SA foreign policy must be more than a consensus between Washington

Minister Lindiwe Sisulu with her deputy ministers, Luwellyn Landers and Reginah Mhaule, during her departments budget vote media briefing at Parliament in Cape Town.Picture: Jacoline Schoonees/Dirco

Nelson Mandela, whose centenary of birth we celebrate this year, is said to have often annoyed the United States. As revered as the elder statesman was, he would often land the US president at the time, Bill Clinton, or certain members of Congress, in a precarious position as he pounced on them unexpectedly and pushed a particular line which often was in contrast to theirs.

Cuba, Libya, Palestine, Iraq were all principled policy positions that Madiba took in order to ensure that the new South Africa’s foreign policy would not be determined by anyone else but by South Africa. 

In October 1997, the US administration, then still under Bill Clinton, who counted much on Madiba’s support during his impeachment process, let it be known that it would be very disappointed if Madiba pursued his visit to Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. In response, Madiba simply declared: “How can they have the arrogance to dictate to us who our friends should be?”

However, the relationship between SA and the US became even more frosty once Clinton and Madiba had left office. For example, there was no working relationship between Dick Cheney and Jacob Zuma as there had been between Thabo Mbeki and Al Gore. It does not seem that the US-SA Bilateral Commission, initiated under the Mandela presidency, has been championed by Kgalema Motlanthe or Cyril Ramaphosa and Joe Biden. 

The article, “How the US and South Africa became friends again”, published by the “Mail and Guardian” in September 2014, among others on US-SA relations since 1994, drew a strong rebuke from former president, Thabo Mbeki, in his response to the article, “Suggestions of SA-US conflict are a fabrication” also published by the “Mail and Guardian” in October 2014. Mbeki, in his response to Pillay, was at pains to explain the very cordial and working relations his administration enjoyed with the George W. Bush administration in particular.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, President Mbeki suggested that instead “…the three most challenging differences between us [SA] and the US arose during the years of the Clinton administration…” and not the Bush years. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), from which South Africa benefits but which certainly has come under review, was one of these three differences.

Fast forward to 2018 and we have another GOP president heading a US administration. President Donald J. Trump’s interaction with South Africa and Africa in general has certainly come under scrutiny as has his comments about what he thought of African countries as well as his tweet about South Africa’s land reform process. 

At the same time, the administration, from a much more broader perspective, has indicated that it certainly will assess and amend, if needs be, the relationship it has with countries whom it supports with trade and aid but who do not support the US, especially at international fora such as the United Nations. Already, South Africa has been pointed out as a country who is one of those countries who have a very low record of supporting the US, a continuation certainly of the Madiba independent foreign policy, and this record will come under more scrutiny as South Africa takes up another term on the UN Security Council.

However, what all of this does seem to spell is that, unlike the Bush Jr administration, the Trump administration does not seem to take Africa and the issues of the continent seriously. For example, President Mbeki pointed out that while President George W. Bush had initiated Pepfar (US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief), his secretary for health and human services at the time, Tommy G. Thompson, came to South Africa in 2002 and worked with Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, our minister of health at the time, in order to agree to and implement “a comprehensive joint programme against HIV and AIDS…”. This was the finer detail extent to which the Bush administration was interested in. 

Africa though does not seem to be high up on the agenda of making America great again. While Trump’s foreign policy hitherto seems to have been to reconfigure alliances and trade agreements, Africa has been shelved. The recent talk of the nomination of a luxury handbag designer as the US ambassador to South Africa indicates the sobriety, or maybe lack thereof, with which the Trump administration views this appointment and our country. 

Patrick Gaspard, the last US ambassador, now serves as the president of the Open Society Foundations and prior to his departure for Pretoria was a well known White House figure as well as having served as executive director of the Democratic National Committee from 2011 to 2013.

Donald Gips, Gasper’s predecessor, among others served on the advisory board of Barak Obama’s transition team while also having a stint on Al Gore’s staff as chief domestic policy advisor. Eric Bost, who had served before Gips, was an undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. It was during this time, as undersecretary, that he led the expansion of the US initiative to improve nutrition and food security in eight African countries and 18 countries in total.

Before being appointed as ambassador to South Africa, Professor Jendayi Fraser, was special assailant to President George W. Bush and senior director for African affairs on the US National Security Council. She is the first woman to have served as US ambassador to South Africa whilst going on to be US assistant secretary of state for African affairs (deputy-minister) in the Bush administration. She is regarded as an  expert in African and security affairs. 

Since 1994, South Africa has had eight US ambassadors, six were political appointees and ranked high in the echelons of political circles in the US. The rumoured new ambassador to be nominated by the Trump administration has studied ballet and it is yet to be verified if she actually played tennis at Wimbledon, in the French and South African Open. The only experience she has of international relations is probably her international business and that she has lived in Bermuda while having been born in East London. She is a neighbour of President Trump in Palm Beach.

One cannot see how the US is even attempting to thaw its relations with South Africa through this appointment. Meanwhile the former head of the CIA and now secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is on a “fact finding mission” to “closely study the South African land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers…” – a premise devoid of any truth. 

Furthermore, the office of the first lady of the US is often delegated the items on the shelve that the administration itself is not too keen on. If the Trump administration is interested, as they are in Saudi Arabia, Israel, NATO, Russia, China and North Korea, then the president himself would visit those countries and continents, as we have witnessed. Yet Africa is relegated to the office of the first lady, not even the secretary of state. 

As much as President Mbeki defended South Africa’s relationship with the US during his time in office, he also made known that South Africa kept to the principle enunciated by Madiba. We will determine our own foreign policy and in particular we will keep and make our own friends. The US has shown more recently that it simply does not want to be a friend of South Africa and as a consequence our foreign policy we must be able to mitigate this as we did during the days of Madiba.


Wesley Seale is a PhD Candidate at Beijing University in China