Nelson Mandela is said to have often annoyed the US. 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 pushed a particular line which often was in contrast to theirs.
Cuba, Libya, Palestine and 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 but South Africa.
In October 1997, the US administration, then still under Clinton, who counted 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. Madiba responded: “How can they have the arrogance to dictate to us who our friends should be?”
The relationship between South Africa and the US became frostier once Clinton and Madiba left office. 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, Cyril Ramaphosa or Joe Biden.
The article, “How the US and South Africa became friends again”, published by the Mail and Guardian in September 2014 on US-SA relations since 1994, drew a strong rebuke from Mbeki in his response, “Suggestions of SA-US conflict are a fabrication”. Mbeki was at pains to explain the very cordial working relations his administration enjoyed with the George W Bush administration in particular.
In fact, contrary to popular belief, Mbeki suggested that instead “ the three most challenging differences between us (South Africa) 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 this year, and we have another Republican president heading a US administration. President Donald 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 broader perspective, has indicated that it certainly will assess and amend, if needs be, the relationship it has with countries it supports with trade and aid but which don’t support the US, especially at international forums such as the UN.
Already, South Africa has been pointed out as a country with 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 seriously.
For example, Mbeki pointed out that while Bush had initiated Pepfar (US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief), his secretary for health and human services at the time, Tommy 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 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.
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 has studied ballet and it is yet to be verified if she actually played tennis at Wimbledon. 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 Trump in Palm Beach, California.
One can’t see how the US is even attempting to thaw its relations with South Africa through this appointment. Meanwhile, a former head of the CIA and now secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is on a “fact-finding mission” to “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 that the administration 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 would visit those countries himself. Yet Africa is relegated to the office of the first lady, not even the secretary of state.
As much as 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 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 doing his PhD in China-South Africa relations at Beijing Foreign Studies University. The Chinese expert is not named in this article due to the fact that her permission to be named was not sought but is known to the author.
Article initially appeared in the Pretoria News