The official diplomatic line on South Africa-United States (US) relations often points to ‘cordial’ ties — a position supported by the balance of trade between the two countries. But despite the efforts of senior officials from South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation to compartmentalise relations into thematic areas, the political partnership has become difficult to manage.
While Pretoria’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has certainly strained ties with Washington, signs of shaky relations have shown for decades. In an increasingly fractious global geopolitical environment, the chickens may be coming home to roost — necessitating a more adept and compromising diplomacy on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the rapid unfolding of global politics, it’s easy to forget that South Africa-US relations are still largely course-correcting from the Trump-Pence administration. During that period, no US ambassador was appointed to Pretoria for over two years, and diplomatic protests followed Trump’s controversial views of African countries. There were also disagreements on international security policy concerning Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Iran and Palestine.
Despite generally robust trade, particularly on the back of US foreign direct investment and South Africa’s preferential access to the US market through the African Growth and Opportunity Act, major points of contention predate the Trump era. These have primarily revolved around US-led military interventionism in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya among others.
This reinforced Pretoria’s view of the US as a hegemon that has sometimes abused its dominant global position, flouting the international rules-based order it purports to champion. That view resonates among senior government officials from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) who were at the receiving end of US hostilities during the liberation struggle.
South Africa’s international relations minister Dr Naledi Pandor stressed these deep-seated grievances in a September 2022 conversation with the Council on Foreign Relations. She contrasted Cuba’s assistance to the ANC during the liberation struggle with “the support that was given to (Angolan rebel group) Unita by America … Unita which murdered our cadres.”
This message has reached US foreign policy officials. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently argued that a closer alignment with states like South Africa necessitates a long-term, concerted effort by Washington — an acknowledgement of the complexity of South Africa’s international relations. Blinken recognised Pretoria’s longstanding relationship with Moscow and admitted that “the Soviet Union was supportive of the freedom forces in South Africa and … more than unfortunately … the US was much too sympathetic to the apartheid regime.”
This thinking seems to have prevailed over opposing views in the US Congress, which recently introduced a resolution calling for a review of SA-US relations based on Pretoria’s growing alignment with Beijing and Moscow.
Despite Blinken’s comments, creating a robust and sustainable SA-US partnership faces several challenges. The most significant is managing different worldviews on the future of the international system. In its 2022 National Security Strategy, the Biden-Harris Administration articulates its global mission over the next decade as a fight to outcompete its geopolitical rivals.
The US strategy is uncompromising in its view of China and Russia as systemic threats that must be defeated. It frames the future of the international order as a grand conflict between autocrats and democrats. The US’s choice of partners in fulfilling this mission is countries committed to democracy and a rules-based international order.
This places Pretoria in a precarious, albeit manageable, position. On the one hand, South Africa remains guided by its constitutional democratic values. On the other, the government’s ‘South-South’ agenda and commitment to achieving a more equitable multipolar world have shaped its partnerships with China and Russia as like-minded global allies.
South Africa’s inclusion in BRICS (the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa economic grouping) is arguably viewed by international relations officials as the country’s most visible foreign policy achievement in the pursuit of this agenda. But it forces a confrontation with the US’s worldview and global mission. Pretoria will need to expertly navigate this conflict, given geopolitical contestation between the US, its allies and China and Russia.
South Africa should attempt to display its commitment to democracy, human rights and the international rules-based system while rejecting the double standards and abuses of power it associates with the US-led global order. This won’t be easy, given South Africa’s historical dependence on its moral capital on the world stage. But the country has a vital opportunity to display leadership.
Pretoria is uniquely positioned as a relatively robust democracy with partnerships on both sides of the geopolitical divide. It must showcase its willingness and capability to assist the US, China and other major powers to compete responsibly. This can be done by leveraging its position in global bodies like the G20 and as BRICS chair in 2023.
South Africa should set a clear agenda on responsible competition among global powers for the benefit of all. This involves providing avenues for dialogue instead of militarised responses to conflict, while reaffirming Pretoria’s commitment to democracy and the international rules-based order.
South Africa’s failed draft UN General Assembly resolution last year, which focused on humanitarian aid in Ukraine and omitted any reference to Russian aggression and its violation of international law, was poorly received. Despite this, it showed Pretoria taking the initiative to find an alternative — no matter how flawed this may have been.
By contrast, South Africa’s recent naval exercise with Russia and China on the eve of the first anniversary of the Ukraine invasion was a clear step backwards. As were the optics surrounding the ANC Youth League’s ill-conceived defence of Moscow during its ‘observer mission’ of the sham referenda in four of Ukraine’s illegally occupied territories in September 2022.
A failure to manage these situations or show commitment to responsible competition on the international order will weaken the foundations of South Africa’s relations with the US. Already, it is becoming difficult for Washington lawmakers to justify the country’s privileged trade relationship with the US market. This doesn’t bode well ahead of the African Growth and Opportunity Act Forum in South Africa later this year.
Pretoria should take the initiative and propose workable solutions to the myriad conflicts arising due to competing worldviews, particularly between the US, China and Russia. The optics surrounding its behaviour on the international stage also need special attention. They could undermine its credibility as a non-aligned democracy and expose the country to the same criticism that it levels against Washington.
Most importantly, Pretoria can ill afford to bury its head in the sand whenever it burns its fingers. Difficult lessons must be learnt and new approaches developed if it intends to maintain relations with partners like Washington and Beijing in an age of renewed great power competition. DM
Priyal Singh, Senior Researcher, Africa in the World, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.
First published by ISS Today.