South Africa-US Relations: Is the love affair over?

By Asad el Malik, PhD

The intricate web of international diplomacy often sees nations entangled in a complex dance of alliances, rivalries, and shifting allegiances. At the heart of such diplomatic intricacies lies the delicate relationship between the United States and South Africa, a relationship recently tested by a series of contentious events on the global stage.

In December 2022, US Ambassador Reuben Brigety ignited a diplomatic firestorm when he alleged that South Africa had facilitated the transfer of weapons and ammunition to Russia, a country under sanctions, through the Simon’s Town naval base near Cape Town. The South African government swiftly denied these accusations, but the incident cast a shadow over bilateral ties, adding fuel to existing tensions.

South Africa’s stance on global conflicts further strained relations with the US and other Western nations. Amid the war in Ukraine, South Africa’s decision to abstain from a UN vote condemning Russia’s invasion raised eyebrows and drew criticism. Critics argued that South Africa’s subsequent actions, including hosting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for talks and permitting joint naval drills with Russian and Chinese warships, hinted at tacit support for Moscow, further complicating its relationship with the West.

South Africa’s historical solidarity with the Palestinian cause, dating back to the era of Nelson Mandela, adds another layer of complexity to its foreign relations. This complexity came to bare in October 2023, as tensions between Israel and Palestine escalated into a devastating conflict. Israel’s extensive military operation in Gaza drew condemnation from South Africa, which subsequently took the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing Israel of genocide. 

The ICJ’s ruling in January 2024 instructed Israel to adhere to international norms of warfare, but stopped short of addressing South Africa’s call for a ceasefire or passing judgment on allegations of genocide.

South Africa’s actions on the global stage have not gone unnoticed by its allies, particularly the United States, which considers Israel one of its closest partners. Washington vehemently rejected South Africa’s accusations of Israeli genocide in Gaza, labeling them as unfounded and meritless. The US National Security Council dismissed South Africa’s ICJ submission as lacking credibility, further straining bilateral relations.

Complicating matters further is South Africa’s involvement in BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), a bloc often viewed as a counterweight to Western influence. In August 2023, South Africa’s hosting of a BRICS summit raised eyebrows, particularly as Russian President Vladimir Putin was expected to attend. However, Putin’s absence, prompted by an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court, underscored the delicate balancing act faced by South Africa on the global stage.

The diplomatic rift between the United States and South Africa was further exacerbated by a scathing article published in The Wall Street Journal in March 2024. The article accused South Africa of aligning with Hamas and criticized its ties to Russia and China, portraying the nation as moving away from Western interests. This sentiment was echoed in proposed legislation, the US-South Africa Bilateral Relations Review Act, which questioned South Africa’s foreign policy decisions and accused it of siding with US adversaries.

Furthermore, South Africa’s participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a preferential trade program with the US, underscores the economic stakes in bilateral relations. While concerns over potential exclusion from AGOA loom large, recent analysis by the Brookings Institute suggests that the economic impact may be manageable, albeit not insignificant. According to Brookings “the impact of a loss of AGOA on exports and gross domestic product (GDP) would be small…South Africa’s total exports to the U.S. would fall by about 2.7%. Certain sectors would be more affected than others. The biggest losses would be felt by the food and beverages sector, with exports to the U.S. expected to fall by 16%, and the transport equipment sector, forecasted to drop by 13%. The third and fourth biggest losses would be felt by the fruit and vegetable sector (-4.5%) and the leather and clothing sector (-3.6%).”

Despite these diplomatic challenges, South African leaders have reiterated their commitment to maintaining a strategic alliance with the United States. However, navigating the murky waters of international diplomacy requires deft maneuvering and a delicate balancing act, as South Africa seeks to assert its interests on the global stage while managing its relationships with key allies.