These past few weeks I’ve been in the United States speaking to a variety of people and organisations with an interest in South Africa. The considerable strain in the relationship between the two countries has been widely apparent, but there are signs that the rift between them may be less insurmountable than it appears.
South Africa and the US have found themselves at loggerheads over their stance on the war in Ukraine, with the US fully committed to supporting Kyiv while South Africa has pursued a nominally non-aligned strategy, but one perceived as favouring Russia.
South Africa has studiously avoided supporting UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion, to the displeasure of the Western diplomatic community.
Read more on Daily Maverick: China, India and Brazil in favour of UN resolution describing Russia as aggressor – SA abstains – what now?
It has also participated in naval manoeuvres with Russia and China on the anniversary date of Russia’s invasion and is alleged by the US government to have supplied military equipment to Russia, loaded on the bright-red, sanctioned ship, the Lady R, at the Simon’s Town Naval Base in December.
It was the latter event that triggered a firm statement from the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben E Brigety II, who said at a press conference in May that “the arming of Russia by South Africa with the vessel that landed in Simon’s Town is fundamentally unacceptable”, adding that he was confident that weapons were loaded on to the vessel.
Despite a flurry of diplomatic efforts from both sides that started well before the ambassador’s intervention and intensified afterwards, the sense here in Washington is that the relationship remains tense.
My US interlocutors display clear frustration at the tenor of their interactions with the South African side, saying that they find it hard to communicate with the South Africans and are unclear about Pretoria’s interests and motivations.
The South Africans for their part feel they are being pushed around and forced to choose a side, with the upcoming renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) being weaponised as a tool to bring them into line.
Closer than appearances
But between the lines, both sides show greater closeness than it appears.
The US think tanks, the trade community, defence experts and development organisations I’ve met harbour enormous goodwill towards South Africa. They wish not only to see it succeed, but want to contribute actively to South Africa’s success.
On the other hand, South Africa’s position is far less anti-Western than a cursory reading of ANC policy documents might suggest.
The US recognises the importance of South Africa as a leading African nation and a BRICS member, while South Africa is in no doubt about the value of the trade relationship with the US, understands the benefits of the US-funded Pepfar anti-Aids programme, and does not wish to become a dependent Russian (or Chinese) satellite.
Better communication from both sides is required to close the perception gap. There is ample opportunity to do so.
South African representatives in the US have much scope to intensify their engagements, both formal and informal, with the Washington think tank and foreign policy scene to explain the nuances of South Africa’s foreign affairs positions.
These contacts need to be actively cultivated and their inputs fed back to inform the South African government’s evolving stances.
South Africa also has the opportunity to be far more proactive in formulating proposals on what the United States’ policy towards South Africa should focus on, in a way that meets South African interests. In doing so, it is advisable to isolate issues on which agreement cannot be reached (such as the relationship with Russia and Ukraine) and explicitly park them to allow the relationship to progress in other areas.
The US has in the past not been clear enough about its goals in the relationship with South Africa and has allowed vagueness to create drift in the relationship.
Ambassador Brigety’s stance has been most effective in beginning to correct this and he deserves considerable credit for spurring the various South African delegations that have been dispatched to secure the future of Agoa, as well as the decision by South Africa to exclude Vladimir Putin from the forthcoming BRICS summit in South Africa.
On Agoa, rumours of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. Although it has been deployed as a bargaining chip in the current spat, the dominant view is that it will be renewed.
There is some discussion around whether its terms should be revised, as it has been in place for several decades without change and could do with some refinement.
But barring further diplomatic incidents, chances are good that it will remain in place – for now. Nonetheless, South Africa needs to be more cognisant of the need to cultivate and restore the relationship that underpins it.
The goodwill towards South Africa that I’ve seen expressed in meetings is considerable. We would do well to harness it.
It is imperative that South Africa’s think tanks and civil society organisations stand together to help achieve this. DM