STUART THEOBALD: US-SA relations in focus as Agoa decision nears

By serendipity I found myself attending a hearing in the US Capitol last week on the US-SA bilateral relationship. Such hearings are easy for members of the public to access and, given an afternoon free in Washington between other meetings, I attended.

The most striking feature of the hearings was the common refrain that the ANC was failing. It was taken as a given that the ANC is delivering poor governance.

US support was framed as needing to support the people and institutions of democracy, largely against the ineffective governance of the “ANC ruling class elites who are increasingly out of touch with the wishes of the people”, in the words of Young Kim, a Republican representative of a Californian district.

The committee repeatedly asked why SA had taken a turn to Russia and the only reasonable answer forthcoming was that senior members of the party have commercial interests in it, and that a Russian-linked entity is the ANC’s biggest donor.

It was a revealing insight into the level of anger in Washington over SA’s dalliance with Russia and China. As is the American political culture, the focus is on the value for money Americans get from their taxes. How do the various interventions with American money, from the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar), which provides $750m per year to SA, to tariff-free access under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), benefit Americans? American representative democracy continually frames questions in terms of how any engagement with SA supports “my constituency”. SA needs to have better answers than it does.

Unusual grouping

The bipartisan African subcommittee of the committee on foreign affairs in the House of Representatives held the hearing because of US concern over the military drills held by SA with Russia and China on the anniversary of the Ukraine invasion and the docking of the Lady R, a sanctioned Russian ship, in Simon’s Town in December 2022. The subcommittee chair, congressperson John James, a Republican, had introduced a bill denouncing the naval exercises in February.

The committee had as witnesses the journalist Redi Tlhabi, former broadcaster Chris Maroleng, and US academic and businessman Anthony Carroll. This was an unusual grouping — Carroll is involved in technology transfer to the region and had at his fingertips much of the data regarding the two countries’ relationship. Tlhabi and Maroleng provided insight into the emotional tenor of the relationship, giving views on how SA citizens feel about the US.

US senators were concerned about risks to private property (expropriation without compensation) and the rapid growth of the welfare state. Tlhabi did well to frame the welfare state both as a success in supporting the most vulnerable, and an indicator of the failure of the economy to lift people up. On property rights, SA was no Zimbabwe, largely due to the strength of the democracy.

The call was clearly that the US should direct its resources to civil society including the media, NGOs and judiciary, strengthening the institutions of the democracy. But also, as Maroleng advocated, support for the private sector, enabling economic growth and ensuring that SA companies trade with the US rather than turn to Chinese or other trade corridors. Carroll called for partnership particularly with SA’s financial sector as a mechanism to support development. There was much comment that democracy appears to be working, if slowly, given the rising number of opposition parties and falling support for the ANC.

Eclectic panel

The experience of being in the room shifts one’s perspective. Much of the SA press has focused on the importance of the relationship for SA. That is undoubtedly true — SA exports to the US are 50-fold that of Russia and is particularly important for our manufactured goods. But it is important to understand how the US political system works and its framing in terms of benefit to the US people. This does not mean the relationship is only mercantile. There is genuine pride in how Pepfar has materially changed the lives of Africans with HIV, for example, though confusion about why South Africans don’t seem to appreciate the intervention.

The anti-ANC tone of the event will no doubt inflame the governing party. Already foreign minister Naledi Pandor has wondered out loud about the choice of witnesses and exclusion of government representatives. I thought it was an eclectic panel, but clearly the subcommittee wanted to hear something different from the government line, without going so far as to call on opposition parties.

The committee recognises the shared values of constitutionalism and democracy common to both countries, and there seemed to be eagerness to maintain the relationship to prevent leaving it open to China or Russia to step in. The challenge was how to do so without supporting the ANC.

The key decision on the horizon is whether SA will continue to benefit from membership of Agoa. That decision is made by the White House, but the committee’s views will be influential. My sense is that the committee is torn between wanting to support SA’s private sector and economy, and to punish the ANC. That sentiment will spill into all other US-funded engagements with SA.

An announcement on SA’s continued access to Agoa will be made on January 1 next year.

Stuart Theobald is chair of Krutham.

This article first appeared in Business Day