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South Africa's champion in the US, Congressman Ed Royce, takes a bow

Thursday, 01 November 2018 Published: | Peter Fabricius

Source: Daily Maverick

The outgoing chairman of the US House Foreign Relations Committee is doing South Africa one more favour before he lays down the gavel.  

US Congressman Ed Royce has been South Africa’s champion in America since he met Madiba in 1997.

So it’s not surprising that he’s once again on the case, using his considerable influence in Washington to try to overturn the punitive tariffs which the Trump administration slapped on imports of South African steel and aluminium in March 2018.

Royce, a California Republican who chairs the powerful House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee, told Daily Maverick last week that he shared South Africa’s own view that it is “an innocent bystander” in the growing trade war between the US and China and so should not be injured in the crossfire between the two global economic giants.

Royce said he had just spoken to Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies about it.

“I think the steps we are taking will hopefully be fruitful in resolving this situation. I wrote a letter to the administration explaining the adverse consequences of some of these steps,” Royce said, adding that there had been some progress in resolving the problem.

This seems to be the case for South Africa. Last week the US Commerce Department exempted 161 aluminium and 36 steel products from the “Section 232” import tariffs — 25% on steel and 10% on aluminium — which President Donald Trump had imposed in March “for national security purposes”.

Davies told Daily Maverick the concessions by the US were “significant”, but some South African exports were still subject to the tariffs. He thanked members of the US Congress, among others, for their help in winning the exemptions.

Trump’s import tariffs on South African steel and aluminium also threaten the country’s participation in the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa). This gives eligible sub-Saharan African countries — including South Africa — duty- and quota-free access to the lucrative US market for most of their exports.

South Africa has done very well from Agoa, especially in exports of cars, wine and fruit. But it was provisionally suspended from some Agoa benefits in 2016 because of the steep tariffs it was itself imposing on imports of US meat, mainly chicken. Eventually Pretoria granted the US poultry producers a 65,000-ton annual quota of chicken exports exempt from the high tariffs and this restored South Africa’s full Agoa rights.

But South African poultry producers recently went to court to demand an end to the US poultry import quota on the grounds that the US was not sticking to its side of the bargain because of the Section 232 steel and aluminium tariffs, some of which should be covered by Agoa.

If the US chicken quota is withdrawn, the US could retaliate by denying South Africa Agoa benefits. 

The US Commerce Department’s exemptions from some of those steel and aluminium tariffs last week could help the South African government defeat the SA poultry producers in court by showing that the US is still respecting the 2016 deal. That could in turn save South Africa’s AGOA benefits.

Royce is very alive to the threat to SA’s Agoa benefits since he himself was a co-sponsor of Agoa when it was passed in 2000 and he remains perhaps its greatest champion.

Royce regards it as one of the signal achievements of his 26 years in the House of Representatives, most of them devoted to Africa and to wider foreign relations. He joined the Africa sub-committee immediately after being elected to Congress in 1992, became chairman of the sub-committee in 1996 and held that job for eight years. Then he joined the full Foreign Relations Committee, which he has chaired for the last six years.

But sadly, he is not seeking re-election next week and will retire on 2 January 2019, because, he says, he has “termed out” as Foreign Relations Committee chair.

Royce was in South Africa last week partly to receive Stellenbosch University’s Pro Bene Merito Medal for championing Africa’s cause. The university said it “only makes the award in very special circumstances for exceptional service to the university or society — especially in Africa — which could be at a local or international level.”

ed royce stellenbosch AGOA 900

Representative Ed Royce (third from right) at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. 

 

Looking back on those 26 years, Royce said:

“A great deal of my focus was on opportunity, here in Africa, and creating an environment where Africa would have access to exporting to the US; on steps we could take to put Africa on the map for US trade and investment.

“And I was very impressed here in my first meeting with Nelson Mandela in 1997. The vision he had for South Africa with respect to democracy, human rights and a rules-based system here that would be fair for and create opportunities for generations of Africans, was an inspiring one.” 

“So as a consequence of that initial trip, I was involved in passing out of the Africa sub-committee which I chaired at the time, the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act; I was writing that in a bipartisan coalition.”

In 2015 he led Congress again in extending Agoa to 2025. He is proud that Agoa has increased South Africa’s wine exports to the US fivefold since 2000. 

“And Africa now dominates the US import market for oranges.”

Sales of South African-made cars and car parts to the US had also boomed.

“Electrify Africa, another piece of legislation I shepherded through, was focused on creating 20,000 new megawatts of electricity on the continent every year.” 

It also helped improve health, reducing exposure of Africans to dirty fuels such as charcoal. 

And his latest initiative was the Build Act which was passed in 2018 and doubles the amount of money — from $29-billion to $60-billion — that the US government can spend in backing private investment in developing countries, mainly for infrastructure projects, especially power generation. It also enables the US government to make equity investments in such projects.

And Royce noted that he had always focused on the sustainability of such investments for Africa which was why he had sponsored legislation to protect threatened species such as rhinos and elephants because expanding tourism was key to economic growth in many African countries, including South Africa. 

Many critics believe the Trump administration lacks a coherent Africa policy. Royce does not agree or disagree, but says that for 21 years he and other members of Congress have taken the lead in creating a bipartisan US Africa policy and then winning support for it from successive administrations. 

This included winning President Bill Clinton’s support for Agoa, President George Bush’s support for the Presidential Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) and President Barack Obama’s support for Electrify Africa, which he said had succeeded Obama’s complementary Power Africa initiative. 

He noted that the Build Act had been passed under the Trump administration, for which it had also been a budget priority.

Many South Africans feel Trump’s failure to appoint an ambassador to South Africa since he came into office 21 months ago is a snub. Royce suggested not, saying that the process of appointing ambassadors was long and complicated in the US. He added that in the meantime the US acting ambassador — or chargé d’affairs — Jessye Lapenn — “is really exceptional” and that the Pretoria embassy “is one of the most engaged that I have worked with in trying to bring more US business into South Africa”.

The preferred nominee for ambassador is rumoured to be South African-born US businesswoman Lana Marks.

Royce thought Trump’s now infamous Tweet asking his Secretary of State to investigate land seizures from white farmers and “large scale killing of farmers” was “not helpful”.

“It’s a delicate issue. I’ve been encouraged with my discussions here with leaders in agriculture and leaders in business who are working on ways to resolve and address this issue.”

Asked if he thought there was a need for land reform, Royce answered:

“I would say there’s an opportunity for reform. There’s many ways to do it. But if you have all stakeholders at the table, working together, you end up with a much greater prospect of coming up with a solution that works for everyone and continues to bring in investment into South Africa.” 

Based on his conversations, he said he was “very encouraged” this was happening. 

In July 2018 US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley hinted that the US might cut aid to countries which vote against that country at the UN. She listed SA among the 10 countries which had most often voted against US positions.

Royce clearly doesn’t believe that aid should be tied to a country’s support for America’s UN positions in this way.

“It’s engagement that is most important,” he said. “So my focus has always been on what we can do to engage, to discuss these issues and try to resolve them.”

Though he and Trump have disagreed markedly on a few key issues, he has in fact voted with Trump 97.8% of the time, according to the tracking website FiveThirtyEight. Royce suggests that in part this has been because he has been pragmatic, for example in establishing policy like the Build Act and persuading the administration sign up to it.

He sees his role as “influencing the process” or “shaping the outcome” as exemplified also by his effort to win exemptions for South Africa from Trump’s aluminium and steel tariffs.

Though his disagreements with Trump have been few, they have mostly been on big foreign policy issues. 

Where Trump has tried to personally woo or charm America’s historic foes, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Royce has led the charge in Congress to stick to orthodox US policy by maintaining economic pressure on both. 

He and Trump had disagreed because “I’m the one that authored that sanctions bill”, he said, referring to the act which imposed sanctions on Putin and Russia for allegedly interfering in America’s 2016 presidential and legislative elections.

“And the legislation on North Korea, that was my legislation. I’ve worked on North Korea for 40-some years. The sanctions we currently have in place on North Korea and the fact that we kept those sanctions in place — kept the pressure on North Korea — is pressure I’m applying. And I would add that in shepherding those bills through my committee, I have kept a bipartisan coalition.”

Royce continued to hold Trump’s feet to the fire by leading the Foreign Relations Committee in badgering him to impose additional sanctions on Putin for Russia’s alleged poisoning of the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK, using the Russian nerve agent Novichok. 

“I think the important point is that we have the sanctions working against Russia as we speak, putting inordinate pressure on that regime. And at the same time I’ve been in consultation with our allies in Europe and our friends around the world. 

“And I think we will continue to keep that pressure up until we see a change in the attempts to interfere in elections whether in the United States or across Europe.”

Royce said he was concerned with the attacks by authoritarian regimes on the values both he and Mandela stood for: Democracy, human rights and the rule of law. 

“And it needs to be addressed, and addressed forcefully.”

The world needed to keep working together in order to send a clear message. 

“It’s what young people all over this globe, including in Russia, need to see and to hear.”

It seems extraordinary that it is Royce rather than Trump who is rallying America’s historic allies in Europe and elsewhere to maintain their broad alliance against Russia, in particular in defence of America’s fundamental values. That surely should be the role of the president.

Clearly it is Congress, though, not the White House, which is holding the historic US policy line, not only on Africa but also on global policy, assuming the responsibility to maintain the traditional Western coalition, which Trump is abandoning, including by his frequent disparagement of the Nato alliance?

Royce does not disagree. 

“I passed through my committee a unanimous resolution in support of Nato. So we continue to send a unanimous bipartisan message from the House.”

As his letter opposing Trump’s global steel and aluminium import tariffs suggests, Royce also differs fundamentally with Trump on free trade. Royce is a free trader.

By embarking on an open-ended trade war with China and by reversing free trade deals, many analysts fear Trump is jeopardising the international trading system and the international economic order, threatening a global depression.

Royce agrees with Trump as far as China goes, though. 

“The real culprit from my perspective, and I have been involved in these issues for 26 years, has been that Beijing is not following a rules-based system.”

Royce has been trying to build a global coalition to achieve a trading system which protects the environment, workers’ rights and the rule of law. The World Trade Organisation needs to be given an enforcement capability to deal with “one member (China) … that routinely breaks the rules and then does not comply with the adjudication, with the remedy”. 

Royce and Congress have also kept Trump honest in the US response to the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. Trump has typically oscillated between appeasement and condemnation, expressing concerns that the US could lose $110-billion in arms sales if it is too tough on Riyadh.

But Royce has again been very clear. 

“First of all you have to be forthright in terms of the murder, which we were,” he says, explaining how he and the top Democrat in the Foreign Relations Committee wrote to Trump three weeks ago, urging the administration to conduct an expeditious investigation. That could lead to sanctions against the Saudi officials involved for human rights violations under the Global Magnitsky Act.

The Administration has 120 days to report back to Congress on its investigation.

Royce says “to a certain extent” Trump faces a genuine foreign policy dilemma, given the importance of Saudi Arabia to US foreign policy and economic interests.

“But the main point is you have to enforce law. And there has to be accountability. And the perpetrators of murder, in this case of a journalist who had residence in the United States, have to be brought to the bar of justice. And there needs to be an investigation and a full accounting. And the truth… and consequences will follow.”

Royce explains why he’s leaving Congress:

“I’ve termed out as chairman of the foreign affairs committee. I will lose the gavel on January 2nd.”

House Republicans have a six-year term limit on committee chairmanships. And Royce makes it clear that Africa and wider foreign policy became his reason for serving in Congress.

“I’ve worked all my life on this,” he says, recalling his 26 years on first the Africa sub-committee and then the full Foreign Relations Committee.

He will be hard to replace.

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