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Powerful US senator Jim Risch tables legislation to scuttle SA’s hosting of Agoa forum

Powerful US senator Jim Risch tables legislation to scuttle SA’s hosting of Agoa forum
Senator Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

US Senator Jim Risch has tabled legislation in Congress aimed at shifting this year’s Agoa forum from South Africa to another country because of Pretoria’s perceived closeness to Russia. It’s yet another sign that the US may pare back SA’s Agoa and Pepfar benefits.

Powerful US Senator Jim Risch – South Africa’s chief foe in Congress – has tabled legislation which says the US administration should shift this year’s forum of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) from South Africa to another country.

Risch, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the member of Congress most critical of South Africa’s warming relations with Russia, attached the proposed legislation on Agoa as an amendment to the gigantic bill to authorise the budget for the Defence Department for fiscal year 2024.

Another amendment to the defence bill tabled by Risch says the US Secretary of Defence in consultation with the Secretary of State and other relevant departments and agencies should submit to Congress a report assessing “the extent to which the foreign policy of the Republic of South Africa threatens United States national security interests…”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Warning shot fired — top US congressmen urge Biden to move Agoa forum away from SA

A well-informed analyst in Washington believes that both amendments will pass – because Risch is too powerful to be opposed. But he also believes the enactment of the amendments will probably come too late to shift the Agoa forum, which is due to take place in November this year.

Both amendments are nonetheless disturbing indications of the trajectory Congress is on and increase the chances that South Africa will lose some or all of its Agoa benefits next year. Agoa gives duty and quota-free access to the US market for many South African exports and has been especially valuable for vehicle manufacturers and wine and fruit producers.

Risch’s amendment says the annual Agoa forum “is an important opportunity to foster close economic ties between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa; the country selected to host the 2023 AGOA Forum should reflect optimal adherence to the eligibility requirements … that the country ‘not engage in activities that undermine United States national security or foreign policy interests’ ”.

‘Inappropriate venue’

Risch says “the recent actions of the Republic of South Africa in contravention of United States national security and foreign policy interests make that country an inappropriate venue for the 2023 AGOA Forum; and the President should identify an alternative venue for the 2023 AGOA Forum that is consistent with the spirit and member eligibility criteria of the African Growth and Opportunity Act”.

The recent actions by South Africa which Risch refers to have been extensively tabulated by him and other members of Congress and the US administration.

They include Pretoria’s consistent abstention from all resolutions at the UN General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; South Africa’s participation in a joint naval exercise with Russia and China in February this year on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; the docking of a US-sanctioned Russian ship, the Lady R, in Simon’s Town in December, which US ambassador Reuben Brigety believes loaded arms for Russia; and other engagements between SA and Russian government and military officials, which the US sees as signs of warming ties.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The landing of a sanctioned Russian plane at Waterkloof undermines Mufamadi’s US mission

These suspicions are spelt out in Risch’s other amendment, which says the US Defence Secretary in consultation with the Secretary of State and other departments and agencies should submit to Congress, no later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of the Defence Act, an assessment of the extent to which SA’s foreign policy threatens US national security interests.

‘Direct or indirect support’ of Russian invasion

The report should include assessments of SA’s strategic military and economic engagement with Russia and China including “to support, directly and indirectly, the Russian Federation in its war in Ukraine”.

Risch adds that the report should also assess actions taken by SA to evade or enforce US sanctions against individuals conducting activities and transactions in SA. The report should also assess actions by SA “to build alliances against the national interests of the United States with malign actors such as Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela”.

The report should also assess “the scope and scale of financial and other forms of public corruption to support strategic alliances with malign actors; and the security and stability of the southern Africa region”.

A seasoned Washington insider told Daily Maverick that Risch’s amendments would pass.

“He has the seniority on Senate Foreign Relations to make life miserable for anyone who crosses him, and who in his/her right mind would risk that for the sake of South Africa?”

J Peter Pham, former US special envoy to the Great Lakes and to the Sahel, said: “Senator Risch’s amendments reflect concerns that have been expressed by many members of Congress from both parties, as witnessed by the letter earlier this year co-signed by the Republican chair and ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee as well as Democratic Senator Chris Coons, arguably the upper chamber’s most passionate Africa advocate. 

ANC government ‘heard loud and clear’

“If I were South African, I would be less concerned about these two amendments per se, than what they represent at a time when both Pepfar and Agoa are coming up for renewal: a signal that Congress has heard the ANC government loud and clear; it has made its sovereign choice and now it is America’s turn to make its own choice as a sovereign nation about where its vast, but still finite, resources may best be deployed to best effect.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Confidential document reveals SA fears that Agoa trade pact status is under threat

Pepfar – the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief – is a 20-year-old programme which has injected more than $100-billion to fight HIV/Aids globally. It is widely credited with helping SA survive the HIV/Aids crisis at a time when then-president Thabo Mbeki was denying its cause.

Pham said he thought SA might retain the Agoa forum because the defence bill including Risch’s amendments might not clear both chambers of Congress and get signed in time.

“And it only expresses a ‘sense of Congress’,” he added, suggesting the Biden administration could decide not to act on it.

SA ‘likely to lose some or all Agoa benefits’

But Pham thought that South Africa was nonetheless likely to lose some or all of its Agoa benefits next year.

“Voting for one-way tariff exemption is tough enough in the current political environment. Doing so in an election year for a country as ungrateful as South Africa is almost political suicide – and for what?” he asked.

Pham said he believed that Agoa, which applies also to other eligible African countries, would be renewed as a whole, though perhaps for a shorter term than a full decade as it had been in 2015. 

“South Africa will either be excluded altogether or have its benefits pared back significantly (for example, perhaps raw critical minerals still get through duty-free, but not high-value manufactured goods; or perhaps strict reciprocity, South Africa only gets duty-free access where it gives the same to American goods).”

Western Cape plea

On Monday this week, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde pleaded for South Africa to continue receiving Agoa benefits. 

Participating in a virtual hearing conducted by the US Trade Representative to assess the eligibility of African countries to receive Agoa benefits in next year’s Agoa annual review, Winde said: “The Western Cape province desperately needs Agoa to support its floundering economy, help showcase the merits of an open market economy approach and overcome its deep socioeconomic challenges of unemployment and poverty.

“With an unemployment rate of 25.2%, one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world, and with 48.7% of its population living in poverty and surviving with less than $86.56 per month, the Western Cape desperately needs Agoa – to improve economic growth in order to create jobs and lift our citizens out of poverty.”

Winde noted that the US was a key partner for the Western Cape and had been the biggest investor in the province over the past 20 years. 

And because of Agoa, it has become one of the top five export markets for Western Cape goods.

“The US has also been one of the Western Cape’s top three overseas tourism source markets.” 

Winde said the Western Cape exported more than half of South Africa’s global agricultural exports.

“Almost 70% of the Western Cape’s top exports to the US were Agoa-eligible in 2022, with agricultural products and food and beverages ranking among the major beneficiaries.

“Because these products carry higher tariffs and are more labour intensive, the Western Cape would be especially severely impacted should South Africa lose Agoa benefits, with thousands of workers losing their jobs.”

He added that Agoa’s benefits to the Western Cape also provided businesses in the US with competitive, quality inputs and products.

“Strong and established value and supply chains link Western Cape exports to business opportunities and jobs in the US, ensuring that American citizens and businesses can access cost-effective goods that help tame US inflation.”

He said US companies invested in the Western Cape benefited directly from Agoa. They were also perfectly situated to leverage opportunities created by the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which is just coming into operation, potentially giving a huge boost to trade across Africa. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Do we seriously think the ANC could give a damn? These mamparras couldn’t give a toss whether SA was a dungheap, as long as they were sitting on top of it. And of course as the extremely well-run-by-the-DA Cape would likely be the most damaged would be a massive bonus for these useless charlatans.

  • Diane Cilengi says:

    This is worrying but also beyond irritating. Why do we have to “bow” to US ideals for a trade that benefits both of us? We have been in BRICS long enough to know what is expected on both sides. It honestly feels like the Cold War antics are back and anyone who sided with Russia will feel the full wrath of the US. Let the US clean house fort. One cannot help the neighbours when your own yard is not up to standard

    • Jennifer D says:

      US ideals? Why should the US give SA preferential treatment when we clearly support their adversaries. If you stand on the side of a bully be prepared to take the consequences. Africa sits with its begging bowl out and thinks it has a right to demand. Time to grow up and realise there is a point the West will realise that by supporting these unethical and ungrateful countries they are creating a culture of dependency. None too soon.

      • andrew farrer says:

        but the Diane’s of this country with their anc blinkers on, think we gain anything from brics. But then they don’t give a fuck about the poor South Africans who will suffer the most when we lose Agoa benifits, and they lose their jobs.

    • Steve Stevens says:

      You’d prefer the negative impact on our manufacturing and agricultural industries? You’d prefer that we get hit with trade tariffs? Or the potential knock on effects on our trade relationship with the EU? That we rely solely on (our measly) exports to Russia? Isn’t “bowing” a little a small price to pay?

    • John Belyeu says:

      Does anybody else here think that “Diane Cilengi” might be a Russian designated respondent or bot…

  • Geoff Krige says:

    This article has two sides to it. On the one side it highlights the stupidity of ANC alignments that favour ANC politicians in the short term, but destroy our economy bit by rapidly increasing bit. On the other side it highlights the brokenness of democracy around the world. In South Africa the ANC rule for themselves, not democratically for the good of the country. In USA this bill will pass, not because it is a good bill but because senators fear Mr Fisch, AGOA will probably continue to allow unrestricted export of critical minerals presumably because these benefit USA more than South Africa. So USA does not act democratically in the world, it acts like a big bully – do what I tell you or I will thump you (a bit like our blue light thugs – move aside when I tell you or suffer the consequences).

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    There is nothing wrong with having a balanced foreign policy that steers a middle path between the world’s powers, in the interests of your own country. Plenty of other nations do it, most famously Switzerland (with caveats), but many others too. In Africa, Zambia has taken a very pragmatic course recently of engaging fully and openly with all key players – the USA, China, EU and also went to Ukraine/Russia as part of the delegation from Africa. The US government accepts this and has moved to shore up its position in Zambia by investing in mining and potentially the production of EV batteries in Zambia and the DRC, so that both countries are able to add value to the copper, cobalt and other battery minerals they produce: win-win.

    We seem to take the polar opposite approach, of wanting to maintain all the benefits of trading with wealthy, stable and large economies, whilst simultaneously trashing them for being wealthy, stable and large economies. Our ‘foreign policy experts’ are totally out of their depth in looking after South Africa’s national interest, which they conflate with the ANC’s ideological interest – the two are poles apart, as auto and farm workers may well see by this time next year.

  • Rae Earl says:

    Our country has 2 major impediments to any sort of economic progress. ie. Cyril Ramaphosa and Naledi Pandor who are almost treasonous in their slavish pursuit of favour from from a warmonger like Putin. This is gatkruip in the true sense of the word and is set to alienate SA from the West and into the maw of Russia. Putin has already indicated (by the closure of the Black Sea grain route), that he will milk SA dry and consign what’s left to the rubbish heap of history. But he’s our friend. Ja nee.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Reading your opening statement Mr Fabricius, one hopes you’re wrong but I suspect actually spot on! South Africa’s reputation as the stabilising influence in African has been seriously damaged since the days of a Jacob Zuma with no relief through to CR. Our latest flirtation with Russia hasn’t helped. Unless we resign from BRICS we will continue to be tarred with the Russian Brush.

    • Charl Marais says:

      By invading their neighbours, and supposed brothers in Ukraine the Russian government and elite have shown once again that they are driven by personal enrichment regardless of the cost, their decades long suppression of Russian opposition and nationalist propaganda through captured national media have indoctrinated and overwhelmed Russian citizens, many fear their autocratic rulers. Without regime change and constitutional reform in Russia the BRICS agreements are likely to end in similar disaster. A rules based global geopolitics recognizes that civilised collaboration cannot tolerate armed invasion across recognised national borders, this principle is what the west and most of the UN is striving to establish.

  • Brian Doyle says:

    Our foreign policy is fatally flawed, and the result is that the South African economy and its people will suffer. The ANC should wake up, if they can, and realise that they are either idiots or they do not give a damn, especially as they are sheltered from the realities that surround them

  • Johan Buys says:

    If the US embassy reads DM and comments : PLEASE can the US rather use targeted sanctions against the governing party and its key individuals and their associated entities rather than harm half a million ordinary South Africans and their US citizen trading partners with blanket reprisals?

    Tumors are attacked with scalpels, not axes.

  • Henry Coppens says:

    The ANC will do anything to get it down the road to their NDR, with concerns about nothing and no one else but themselves – to provide a long lasting corruption trough without accountability. If this means sychophanting to any one they see that will help them down this road, then they will do so – analogous to the political parties in SA that are open to the highest bidder. . For the present it is Putin, China, Venzuela and Cuba and maybe more.

  • Peter Brink says:

    There was broad goodwill in the USA toward the RSA and its rise from apartheid. I continue to root for an enlightened ANC and CR, but that is becoming more difficult as RSA participates in naval exercises with Russia and refuses to criticize Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Why would any thinking person want to pursue Russia’s Communist dictatorship as a goal for one’s own nation?

  • Rob vZ says:

    For the revolutionary, their “story” is one of grand resistance to the evil Western empire. Once achieved, they drift aimlessly in a shallow post-revolution pursuit of the materialistic trappings of power. 30 years later they still appear to hold more value to the original, exciting and noble story.
    So history repeats itself, and here we are, with a “new” revolution in the form of the ANC youth league called the EFF, in the same revolutionary-red overalls, ready to “write their story of grand revolution against the evil empire”. It’s a story for voters. But it is a story. Instead of an actual post-revolution reality. Running stable, efficient government, fixing pot holes, clean running water, educating your people and other “dull” complex, municipal tasks. When confronted with compromises over trade, bullying by bigger countries, economics and endless technocratic complexities, it seems our aging revolutionaries would rather pick a lazy fight and “return to the bush”. It is called saving face, writing a more exciting story for the young idealistic voter and fundamentally avoiding accountability for post-revolution short comings. With an approaching election, it is the easy option, and immensely destructive.

    It is time for the revolutionaries and the technocrats to sit down and admit that the compromise of 1994 failed to address the transfer of skills and capacity. Rather than embrace violent actors like Putin, put egos aside and embrace capacity, knowledge and trade.

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