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