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Warning shot fired — top US congressmen urge Biden to move Agoa forum away from SA

Warning shot fired — top US congressmen urge Biden to move Agoa forum away from SA
epa08744941 Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, pauses as he speaks during the third day of her US Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 14 October 2020. The hearings are expected to last four days. EPA-EFE/Stefani Reynolds / POOL

The senior legislators from both parties say SA hosting the forum would implicitly endorse its support of Russia’s invasion

Powerful leaders of the US Congress have called on the Biden administration to move this year’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) forum from South Africa to another African country because of South Africa’s perceived support of Russia in its war against Ukraine. 

The letter from top legislators of both the Democratic and Republican parties is the first clear and concrete sign of possible US retaliation to Pretoria’s stance on Russia’s war against Ukraine which has been controversial in the US and other Western countries.

The appeal to the Biden administration to punish SA cites, among things, US intelligence that the US-sanctioned Russian cargo ship Lady R uploaded arms for Russia in Simons Town naval base in December.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lady R in South Africa

President Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Vincent Magwenya told Daily Maverick that the claims in the letter were unsubstantiated and that the circumstances of the docking of the Lady R vessel were being investigated by a panel headed by retired judge Phineas Mojapelo.

Magwenya added that SA had been active in seeking a peaceful resolution of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, including through engaging the US, Russia and Ukraine and also through the African Leaders Peace Mission which Ramaphosa is part of. 

The Congressmen’s letter also suggests South Africa is about to lose its Agoa benefits altogether for supposedly jeopardising US national security and foreign policy interests. 

Magwenya said any punitive trade action against SA would be based on “hysteria, hearsay, and contempt for South Africa’s sovereignty.”

US allies to SA in doubt

Particularly worrying though for South Africa is that one of the four signatories of the letter is Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat, who has long been a friend to South Africa. His signature on the letter which is addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and president Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan, is likely to lend particular weight to the call to move the Agoa summit.

The other congressional leaders who signed the letter are 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. 

Though Coons is also on the Senate foreign affairs committee, he significantly signed the letter as chairman of the subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related matters of the powerful committee on appropriations. 

The legislators noted that Agoa — which gives eligible African countries privileged access to the lucrative US market, is the “cornerstone of the United States economic relationship with Sub- Saharan Africa” and that they strongly support the re-authorisation of Agoa well ahead of its expiry in 2025. 

“However, we wish to express serious concerns with current plans to host this year’s Agoa Forum in South Africa.”

Lady R making waves

The four legislators said despite the SA government’s formally neutral stance on Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, Pretoria had deepened its military relationship with Russia over the past year. 

“Late last year, a Russian cargo vessel subject to US sanctions docked in South Africa’s largest naval port, and intelligence suggests that the South African government used this opportunity to covertly supply Russia with arms and ammunition that could be used in its illegal war in Ukraine. 

“In February, South Africa held joint military exercises with Russia and China, and in April, authorized a Russian military cargo plane also subject to US sanctions — to land at a South African air force base. 

“On top of this, in August, South Africa will host the BRICS Summit where the government aims to strengthen its ties with China and Russia and is working to facilitate the participation of Russian president Vladimir Putin, despite the outstanding arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cabinet to consider moving BRICS Summit to China

“We are seriously concerned that hosting the 2023 Agoa Forum in South Africa 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 legislators said while the Agoa eligibility review process for 2024 was still underway and that decisions had not yet been made, “we question whether a country in danger of losing Agoa benefits should have the privilege of hosting the 2023 Agoa Forum.

“Our concerns are shared by many South African citizens and businesses, who are increasingly vocal about deteriorating conditions in the country.

“We encourage you to explore other possible locations to host this year’s forum,” the letter says.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa risks losing $32bn on Russia stance, Stanlib says

Having called on the Biden administration to shift the Agoa forum from SA, the four Congressmen then seemed to offer Pretoria a possible reprieve when it adds; “If South Africa continues to demonstrate support for Russia in its unlawful invasion of Ukraine, then hosting the forum in another country in Sub-Saharan Africa would send a clear and important message that the United States continues to stand with Ukraine and will not accept our trading partners provision of aid to Russia’s ongoing and brutal invasion.”

Another noteworthy aspect of the letter is that it does not seem to question the allegations that the Russian cargo ship Lady R uploaded arms bound for Russia when it docked at the Simon Town naval base in December 2022. US ambassador to SA Reuben Brigety caused a huge stir when he publicly made that allegation to journalists last month. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: US ambassador lashes out at ANC government for ‘providing arms and ammunition to Russia’

There have been some suggestions that Brigety stepped out of line from Washington on these allegations but Congress at least seem to agree with him. The Biden administration has remained silent. 

Magwenya said; “The contents of the letter disturbingly consist of unsubstantiated claims. The circumstances of the docking of the Lady R vessel are being investigated. 

“The US lawmakers have no proof of what they are claiming nor have they submitted any evidence in this regard. US intelligence services have also failed to submit any evidence to support their claims. 

“We hope the evidence US intelligence services purport to have will be submitted to the inquiry panel led by retired Judge Mojapelo. 

“From the onset of the Ukraine conflict, South Africa has sought the de-escalation of the conflict. South Africa has not armed any of the parties in the conflict. Instead, South Africa has been active in the search for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. “We’ve had numerous bilateral engagements with the US, which have been positive and fruitful. We have respected the US position on the conflict as much as it has respected ours. 

“President Biden encouraged President Ramaphosa to use his access to both presidents [Volodymyr] Zelensky and [Vladimir] Putin to advocate for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The African Leaders Peace Mission, which South Africa has championed, has received support from all concerned stakeholders. 

“Therefore, any punitive trade action against South Africa will be based on hysteria, hearsay, and contempt for South Africa’s sovereignty. In the conduct of foreign policy, the government will always act in accordance with the prescripts of our constitution and laws.”

Magwenya did not mention that Ramaphosa is evidently seeking an alternative to Putin visiting SA for the BRICS summit in August, either by holding it online or by moving it to another BRICS, country, such as China. This could partly address the concerns raised by the US legislators. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Terry Hodson says:

    You would think the government would hurry up with its investigation of the Lady R seeing that it’s so crucial.

    • shannon Maxwell says:

      Why the expense of yet ANOTHER commission of enquiry and the appointment of a judge to head it instead of just asking Thandi Modise what the hell was shipped onto the Lady R?? They do love to waste money.

      • D'Esprit Dan says:

        Kicking the can down the road – it’s an easy way to appear to be concerned when you’re in power and nobody can do anything, but it’s not going to work with the US.

    • rmrobinson says:

      Why is an investigation even necessary? If the government does not know what it is up to, it is, by definition, too stupid and too incompetent to exist.

  • Bee Man says:

    Magwenya said any punitive trade action against SA would be based on “hysteria, hearsay, and contempt for South Africa’s sovereignty.
    Well, that says it all, doesn’t it just!
    Unfortunately SA deserve what they get!

    • Sydney Kaye says:

      It diesnt really matter what it’s based on or whether the allegations are ” unsubstantiated” because the US is not intersested in what you say but what you do. The so called peace mission is a transparent attempt to detract ftom SA’S foolish behaviour and if they think the US will fall for that they are as arrogant as they are ignorant.

    • Paddy Ross says:

      There is no ‘contempt for SA’s sovereignty’. SA has decided to take sides with the invader as is their right but having made that decision SA must live with the consequences.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    There is some debate as to how much the loss of AGOA benefits would actually cost us in financial terms, but it’s not the point. The key point is that it is the tip of the iceberg: our automotive sector relies heavily on preferential access to the US and EU markets to remain sustainable (and some hefty import duties), so as these preferences are eroded, government would either have to raise the barriers to foreign competition even further or accept a gradual decline in our industry, with the entire value chain suffering. Given that the sector, with its truculent unions, is generally only a couple of steps from packing up for greener pastures, it’s not a great sign. Moreover, consumers in those markets may well reject products from SA – just as many did during apartheid – and vote with their feet by buying fruit, wine and other products from elsewhere. New investment from those regions – key to keeping much industrial capacity in SA at all – will be under pressure to find alternative homes, and frankly there are other countries in Africa and the Middle East that look much more attractive from a stability and alignment perspective. And all this in support of a puerile, luddite policy that lost currency 30 years ago. Makes you shudder to think of the lack of intellect in our ‘policy’ circles.

    • Pet Bug says:

      Great comment.
      Watershed year ahead.
      And in domestic news, health minister calls parliamentary approval of NHI act “revolutionary”.
      Yes it is.
      And no, that’s not a positive.
      Revolutions ran out purpose a very very long time ago.

      • D'Esprit Dan says:

        Absolutely! It’s beyond cringeworthy that sentient adults in our country still think that ‘revolutionary’ policies are something to be proud of! But then I’ve never met a ‘revolutionary’ in our country who lets simple things like facts and logic get in the way of their mindless, puerile fetish with ‘fighting imperialism’.

        I once shared a podium with a ‘revolutionary’ who was intimately involved with crafting South Africa’s new mining legislation. He stood up and stated as FACT that mining had never, ever created sustainable development anywhere. We were sitting in Sandton, the heart of Africa’s industrial and commercial landscape, which was built on one thing only – the legacy of mining. I pointed this out, and mentioned that the ‘Go West’ rush to California and the building of the world’s 7th largest economy in that state wasn’t based on farming or tourism, but mining, and that everything else followed. His response was that I was a typical neo-liberal apologist for capitalism. You couldn’t make it up.

    • rmrobinson says:

      Why Africa is poor. South Africa in Europe is already irrelevant. Now it is angling to become an enemy. But then appreciation of consequence is not a particular strength of the current South African regime.

  • Pet Bug says:

    The way I understand how spokespersons speak is by their superiors instructions, here from Cyril.
    It is a deep worry what he is saying in response to the second US shot across the SAS bow.
    Combative, defensive selective with no diplomatic nous, – the last thing SA Inc. needs.

    He keeps on playing to the wrong gallery.
    Our sovereignty is worth nothing if he allows Ukrainian sovereignty to be bombed to bits.

    He must wake up like yesterday and smell a really bad situation unraveling.

  • Andrew Newman says:

    We have a government that prioritizes unemployment, decreasing trade and a shrinking economy.

  • Simon Hodson says:

    Amazing how the government doesn’t know what is and is not loaded on ships in its military ports and needs an investigation

  • Peter Merrington says:

    Hmph. Vincent Magwenya, speaking for our president, says that the stance by the US senators is ‘based on hysteria, hearsay, and contempt for South Africa’s sovereignty’. Most of us understand that it is against established international law for a country to invade another sovereign state. Aggressive invasion is a bit more than ‘contempt’, Mr Magwenya. And many thousands of Ukrainians who fled their homes and went into asylum in foreign countries may be pardoned if they felt a touch of ‘hysteria’ in their lives. Why are our leaders and their spokespeople so blinkered? Honour is still considered to be a virtue in this day and age. SA knew what to do in 1939. And today?

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Whilst completely unwelcome as it will hurt the citizens of this country the most and not the vile, treasonous, thieving and self-serving cossetted anc, it is hardly surprising given our hypocritical, lying, arrogant and despicable couldn’t-care-less-attitude. The US has every right to do what they are contemplating and the only silver lining in this whole sorry saga is that it may expedite the demise of this hideous party/government. There are consequences to stupid, wayward and treacherous actions and only the most idiotic, stupid and ideologically bankrupt ignore it. No one can maintain that they were not warned on numerous occasions by many and no doubt our spineless, useless and duplicitous Cyril will be shocked, remain out of sight and call for another pointless and delaying commission of enquiry.

  • Anthony Sturges says:

    The investigation by Judge Phineas Mojapelo will evidently not be made public, which severely impacts the report’s credibility and raises concerns that the government has something to hide.

  • David Crossley says:

    The loss of the AGOA agreement would deal a punishing blow to the South African fiscus and probably boost unemployment levels at a time when the country can ill afford this.
    Putting ideologies before economic practicalities is simply stupid and ultimately suicidal.

  • Ivan van Heerden says:

    Comrades caught once again with their hands in the cookie jar and now frantic finger pointing exercise begins once more. The problem is that the West told the ANC that they were special when in fact they were, and always have been, nothing more than a terrorist organisation hell bent on personal enrichment in the grand tradition of African post colonial government. This time however the Comrades miscalculated and the CIA and NSA have been watching the Lady R and now it is “Ëish” time. Just waiting for the apartheid blame game to begin. Viva Comrades!! Amandlaaaaaa

  • Homo Capensis says:

    err Mr Magwena, its not up to the US to prove to the ANC that the Lady R loaded arms. They may have specific intelligence, or merely take the view that if it walks and quacks like a duck – but how pathetic of this dysfunctional government to try to obscure the central issue in obfuscation and mock outrage. Remember how the Chief of the Navy promised a full explanation by the Friday of that week, after the Gordonsbay passing out parade? Or the MOD promising to report back to Parliament after she had received ‘the documents’. Nada. Now we wait for the judicial commission – what a farce. Ramaposa revealed as out of touch and his party out of control. Viva ANC, Viva.

  • Anthony Burman says:

    Oh goodness. Oh dear. If ever there is a time to be less pugilistic and more conciliatory it is now. Mr Magwenya, could you step back?

  • Johann Olivier says:

    ‘Hearsay, hysteria and contempt’. No! Evidence. Abundant evidence. The sanctioned ship did dock at Simons Town. A sanctioned Russian military aircraft did land at Thaba Tshwane. South Africa did conduct war games with Russia. Fact. Fact. And fact. No hearsay in sight. As difficult as it is for the ANC (almost Trump-like), hard evidence is not hearsay. I daresay the contempt flows from South Africa and, more specifically, the ANC. Contemptuous of human rights, international law and its own constitution. As for hysteria: with the sudden realisation that consequences could flow, it’s interesting to watch the scrambling and chatter.

  • Andre ZAAIMAN says:

    Another great example of US bullying because a country doesn’t want to support its warmongering . The problem is not the non-aligned position of the vast majority of humanity – the pro-peace position being the only sane position to take – it’s the warmongering and bullying of the US who is on its own path of self-destruction and isolation as China becomes the world leader in peacemaking and mutually beneficial development: what a contrast to the panicky West and its belligerent bullying!

    • rmrobinson says:

      I am no fan of the USA, but the defects of that nation do not excuse what is being done to the Ukraine but Russia at the behest of a little man in need of trying to justify the little there is of him.

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      No fan of US foreign policy, but to call China a world leader in peacemaking? China has territorial disputes with Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Bhutan, Philippines, India, Indonesia and Malaysia, often claiming territory based on Chinese Imperial (note that term – it’s theirs, not mine) maps from over 1,000 years ago! China has unilaterally invaded islands internationally recognised as belonging to Vietnam, it is engaged in a low-level semi-permanent conflict with India in the Himalayas, claims the entirety of the South China Sea despite much of it being in the territorial waters (internationally recognised) of other countries and is building up to invade Taiwan in the not too distant future. Peaceful?

  • Trenton Carr says:

    Withholding a cash handout is not respecting sovereignty?
    They seem to be having trouble getting their 2 brain cells to orbit close enough for a coherent thought.

  • rmrobinson says:

    Why Africa is poor.

  • Dr Know says:

    Dont understand the fuss about the Lady R. Mr Tyilo cleared all that up, it was several containers of ‘Fokol’. Checked the sanctioned goods list and so far its not listed.

  • Andrew Blaine says:

    The protestation by South African officials over the Lady R and other apparent contacts may be well intentioned but they will have little effect if the US decides to exclude us from the benefits from AGOA.
    It is time for our Government to eat some humble pie and stop putting philosophy before reason.
    Food is always more important than politics and we need food in our laboured economy.

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