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Warning shot fired — top US congressmen urge Biden to move AGOA forum away from South Africa

Warning shot fired — top US congressmen urge Biden to move AGOA forum away from South Africa
Senator Chris Coons

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Published date:
Monday, 12 June 2023
Peter Fabricius

Powerful leaders of the US Congress have called on the Biden administration to move this year’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) forum from South Africa to another African country because of South Africa’s perceived support of Russia in its war against Ukraine. 

The letter from top legislators of both the Democratic and Republican parties is the first clear and concrete sign of possible US retaliation to Pretoria’s stance on Russia’s war against Ukraine which has been controversial in the US and other Western countries.

The appeal to the Biden administration to punish SA cites, among things, US intelligence that the US-sanctioned Russian cargo ship Lady R uploaded arms for Russia in Simons Town naval base in December.

President Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Vincent Magwenya told Daily Maverick that the claims in the letter were unsubstantiated and that the circumstances of the docking of the Lady R vessel were being investigated by a panel headed by retired judge Phineas Mojapelo.

Magwenya added that SA had been active in seeking a peaceful resolution of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, including through engaging the US, Russia and Ukraine and also through the African Leaders Peace Mission which Ramaphosa is part of. 

The Congressmen’s letter also suggests South Africa is about to lose its Agoa benefits altogether for supposedly jeopardising US national security and foreign policy interests. 

Magwenya said any punitive trade action against SA would be based on “hysteria, hearsay, and contempt for South Africa’s sovereignty.”

US allies to South Africa in doubt

Particularly worrying though for South Africa is that one of the four signatories of the letter is Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat, who has long been a friend to South Africa. His signature on the letter which is addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and president Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan, is likely to lend particular weight to the call to move the Agoa summit.

The other congressional leaders who signed the letter are Republican Michael Mccaul, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs; Senator Jim Risch, the senior Republican of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations; and Gregory Meeks, the senior Democrat in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. 

Though Coons is also on the Senate foreign affairs committee, he significantly signed the letter as chairman of the subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related matters of the powerful committee on appropriations. 

The legislators noted that Agoa — which gives eligible African countries privileged access to the lucrative US market, is the “cornerstone of the United States economic relationship with Sub- Saharan Africa” and that they strongly support the re-authorisation of Agoa well ahead of its expiry in 2025. 

“However, we wish to express serious concerns with current plans to host this year’s Agoa Forum in South Africa.”

Lady R making waves

The four legislators said despite the SA government’s formally neutral stance on Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, Pretoria had deepened its military relationship with Russia over the past year. 

“Late last year, a Russian cargo vessel subject to US sanctions docked in South Africa’s largest naval port, and intelligence suggests that the South African government used this opportunity to covertly supply Russia with arms and ammunition that could be used in its illegal war in Ukraine. 

“In February, South Africa held joint military exercises with Russia and China, and in April, authorized a Russian military cargo plane also subject to US sanctions — to land at a South African air force base. 

“On top of this, in August, South Africa will host the BRICS Summit where the government aims to strengthen its ties with China and Russia and is working to facilitate the participation of Russian president Vladimir Putin, despite the outstanding arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“We are seriously concerned that hosting the 2023 Agoa Forum in South Africa would serve as an implicit endorsement of South Africa’s damaging support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and possible violation of US sanctions law. 

“Further, these actions by South Africa call into question its eligibility for trade benefits under Agoa due to the statutory requirement that beneficiary countries not engage in activities that undermine United States national security or foreign policy interests. “

The legislators said while the Agoa eligibility review process for 2024 was still underway and that decisions had not yet been made, “we question whether a country in danger of losing Agoa benefits should have the privilege of hosting the 2023 Agoa Forum.

“Our concerns are shared by many South African citizens and businesses, who are increasingly vocal about deteriorating conditions in the country.

“We encourage you to explore other possible locations to host this year’s forum,” the letter says.

Having called on the Biden administration to shift the Agoa forum from SA, the four Congressmen then seemed to offer Pretoria a possible reprieve when it adds; “If South Africa continues to demonstrate support for Russia in its unlawful invasion of Ukraine, then hosting the forum in another country in Sub-Saharan Africa would send a clear and important message that the United States continues to stand with Ukraine and will not accept our trading partners provision of aid to Russia’s ongoing and brutal invasion.”

Another noteworthy aspect of the letter is that it does not seem to question the allegations that the Russian cargo ship Lady R uploaded arms bound for Russia when it docked at the Simon Town naval base in December 2022. US ambassador to SA Reuben Brigety caused a huge stir when he publicly made that allegation to journalists last month. 

There have been some suggestions that Brigety stepped out of line from Washington on these allegations but Congress at least seem to agree with him. The Biden administration has remained silent. 

Magwenya said; “The contents of the letter disturbingly consist of unsubstantiated claims. The circumstances of the docking of the Lady R vessel are being investigated. 

“The US lawmakers have no proof of what they are claiming nor have they submitted any evidence in this regard. US intelligence services have also failed to submit any evidence to support their claims. 

“We hope the evidence US intelligence services purport to have will be submitted to the inquiry panel led by retired Judge Mojapelo. 

“From the onset of the Ukraine conflict, South Africa has sought the de-escalation of the conflict. South Africa has not armed any of the parties in the conflict. Instead, South Africa has been active in the search for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. “We’ve had numerous bilateral engagements with the US, which have been positive and fruitful. We have respected the US position on the conflict as much as it has respected ours. 

“President Biden encouraged President Ramaphosa to use his access to both presidents [Volodymyr] Zelensky and [Vladimir] Putin to advocate for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The African Leaders Peace Mission, which South Africa has championed, has received support from all concerned stakeholders. 

“Therefore, any punitive trade action against South Africa will be based on hysteria, hearsay, and contempt for South Africa’s sovereignty. In the conduct of foreign policy, the government will always act in accordance with the prescripts of our constitution and laws.”

Magwenya did not mention that Ramaphosa is evidently seeking an alternative to Putin visiting SA for the BRICS summit in August, either by holding it online or by moving it to another BRICS, country, such as China. This could partly address the concerns raised by the US legislators.

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