordashov’s yacht “Nord” docks in Cape Town. Cape Town!

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    If the Russian Oligarch’s yacht is allowed to birth in Cape Town on the 9th November, we will no longer be considered as neutral…we will be showing that we side with Russia and their illegal invasion of Ukraine. CR, if he has any brains, needs to be careful with this potential hot potato!

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    What diplomats say in situations like this is normally the opposite of what they say. What matters is what the White House or US Secretary of State will be saying in the months ahead as the thug in the Kremlin feels the heat of the Ukrainian counter-offensive. There are issues that are kept separate from other issues even if states have fundamental differences on issues, and climate change is one of the issues.
    South Africa has been expected to provide leadership to the continent on various issues because of the investment the West has made in the ANC. So far their investment has been a spectacular failure on the issues it was supposed to provide. When the US Congress determines it is time to move against the clowns in Pretoria, then everything would be on the table including AGOA, PEPFAR funding for HIV and AIDS, technology such as semi-conductors, any other aid that the US provides and the EU and UK will follow and the ANC government will have to go to Moscow and Beijing to see if the begging bowl they are carrying will be filled. Aid will be diverted to civil society.
    This view does not hold water in the world of diplomacy as the Russian aggression has been a defining moment and the tavern diplomacy in Pretoria will be found to be very costly to the country by summer next year.

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