You have to hand it to the ANC and our spectacularly misnamed department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco). Both have achieved the rarest of rare feats: uniting the bitterly factitious and brutally acrimonious Democrats and Republicans in the US Capitol.
The two major parties, which control the three branches of the US government, agree on very little in the hyper-partisan divide which now defines US politics.
One hot topic where the gulf becomes a chasm relates to the 37 serious criminal charges facing former president Donald Trump. These concern an indictment against him for illegally removing from the White House classified documents, including boxes containing US nuclear secrets, which were then stored in the bathroom of his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida. He also, according to the charge sheet, engaged in an obstruction of justice by asking his lawyers to lie about it.
Though he is the first president in history to face federal criminal charges, many Republican members of Congress dismiss the court processes, which began this week, as a “witch hunt”, the “weaponisation of the justice department” and “a vendetta … a disgraceful political hit job”, to quote several of the milder statements offered up by Trump supporters on the Capitol.
By contrast, Democratic legislators and its leadership’s refrain is that “no-one is above the law” and called for respect for the judicial processes.
On Tuesday, when Trump appeared in a Miami courthouse to plead to these charges, the New York Times published a letter signed by the top Congressional foreign affairs leadership — from both parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives — calling on the secretary of state and White House officials to veto South Africa hosting the forthcoming Africa Growth and Opportunity (Agoa) summit scheduled to be held here later in 2023.
The bill of indictment contained in the letter dated June 9 is very precise in demolishing the theory of “nonalignment” — the rotting pillar on which our policy on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine allegedly rests.
The congressional letter reads on point: “South Africa’s government has formally taken a neutral stance on Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine but has deepened its military relationship with Russia.”
It then cites the “Russian cargo vessel subject to US sanctions docked in South Africa’s largest naval port, and intelligence suggests that the South African government used this opportunity to covertly supply Russia with arms and ammunition that could be used in its illegal war in Ukraine …”
Next on the list was the joint military exercise with Russia and China in April, and then the authorised landing of a Russian military plane at Waterkloof, “also subject to US sanctions”. But the piece de resistance for the lawmakers is the forthcoming Brics summit, on which they write: “The [SA] government aims to strengthen its ties with China and Russia and is working to facilitate the participation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite the outstanding arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC).”
Leave aside the hypocrisy of citing the ICC to which institution America has resolutely refused to subject itself. The central contention in the missive is that Agoa, which we are now in clear danger of losing, is a unilateral trade offer by the US of immeasurable benefit to us. But while it allows our goods tariff-free access to the US, it is hardly in behavioural terms a cost-free exercise. This is made clear when the authors remind the US administration: “Agoa beneficiaries may not engage in activities that undermine US national security or foreign policy interests.”
And allowing SA to host the Agoa conference, in their view, “would serve as implicit support of South Africa’s damaging support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and possible violation of US sanctions law”. And just to underline this point, the letter concludes that SA “is in danger of losing Agoa benefits”.
Three points further on this bombshell missive:
First, since it is Congress which decides on the renewal of Agoa in 2025, the bipartisan flavour of this letter gives the clearest indication yet on the direction of travel for SA — towards a cul de sac. But even before that date, the US administration can eject beneficiary countries from the agreement.
Second, the signatories are not drawn from the usual suspects of the extremist “Make America Great Again” fringe. US Democratic Senator Chris Coons, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on state and foreign operations, is President Joe Biden’s closest congressional confidant. In 2021, the New York Times described him as “Biden’s eyes and ears in the Senate”. Decades back he interned for Biden and was elected in his stead from Delaware. He also ironically cut his teeth in the anti-apartheid movement in the US.
The other cosignatory from the ranks of Democrats, historically more sympathetic to the cause of South Africa than the Republicans, is New York congressman Gregory Meeks, who is both an African American and a traditionally strong supporter of African issues on Capitol Hill.
Third, it is correct that Congress has united before on the question of South Africa, overcoming its divisions on a host of other foreign and domestic issues. In 1986, both houses of Congress, enacted, with sweeping majorities from both parties, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. This instrument imposed swingeing sanctions against the NP government, cementing its status as an international pariah. It is more tragic than ironic that nearly four decades on, the ANC government has placed our country on a similar trajectory.
And just like most of the crises engulfing South Africa right now, this one was entirely avoidable and equally predictable.