SA’s foreign policy has gone rogue and needs an urgent reset

SA’s foreign policy has gone rogue and needs an urgent reset
SA’s foreign policy has gone rogue and needs an urgent reset

The government appears to be on an out-of-the-blue coordinated charm offensive to mend our relations with the United States following months of actions which severely damaged those relations. The Minister of International Relations, Naledi Pandor, was in the US last week trying to mend relations with several congressmen and economic players.

Also last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the matter in his weekly newsletter, while significantly downplaying what is happening and what is at stake. But it seems that the damage is already done and worse could be on the way.

South Africa is a beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) which is a United States Trade Act with Africa. Agoa was enacted on May 18, 2000 as Public Law 106 of the 200th Congress.

South Africa exports a significant amount to the US, they are our second largest export destination — second only to China. According to the South African Revenue Service (SARS), the US received 7.8% of our exports last year.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Don’t play us for fools’: If SA wants to remain a close US partner in Africa, it must meet us halfway

According to the US Department of Commerce, the value of exports from the US to South Africa in 2022 was $6.5-billion or (R130-billion). The value of imports from South Africa to the USA was $14.6-billion or (R280-billion) — meaning the balance of trade between the two countries is largely favorable to South Africa.

Agoa allows duty-free access for certain African countries into the US market. To date, $3-billion (or R60-billion) of SA goods have been exported to the US duty-free. In addition to Agoa there is the US Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) and under the GSP preferences South Africa exported $559-million (or R11.8-billion) to the US. In total, South Africa had R72-billion worth of exports under preferential terms to the US.

Those preferential market access conditions are now under review by the United States Congress and if removed could have a disastrous impact on our economy. Qualification for Agoa preferences is based on a set of conditions contained in the Agoa legislation.

In order to qualify and to remain eligible for Agoa, an Agoa beneficiary country must demonstrate respect for the rule of law, human rights, and core labor standards. An important provision to be aware of is that beneficiary countries should also not seek to undermine US foreign policy interests. Agoa includes a statutory requirement for annual reviews to examine the compliance of each participating country with the act’s eligibility criteria.

We are now facing the serious prospect of losing access to Agoa. This follows the tabling of “The US-South Africa Bilateral Relations Review Act”, last week. It passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee by 36 votes to 13 on Thursday March 28.

Effectively, there is bipartisan agreement in Congress that our country’s actions must be considered. The Republicans and Democrats in Congress have initiated a process that calls into question South Africa’s foreign policy positions and contends that South Africa is “siding” with enemies of the United States, and acting as a proxy for terrorist organizations.

The review bill specifies that President Joe Biden must determine “whether South Africa has engaged in activities that undermine United States national security or foreign policy interests”.

In a US election year where Biden is facing significant domestic challenges and a rival who is currently polling ahead of him despite facing notable legal challenges, he may very well make this determination.

This puts South Africa in a precarious position. There is a very tangible risk that we could be removed. This would be an economic shock that our country will struggle to absorb.

The economic growth rate has been stagnant and our manufacturing and mining industries are under strain. If our exports to America lose preferential status, this will increase the price to US importers who are likely to look for cheaper sources.

Expensive, dangerous alliances

How did we get to this point? By becoming too close to Hamas and too close to Vladimir Putin and Russia.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Pretoria walks a tense tightrope on US relations under the shadow of Russia, Iran, China alignment

While arguing that our foreign policy position is one of engaging both sides, we must be cognizant that the actions of the Executive show a clear preference and proximity to groups considered hostile actors to the US. In his letter to South Africans last week President Ramaphosa stated that:

“An important starting point for that discussion is that since the advent of democracy in 1994, South Africa has sought through its foreign policy to promote peace, security and development on the African continent and across the world. Consistent with our history, South Africa has taken a non-aligned position in our international relations. We have deliberately avoided aligning our country with any of the major powers or blocs. Rather we have sought to forge cordial relations with all countries.”

There is a good reason for skepticism and scrutiny of the authenticity of this position from the president, his Cabinet and his party. Their actions belie the position they express. The ANC hosted three members of Hamas in Pretoria recently, which included Khaled Qaddoumi, Hamas’s representative to Iran, and Bassem Naim, a member of Hamas’s political bureau in Gaza. It was a move that was provocative and suggested that the ANC did not in principle oppose the actions of Hamas on October 7.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Hamas leaders’ presence in SA for a Palestine solidarity convention stirs controversy

Not only has the ruling party been seen cavorting with Hamas, but the minister of international relations also visited Iran two weeks after the 7 October terror attacks in Israel by Hamas. While there, Minister Pandor met with the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi and also had engagements with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

Iran is accused by the US of sponsoring groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen. The timing of this trip could not have been worse. The optics were an eyesore to our Western allies. Early last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov received red carpet receptions from the ANC and government ministries alike.

Last year I wrote an article where I said that Naledi Pandor is wrong on Russia and I pointed out that the ANC was putting our relationship with some of our largest trading partners in the West in danger. I pointed out that the collective actions of the government have shown favorability to Russia.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Russia’s Sergey Lavrov returns to Africa with aggressive charm offensive

In August 2022 the South African Defense Minister, Thandi Modise, departed for Moscow for the “10th Moscow Conference on International Security at the invitation of the Russian Minister of Defence, General Shoigu”. In October of 2022, South Africa was one of 35 countries that abstained from a vote condemning Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territories. In February 2023, the country hosted trilateral naval exercises called Operation Mosi II with Russia and China.

Foreign policy chaos

It is time for us all to think about our foreign policy bipolar disorder. Government says that we care about human rights while we accept and embrace murderous regimes like the Zanu-PF government in Zimbabwe and the anti-democratic regime of Yoweri Museveni in Uganda.

We say we care about the loss of innocent lives, but earlier this year President Ramaphosa hosted Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, a man who is accused of participating in the genocide in Darfur in the early 2000s and in an ongoing genocide in the current Sudan war.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Sudan is being destroyed while the world focuses on Gaza and Ukraine

We ignore the atrocities that have been committed by Russia which also include the killing of innocent women and children in Ukraine.

In addition, it is time to examine whether or not we are benefitting from our BRICS Alliance. When I look at the products in our stores, most of these products are made in China. There has been an increase in the number of “Chinatown” malls in South Africa and this poses a long-term threat to our domestically owned retail sector. These trends are cause for concern because it is a goal of South Africa to improve our local manufacturing and to strengthen our exports of finished products and skills to the region under the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, AfCFTA.

China is not an ally in our accomplishment of these goals — it is instead a direct rival as it is trying to expand its influence in the region and consolidate its supply chains. The role of Africa under the Belt and Road Initiative of China is to be a supplier of raw materials and a consumer of finished goods from China.

I believe that we must reexamine our positions and our risks before it is too late. We have shifted too far to one side of the global order and we need to start walking it back to the center. In order to accomplish that, we need to pivot away from some of the nations we have embraced. We need to do this to make sure that our foreign policy interests are preserved.

What this means is that we must call the Chinese government officials and companies to appear before the following parliamentary committees: communications and digital technologies, and trade — industry and competition. They must appear before these committees to give an account for the security and social risks associated with some of their companies and products. They must give an explanation to South Africa about the expansion of China mall outlets and the economic impact thereof.

We need our government to directly call on Hamas to release all the hostages captured on and around October 7, 2023. This means that the Department of International Relations must issue statements expressly to that effect.

We also need to create some distance between Pretoria and Moscow. This means that we need to issue statements condemning the continued attacks by Moscow in Ukraine.

We need to challenge both Russia and China for their actions in various African nations. We cannot continue to merely assert to the West that we have shared and strategic interests while in our public rhetoric and our public associations as a nation we show that this is mere lip service.

In addition, we need to play our own leadership role as a custodian of democracy and human rights in southern Africa. We must use our influence to avert abuses of democracy in the region, be it in Eswatini, Mozambique, Lesotho or Zimbabwe.

The failures of democracy and human rights protection in these nations affect South Africa. DM

The article is in Romanian

Tags: SAs foreign policy rogue urgent reset


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