Ramaphosa delegation in the US to persuade Washington not to drop South Africa’s trade benefits

Ramaphosa delegation in the US to persuade Washington not to drop South Africa’s trade benefits
President Joe Biden shakes hands with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Sept. 16, 2022
Published date:
Thursday, 27 April 2023
Peter Fabricius

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s national security adviser Sydney Mufamadi is in Washington at the head of a delegation lobbying the Biden administration and congressional leaders.

This comes amid concerns that South Africa’s controversial stance on Russia’s war against Ukraine is jeopardising SA’s economic and political relations with America.

Sydney Mufamadi’s team is likely to focus its efforts on trying to ensure that South Africa is not expelled from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), a US law that gives duty- and quota-free access to the US market for selected African countries, including South Africa.

The law is due to be extended or terminated in 2025, and there are growing concerns SA could be ejected then – or even before. 

Mufamadi, with Ramaphosa’s legal adviser Nokukhanya Jele, and deputy minister of international relations and cooperation Alvin Botes, are meeting their administration “counterparts” as well as congressional leaders, probably including the Congressional Black Caucus, Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Vincent Magwenya confirmed to Daily Maverick.

His confirmation that Mufamadi’s delegation would meet “counterparts” suggested they would meet President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, among others, but Magwenya did not specifically confirm that.

Magwenya said the delegation would discuss a wide range of issues in the relationship, including the upcoming negotiations on South Africa’s continued participation in Agoa – which gives SA privileged access to the lucrative market – and also the 2023 Agoa summit which is due to be hosted by South Africa during the second half of the year.

Magwenya said many other aspects of relations between SA and the US would also be discussed, many of them follow-ups to the discussions Ramaphosa had with President Biden in the White House last September. These would include US offers to support the fight against insurgents in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo, differences over US sanctions against Zimbabwe, increased US tariffs on SA steel imports and the US offer to support the SA National School of Government, which trains public servants.

Magwenya said the delegation was just part of the ongoing relationship with the US and suggested there was no particular concern in Pretoria which had motivated sending a special delegation to Washington.

However, US sources have said there is a growing concern in the US, particularly in Congress, about SA’s failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a perception that SA is drifting further into the Russia-China camp at a time when Washington’s relations with those two countries are becoming more tense and competitive.

These sources had said that these concerns were crystallising around SA’s participation in Agoa, which facilitated an extra $3-billion of SA exports to the US last year, much of it in manufacturing and other value-added goods which help create jobs in SA.

BRICS-Putin triangle

The Agoa summit in SA was originally scheduled for September, but US sources said recently that concerns had been growing about it being held so soon after the BRICS summit which SA will host towards the end of August.

The sources were saying if the Agoa summit was held just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin had visited South Africa, many US congressional leaders would not attend the Agoa summit. That could jeopardise SA’s continued participation in Agoa, as it is Congress that decides which African countries qualify for Agoa’s benefits.

It would be particularly offensive to these congressional leaders to visit SA if Pretoria had just allowed Putin to visit the country in defiance of a request from the International Criminal Court (ICC) to SA to arrest and surrender the Russian leader, the sources said. The ICC has indicted him and issued a warrant for his arrest for the alleged war crime of abducting Ukrainian children and deporting them to Russia.

Sources have told Daily Maverick that the Agoa summit has been postponed to November to try to avoid the proximity with the BRICS summit, but US concerns about Putin visiting SA remain.

Recently, Republican members of the US House of Representatives – which is now controlled by the Republicans – drafted a resolution condemning SA’s ever-closer ties with Russia and China, and called on the US administration to review US relations with South Africa, and in particular, the benefits which SA derives from Agoa.

Magwenya also played down these concerns. He said no one should be basing any decisions yet on Putin’s attendance at the BRICS summit, as attendance at the summit had not been finalised.

Though all BRICS leaders had been invited to the summit, he noted that Ramaphosa had also announced that South Africa was still considering how it would deal with the fact that the ICC had issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest and was “looking at all permutations” to address the issue.

Magwenya also downplayed the resolution on SA drafted by the House of Representatives Republicans, saying it had not even been tabled yet and was merely a proposal that had been circulated. “And as far as we know, it’s not going very far.”

He said Biden had shown an appreciation for SA’s position on Russia and the historical reasons for it when he met Ramaphosa in the White House last year. 

“He also appreciated that President Ramaphosa has an open line to President Putin, which he has consistently used to tell him the conflict needs to be resolved peacefully and soon.”

The US also appreciated that Ramaphosa had an open line to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“So while there may be discomfort by the US that we have chosen to be non-aligned in this conflict, there is an appreciation that we can get messages to both Putin and Zelensky.”

Magwenya said while some members of the US establishment might feel differently from the Biden administration, “we didn’t walk away from Washington last year with the sense that the US would adopt any punitive measures that would undermine our relationship. And since then we have seen no signs pointing in that direction.”

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