OPINION | A diplomatic row brewing between the US and South Africa: Abbey Makoe

A diplomatic row is brewing between the US and South Africa at a time when stark geopolitical differences have caused the two strategic powers to drift apart in recent times.

The US is known to frown upon SA’s non-aligned stance in the Ukraine war, blatantly refusing to join the US-led condemnation of Russia including imposition of economic sanctions against Moscow.

At the UN General Assembly over the past year, SA has been among the 40 countries to steadfastly reject Washington’s concerted pressure to condemn Russia. The others among the 40 include China and India, two key figures who share a strategic alliance with Russia in BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA).

This has caused the administration of President Joe Biden to press reset in Washington’s bilateral relations with Pretoria, carefully electing a benign approach in dealing with SA instead of the regular gung-ho diplomacy.

As SA’s diplomatic posture continue to lean towards the East, notably cementing closer ties with both China and Russia, so does relations between the US and SA continue to grow frosty. In the latest episode, the SA government has been incensed by the apparent uncalled-for interference in the internal affairs of the country as a US NGO recently attempted to force granting of asylum to nearly two dozen Afghan refugee seekers.

An irate Home Affairs minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi is of the view that the US NGO – thus far unnamed in the media release – is taking advantage of SA’s liberal justice system and undermines the country’s sovereignty.

As things stand, the High Court in Pretoria is expected to rule soon on the saga after the matter was heard in court at the beginning of the week. Judgement has been reserved.

If the court rules against the government, it would be tantamount to being lectured by a US entity on how to apply local immigration laws, something that would never happen in the US that a foreign pressure group should haul a government department before courts on similar grounds.

Minister Motsoaledi explained, “On the 14th, our officials in Beitbridge received a letter written by a firm of lawyers saying that they have clients that are coming, 22 of them. We are warning them that you must be given a transit visa to enter South Africa and apply for asylum. They never named the clients, they didn’t even mention where they come from. While the people there were still surprised, 22 people arrived and said they’re from Afghanistan and they want to enter the country, their lawyers have given us prior notice and they were carrying visa from Zimbabwe.”

According to Minister Motsoaledi, this matter first came to their attention in 2021. The information was that the Afghan nationals needed to be vetted in SA whilst en route to the US. The matter disappeared, only to resurface recently.

The 22 Afghan nationals remain on the Zimbabwean side of Beitbridge border post whilst the SA government fight in the courts to deny them entry.

Although Minister Motsoaledi was careful not to lambaste the US government outright, he was nonetheless scathing on the lawyers for the unnamed US NGO, saying “they are definitely undermining us. They believe we are nothing.”

He added, “This is what I call legal ambush, where people manipulate the law, and they manipulate legal processes of the law.”

Clayson Monyela, a senior official at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) also took to Twitter to decry “the legal ambush”. He wrote, “There’s 22 Afghans who rocked up at Beitbridge with tourists visas issued by Zambia and asking to enter SA as asylum seekers. We refused and now an American-based NGO has taken government to court. Surely, Zambia and America are options. Why SA? Our asylum system is being abused! No!”

This week, Minister Motsoaledi elaborated, “Yesterday, they (the US NGO) went to court to get an interim order that we must allow these people to come in, the return date is on the 7th of March.”

Of course, the outcome of this case will have far-reaching implications beyond the court room and the Home Affairs department corridors. No matter how much spin could be applied to molly-coddle the US-SA relations, the trust deficit in their bilateral ties has been on a downward spiral for a while.

The Biden administration regards Africa slightly better than the Trump administration did before. However, the objective remains the same – to counter China’s rise in the continent coupled with strong traditional ties that hordes of African states has with Russia.

China’s economic muscle in Africa and across the world is a matter of grave concern to the US, whose global dominance is in jeopardy amid the rapidly-changing international relations.

Only this week, Chinese diplomat Zhao Zhiyuan announced through his twitter handle, “It gives me great pleasure that from March 1, 2023. China will offer zero-tariff treatment to 98% of the tariff line, with 8,804 items of products originating from Ethiopia.”

This happens in the aftermath of the suspension of Ethiopia’s duty-free access to AGOA by the US.

AGOA is acronym for the African Growth and Opportunity Act. It is a US trade act first enacted in May 2000. Its key objective is to “significantly enhance market access to the US for qualifying Sub-Saharan African countries”.

The qualification criteria are stringent. The AGOA eligibility requirements include Africa’s re-alignment with America’s growing anti-China foreign policy objectives.

As for Russia, a special piece of legislation better-known as “Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act” is in place to keep African states in America’s straight and narrow. Punishments for any African country the US find to be in cahoots with Russia include economic sanctions and international isolation. This threat is made more real by most of Europe’s Monkey-see, Monkey-do approach to diplomatic engagement with the African continent.


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