Are US-South Africa ties at breaking point over Israel’s war on Gaza?

A US bill is calling to reassess US-South Africa relations after recent painful points such as the ICJ case against Israel.

The United States House of Representatives is reviewing a bill that calls for a reassessment of the country’s relationship with South Africa, amid tensions between the nations.

South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, visited Washington, DC recently in what is believed to have been a trip aimed at getting the US strategic community to understand Pretoria’s positions on key areas of difference with Washington.

Here’s more about the US bill, recent tensions and the significance of cooperation between the two countries.

What is the South Africa bill in the US Congress about?

The US-South Africa Bilateral Relations Review Act was introduced in the US House on February 6.

The bill says: “In contrast to its stated stance of nonalignment, the South African Government has a history of siding with malign actors, including Hamas, a U.S. designated Foreign Terrorist Organization and a proxy of the Iranian regime, and continues to pursue closer ties with the People’s Republic of China (‘PRC’) and the Russian Federation”.

It alleges that the African National Congress (ANC) has had ties with Hamas since 1994, when the ANC party first came to power.

The bill accuses South African government members and ANC leaders of making anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel. This was in reference to a statement by the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation after the attack saying it sprung from Israel’s “continued illegal occupation of Palestine”.

The bill recounts instances of South African leaders, including Pandor, condemning Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and communicating with leaders from Hamas and Iran.

The bill also identifies South Africa’s “robust relationship with Russia” which “spans the military and political space” and the country’s interactions with the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party (CCP). China and the US are South Africa’s two biggest trading partners. In turn, South Africa is the biggest trading partner in Africa for both the US and China.

US President Joe Biden is expected to submit a report containing the findings of the reassessment of relations to the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the House and the Committee on Foreign Relations in the Senate within 120 days after — and if — the bill is enacted. The bill has not yet been voted on, but passed the House Committee of Foreign Affairs on a voice vote last week.

Could the bill break the US-South Africa relationship?

Most likely not, say experts.

“It really seems unlikely to me that this bill will pass both Houses of Congress and get signed by the president,” said Joel Samoff, a retired adjunct professor at the Center for African Studies at Stanford University. Samoff’s recent research has addressed education and politics in Africa, with a special focus on South Africa.

Samoff said both South Africa and the US view their relationship as important and that he expected they would seek to maintain it. He added that he believed Pandor’s visit to the US was aimed at soothing tensions between her country and the US.

Samoff described the US bill as a “symbolic act rather than a legislative act” introduced to signal that policymakers and legislators in Washington are “not happy that South Africa has brought a case to the International Court [of Justice]”.

He explained that this is because “politics are politics” and both countries face political pressures to move in various directions, but on a larger scale, “the relationship is important enough to protect it”.

How is South Africa responding?

Pandor visited Washington last week to discuss the tense ties with US Congress members.

In an interview with Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, Pandor said, “There’s almost an implication that when America holds a particular position, South Africa must follow,” adding that other countries that hold the same position as South Africa might not be dealt with the same way. “I don’t know whether it’s because we’re Africans or some other reason.”

She speculated that the introduction of the bill might be due to South Africa’s stance on Israel’s war on Gaza and the fact that South Africa brought a genocide case against Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on December 29, 2023.

She pointed out that Washington’s “disquiet” over South Africa taking Israel to the ICJ has been mentioned in a “number of resolutions”, citing a bipartisan letter to the Biden administration signed by 200 legislators in January “denouncing the hostile genocide allegations levied by South Africa against Israel” at ICJ.

Pandor added that the recent bill’s allegation that ANC “has some form of partnership with Hamas” is “entirely untrue”.

She added that the bill also has to do with South Africa’s non-aligned stance on Russia and Ukraine. “Our underlying fundamental philosophy in foreign policy is we always seek peace, we always seek negotiation. We are mandated by the Freedom Charter of South Africa to always pursue international peace and friendship,” Pandor said.

What other pain points have South Africa and the US had recently?

When asked by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last Tuesday how she rates the relationship between South Africa and the US on a scale of zero to 10, Pandor rated it “above six with the executive and below six with the legislators”.

Recent incidents have placed stress on the relationship of the two countries. In May 2023, the US ambassador to South Africa accused the country of providing weapons to Russia for its war against Ukraine through a cargo ship linked to a sanctioned company that docked secretly at a naval base near the city of Cape Town.

This prompted an independent investigation by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, which concluded in September 2023 that “no evidence” was found for claims that South Africa supplied weapons to Russia. Ramaphosa said the allegation “had a most damaging effect on our currency, our economy, and our standing in the world; in fact, it tarnished our image”.

In August 2023, a South African official said that the country would not give in to pressure from the US to stop using Chinese company Huawei’s equipment on its networks.

How is cooperation vital for South Africa and the US?

South Africa is the US’s largest trading partner in Africa, with $9.3bn worth of US exports going to South Africa in 2022. About 600 US businesses operate in the country. South Africa and the US have signed several cooperative trade agreements.

The US Congress approved the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in 2000. AGOA provides sub-Saharan African countries duty-free access to the US for over 1,800 products. The US has removed several countries from AGOA over rights violations such as Ethiopia, Mali and Guinea in January 2022. In October 2023, the US announced plans to remove Uganda, Gabon, Niger and the Central African Republic. These plans came into effect in January 2024. The unstated threat of potential removal from the AGOA hovers over the US-South Africa relationship, too.

But, said Samoff, “it seems unlikely, at least in the current administration, that the US would do anything to jeopardise AGOA”. While the rhetoric around the AGOA focuses on how it gives African nations easier access to the US, it also in effect makes the US a preferential market for African products.

Besides their bilateral economic relationship, the two countries have closely collaborated in other spheres — for instance, through their response to COVID-19, which included jointly launching the Global Action Plan to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The US and South Africa also partner on climate-related initiatives such as missions to reduce carbon emissions, according to the US Department of State website.

Additionally, “the US sees South Africa as an important intermediary”, said Samoff. “During the whole period in which the US was particularly unhappy with Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe, the US relied heavily on South Africa as the intermediary rather than pursuing its own direct interactions with Mugabe.”

That sentiment of trust is one that Pandor too echoed in her interview with Al Jazeera’s Hanna.

“We are an important partner for the United States of America, as they are for us,” the South African foreign minister said. “And so I do hope that we will be able to repair the relationship and continue on the established basis that we’ve built up over many years.”

Source: Al Jazeera