A bipartisan group of US lawmakers has asked the Biden administration to punish South Africa for what it sees as the country’s support of Russia’s war in Ukraine through a major trade conference to be held in South Africa this year, to move to another country.
The request, made in a letter sent last week, is the first concrete attempt at retaliation by members of the US administration over the growing view in Washington that South Africa’s relationship with Russia is evolving in a direction that undermines national interests. America threatens.
The letter, obtained by NewsMadura, is about an annual forum for the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA. The law provides duty-free access to the US trade market for about three dozen African countries. South Africa, one of the continent’s most developed economies, is the largest beneficiary, exporting about $3 billion worth of goods to the United States through AGOA last year.
US officials have said intelligence suggests South Africa may have helped supply Russia with arms for the war. South African officials say the country is “non-aligned” in the conflict and deny selling weapons to Russia.
US lawmakers and the Biden administration disagree on how to respond to the suspicion.
While both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have said it is time for South Africa, usually a strong US ally, to face the consequences, the White House has taken a wait-and-see approach to allow President Cyril Ramaphosa to to fulfill its promise to investigate whether weapons were indeed delivered.
The AGOA Forum, which alternates locations each year between the United States and an African country, aims to deepen diplomatic and economic ties between America and the continent.
Forum aside, the bigger concern for South Africa is that it could lose all of its access to AGOA, which would be a painful blow to a country that relies on the United States as its second-largest trading partner. The letter from the legislator described South Africa as “in danger of losing AGOA benefits”.
The requirements to join AGOA, which focuses primarily on low-income countries, are set forth by Congress. Federal regulations authorize the president to add or remove countries from AGOA, a process administered by the Office of the US Trade Representative. The trade representative also coordinates the annual forum.
South Africa’s relationship with the United States has become increasingly tense since Russia entered the war in Ukraine.
US officials say they are not denying South Africa the right to maintain a friendship with Russia or to refuse to condemn the invasion. But they say South Africa may have crossed a line and provided material support to the war. They point to a Russian freighter under US sanctions, the Lady R, which docked at a naval base near Cape Town last December.
“Intelligence suggests that the South African government took this opportunity to surreptitiously supply Russia with weapons and ammunition that could be used in the illegal war in Ukraine,” the lawmakers’ letter said.
As proof that South Africa is not neutral in the war, US lawmakers also pointed to joint military exercises it held with Russia and China in February; a Russian cargo plane allowed to land at a South African air base in April under US sanctions; and South Africa’s plan to host an international summit, known as BRICS, in August for Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin to attend.
“We are deeply concerned that hosting the AGOA Forum in South Africa in 2023 would serve as an implicit endorsement of South Africa’s damaging support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” the letter said.
The letter was signed by Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the committee. It was also signed by the top Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In a statement, a State Department spokesman reiterated the importance of AGOA and the forum, but did not elaborate on how the government planned to respond to the lawmaker’s request. “We share the congressional concern over South Africa’s security relationship with Russia,” the statement said.
Vincent Magwenya, a spokesman for Mr Ramaphosa, said his office would comment once the United States made a decision on the AGOA forum. Mr. Magwenya noted that Mr. Ramaphosa will lead a delegation of African heads of state to broker a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine.
Even before tensions erupted over the war in Ukraine, questions had been raised, according to South African and US officials, about whether South Africa should continue to have free access to the US trade market given the advanced state of its economy.
The feud over Russia has only further fueled speculation that South Africa could be written out of AGOA when the law is scheduled to be extended in 2025.
Last year, the United States removed Ethiopia, Guinea and Mali from AGOA, citing human rights violations and other violations of the program’s terms.