Biden administration shares concerns of US Congress over SA’s perceived support for Russia
US administration officials would not say if they would heed the call to move this year’s Agoa forum away from SA.
US administration officials share the concerns of congressional leaders who have asked the administration to move this year’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) forum from South Africa because of Pretoria’s perceived support for Russia in its war against Ukraine.
But senior administration officials have declined to say if they will heed the call from the senior congressional leaders to punish South Africa in this way.
Judd Devermont, Africa director of the National Security Council, welcomed Pretoria’s commitment to investigate the alleged loading of arms for Russia onto the Russian cargo ship Lady R in Simon’s Town naval base last December.
It was this incident more than anything else that appeared to have provoked the call from the four congressional leaders for Washington to act against South Africa.
Taking the Agoa forum away from South Africa would likely send a damaging message to US investors and traders – and perhaps others – that South Africa is not a country to do business with.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Warning shot fired — top US congressmen urge Biden to move Agoa forum away from SA
The letter from the congressional leaders said that intelligence suggested the South African government used the Lady R to “covertly supply Russia with arms and ammunition that could be used in its illegal war in Ukraine”.
They cited this as evidence that despite SA’s professed non-aligned stance, it had deepened its military relationship with Russia over the past year.
They also cited as evidence the joint military exercises SA held with Russia and China in February, the authorised landing of a US-sanctioned Russian military cargo plane at Waterkloof airforce base in April, and the fact that Pretoria was trying to ensure Russian President Vladimir Putin participates in the BRICS summit which SA is supposed to host in August, despite the outstanding arrest warrant for Putin issued by the International Criminal Court.
The letter was signed by powerful congressional leaders of both parties and Houses: Democratic Senator Chris Coons, a member of the Foreign Relations and Appropriation committees and a longtime friend to South Africa; Republican Michael Mccaul, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs; Senator Jim Risch, the senior Republican of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations; and Gregory Meeks, the senior Democrat in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
They addressed their letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.
The letter said that allowing SA to host the Agoa forum, due to take place in November, would “serve as an implicit endorsement of South Africa’s damaging support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and possible violation of US sanctions law”.
“Further, these actions by South Africa call into question its eligibility for trade benefits under Agoa due to the statutory requirement that beneficiary countries not engage in activities that undermine United States national security or foreign policy interests.”
The four legislators also suggested that South Africa might soon lose its Agoa benefits because of its Russia stance, and so, “We question whether a country in danger of losing Agoa benefits should have the privilege of hosting the 2023 Agoa Forum.”
President Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, dismissed the concerns of the Congressmen as unsubstantiated and noted in particular that Ramaphosa had appointed a retired judge to investigate the claims, originally levelled last month by US ambassador to SA Reuben Brigety, that arms for Russia had been loaded onto the Lady R.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Minister of defensive — Thandi Modise repeats ‘We put fokol’ on Lady R mantra as MPs demand answers
In a video briefing for African media on Tuesday, the National Security Council’s Devermont said, “We share Congress’ concern about South Africa’s potential security partnership with Russia. As you know, Russia is waging a brutal war against the people of Ukraine and we’re constantly working to cut off funding and support for Putin’s war machine and to undercut Russia’s ability to carry out this conflict.
“As part of these efforts, we are strongly encouraging countries not to support Russia’s war,” Devermont said, adding that the US was talking to the SA government about these issues.
Devermont also commented on Magwenya’s response that while the concerns of the four congressional leaders seemed to be largely based on the assumption that Lady R did, in fact, upload arms for Russia, this was still the subject of an inquiry by a retired judge.
Devermont was asked: Could this enquiry influence the Biden administration’s decision whether or not to move the Agoa forum?
He said he did not want to go into the private conversations that the US was having with Pretoria.
“But we do welcome their commitment to investigate what happened with the Lady R. That is what a responsible government does. And we expect, depending on their findings, that they will hold those responsible accountable if people have been found to have violated the laws of South Africa.
“With respect to Agoa, we have a process every year where we re-validate Agoa membership and the law is very clear on what we will follow. That won’t change for South Africa. We’ll go through the appropriate steps as we do every year as we look at Agoa eligibility.”
US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Molly Phee, added, “We acknowledge and respect South Africa’s long-standing policy of non-alignment and it’s our expectation that the South African government will adhere to that policy in dealing with this terrible conflict in Europe.
“We know there are African initiatives underway to promote dialogue,” she added, referring to the mission by Ramaphosa and other African leaders to Ukraine and Russia to encourage peace talks.
Phee said that in a recent speech in Helsinki, Blinken had welcomed such initiatives.
“I think we have an important dialogue with the government of South Africa. We have a multifaceted relationship. But there were legitimate concerns raised and … we welcome the action and look forward to the results of the investigation the government has promised.” DM