Defend Truth


Walking on diplomatic eggshells with South Africa only obscures increasingly discordant US-SA relationship


Michelle D Gavin is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). From 2011 to 2014, during the Obama Administration, she was US ambassador to Botswana and served concurrently as the US representative to the Southern African Development Community (SADC). She was formerly the managing director of The Africa Center, a multidisciplinary institution dedicated to increasing understanding of contemporary Africa.

It’s long past time to stop romanticising US-SA relations, or pretending that cooperation with the South African government is a critical linchpin in US-Africa policy. South Africa today cannot be celebrated as a model of the rule of law or of democratic governance that works for the population.

When US Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety publicly stated that weapons loaded onto a cargo vessel docked at a South African naval base last December were destined for Russia, he made big news.

Despite a steady drumbeat of reports highlighting the African state’s reluctance to condemn Russia’s war of aggression and the warm military and political relationship South Africa continues to enjoy with Russia, some sought to characterise Brigety’s remarks as a gaffe or an affront to South Africa.

Others seemed to portray the incident as an easily forgotten hiccup in an otherwise positive narrative. None of these assessments quite hit the mark. What Brigety’s remarks really represented was a step forward in moving to a reality-based policy toward South Africa.  

It’s simply not plausible that Brigety was relaying a suspicion or a gut feeling. Why is honesty such an affront? If South Africa finds it distasteful to have its activities acknowledged in the light of day, why does the country engage in them in the first place?

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South Africa’s leaders have every right to assess the costs and benefits of the options before them and make the choices they believe are in their country’s interest, but no right to insist that other states help them obscure those choices.

Neither the United States nor any other country has a responsibility to pretend not to notice the gulf between South African actions and its preferred narrative of non-alignment driven by its values and passionate commitment to equity

It’s long past time to stop romanticising US-South Africa relations or pretending that a one-sided enthusiasm for cooperation with the South African government is a critical linchpin in US-Africa policy. These fantasies have more to do with our wishful thinking — both about ourselves, and about the nature of the South African state — than with reality.

The United States’ support for the apartheid government during the Cold War is undeniable. The equally undeniable history of the American public’s opposition to such policies, which ultimately led to Congress overriding a presidential veto to pass the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, clearly has less resonance across the Atlantic than it does at home, as does decades of US effort to build a robust bilateral partnership with a democratic South Africa.

Other US policies, including the 2011 intervention in Libya and its consequences, have been wrapped into a South African narrative of an arrogant, militaristic, and dangerous West; while the brutal realities of Russian policies, at home and abroad, somehow are understood to paint a picture of a desirable partner in remaking the international order. 

At the same time, South Africa is not only a country in which numerous political leaders believe the United States is more enemy than friend, and who pursue policies explicitly aimed at weakening the United States and strengthening its adversaries. It is a state in which the dominant political party boasts both a stirring history of resisting oppression, and a damning record of not just accepting corruption, but at times systematically perpetuating it at the expense of the South African public.

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Its liberation struggle is respected, and the size (though not the overall health) of its economy is admired in the region, but South Africa today cannot be celebrated as a model of the rule of law, or democratic governance that works for the population. The country’s independent judiciary and robust civil society continue to be real sources of strength, but they shine in part because they push back on an increasingly dysfunctional state.

Just as the United States cannot achieve its goals at home and abroad without an honest acknowledgement of our own flaws, Washington cannot conduct foreign policy without a clear-eyed assessment of our partners. That’s not bullying, it’s operating in reality.

Over and over, South African words and deeds demonstrate that what would seem to be fertile ground of shared interests and values in democratic societies is, for the time being, a mirage.

Some honesty may rock the diplomatic boat but ultimately will lead to fewer dashed hopes and fruitless overtures. In the best case, telling the truth can point toward the strategic clarity that US-Africa policy needs. DM

First published on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations. Republished under a Creative Commons licence: Some rights reserved.


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  • Jon Quirk says:

    And the views expressed in this forthright article are the views that will prevail, and there is little point the ANC, or the carious factions that make up the ANC can bleat about fairness all they like because until their actions start to come to terms with their rhetoric, then so long will South Africa stumble and eventually fully fall off the World stage as wholly irrelevant, duplicitous and criminally and self-servingly, corrupt.

    • Eulalie Spamer says:

      “Fall off the world stage”. Long overdue. This country’s leaders have seen to it that the RSA inherits the DNA of other failed African states to the north of our borders, the inevitability of corruption,, ineptitude, patronage, and a total disregard of the interests of the people it governs. It’s seemingly inexplicable bromance with Putin conceals deals brokered in dark rooms and of which we are not informed. Remember Zuma’s one-on-0ne with the man and the aborted nuclear power deal? ANC seems to have overcome its cash flow problems: Staff back at their desks, back pay covered. How did the Party manage to do that? Well I guess it is not short of ideas.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    Many of us have fallen out with a long time partner or relation because he exposed himself as dishonest or did something beyond the pale. Then there is an apparent reconciliation for nostalgic or practical reasons but it is never the same. Never.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    And hilariouslyMbabula is blatheting on that the ANC can’t trust the ambassador because he didn’t apologise properly. What must serious people think about him and his ignorant arrogance.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    We seem to victims of our own “willing suspension of disbelief”. At last we are learning to take the ANC at its word. It is a revolutionary movement and it uses the language of the communism of yesteryear with serious intent. We wanted to believe in freedom and democracy but we should have parsed that 1st speech of Mandela in Capetown instead of just whooping it up the wonderful vibe on the day.

  • Anne Fischer says:

    Sadly our government has totally forgotten how to be honest or care … and how this bahaviour affects the citizens of South Africa – the wheel turns …..

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