South Africa, AGOA, and nonalignment

President Ramaphosa sits at a table

In 1998, flanked by U.S. President Bill Clinton and with Table Mountain looming in the background, South African President Nelson Mandela (after warmly welcoming the American president) used the opportunity of his first joint press conference with a U.S. president on South African soil to defend the country’s right to maintain positive relations with Libya, Cuba, and Iran.

Thirty minutes later, while taking a question from the media on the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the “large number of conditionality clauses” it included, President Mandela acknowledged that his administration had “serious reservations” about the proposed legislation and that it was “not acceptable.”

Twenty-six years later, differences between Pretoria and Washington have once again raised questions about South Africa’s involvement in AGOA. The current imbroglio is enflamed by perceptions that South Africa has abandoned its traditional policy of nonalignment which, in the view of some in Congress, could justify its exclusion from the program.

At a time of democratic backsliding and intensified global competition in Africa, it would be a mistake to deny preferential access to the U.S. market to South Africa—one of Africa’s most robust democracies and most industrial economies.

At a time of democratic backsliding and intensified global competition in Africa, it would be a mistake to deny preferential access to the U.S. market to South Africa—one of Africa’s most robust democracies and most industrial economies.

At the same time, Congress’ proposal for the Biden administration to undertake a strategic review of bilateral relations makes sense—as long it involves consultations with representatives from the South African government, private sector, and civil society.

The downturn in US-South Africa relations

Washington’s concerns over South Africa’s foreign policy orientation were heightened when South Africa hosted Russia and China for joint naval exercises in February 2023, which coincided with the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Bilateral relations appeared to be at their nadir last May when U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Ruben Brigety alleged in a press conference that South Africa had provided weapons to Russia via a sanctioned ship, the Lady R. Criticizing South Africa for its “outrageous” anti-Americanism, Ambassador Brigety questioned the country’s claim of neutrality among world powers.

In response to these and other events, four influential members of Congress, including Senator Chris Coons, sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June suggesting that South Africa may no longer be eligible for AGOA benefits given that it had hosted the naval exercises and supplied arms to Russia, and that it would soon host the BRICS Summit. The senators called on the Biden administration to move the AGOA forum scheduled to take place in South Africa in October. (The forum went forward as scheduled.)

Later in October, many in the U.S. were vexed by South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor’s decision to hold a call with the leader of Hamas. Washington’s frustration with South Africa, especially in Congress, surged further when Pretoria went to the International Court of Justice in January 2024 and accused Israel of committing genocide in response to the October 7 attacks by Hamas.

US Congress pushing back on South Africa

In response to these actions, Senator Coons upped his pressure on South Africa by introducing a “discussion draft” of revised AGOA legislation that would require the U.S. trade representative to take an immediate out-of-cycle review of South Africa (this provision was not included in legislation co-sponsored by the Senator in April 2024).

Last month, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved bipartisan legislation that would mandate a full review of the bilateral relationship with South Africa. The legislation claimed that the actions of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) were “inconsistent with its publicly stated policy of nonalignment in international affairs.” Criticisms were leveled at the ANC for pursuing closer ties with China and Russia and for its “history” of siding with malign actors, including Hamas and Iran.

AGOA and nonalignment

Part of AGOA’s enabling legislation requires beneficiary countries to establish market-based economies and political pluralism, to avoid actions that undermine U.S. national security, and to not engage in gross violations of human rights, among other conditions.

The majority of the 20 countries that have lost their AGOA status since the initial enactment of the legislation have done so because of coups, conflicts, or the violation of human rights.

Table 1

No country has been denied access for not conforming to a nonaligned foreign policy. In fact, there is no reference to nonalignment in the enabling legislation.

At the same time, one tenet of nonalignment is a commitment by emerging nations to avoid alliances with major powers or blocs, which is consistent with Pretoria’s recent actions. While South Africa has twice hosted joint naval exercises with Russia and China (the first was in November 2019), it has conducted joint military exercises with the U.S. on four occasions: in 2011, 2013, 2017, and 2022.

South Africa was also the first African nation to join the BRICS, and the first African nation to join the G20 (the African Union became a member last year). South Africa hosted the BRICS summit last year and will host the G20 Summit next year.

China was South Africa’s top export market in 2023 ($12.5 billion), and the U.S. was second, taking $8.4 billion of its products.

As well, the African National Congress (ANC) has long identified with and supported the Palestinian cause. Palestinians lost their lands in 1948 with the creation of Israel. This is the same year that South Africa’s National Party took power and began to implement apartheid, dispossessing Black South Africans from their lands through the creation of “homelands” or Bantustans.

Clearly, the U.S. and South Africa have had “principled disagreements,” as President Cyril Ramaphosa recently put it. But it is hard to see how these differences—or South Africa’s diplomacy over the last two years—have undermined U.S. national security.

Where to from here?

Next month, South Africans will vote in their seventh consecutive democratic election. With many polls projecting that the governing ANC will receive less than 50% of the vote for the first time, a key question is whether the country will move in a more centrist or populist direction.

Given the current turbulence in U.S.-South African relations and the significance of the country’s imminent elections, the next few months would be a propitious time for the U.S. to conduct a bilateral review of the relationship in consultation with key stakeholders there. The findings could help inform U.S. policy no matter which party wins in November and, hopefully, lead to a strengthening of relations.

Several areas are clear priorities for both countries. On the security front, South Africa has played a constructive peacekeeping role in Mozambique’s restive Cabo Delgado Province. More recently, South Africa has deployed 2,900 troops in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in hopes of quelling the conflict there. A policy review could clarify how the U.S. might support South Africa’s effort to increase security and development in both countries, which is in the United States’ interest as well.

On the economic front, President Ramaphosa has in recent months, endeavored to expand the role of South Africa’s private sector in resolving the country’s severe energy, water, and infrastructure deficits. With 600 American companies domiciled in South Africa, it is worth exploring how U.S. business experience and investment might play a role in this effort.

Related to this is the need to accelerate implementation of the $8.5 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) that was announced at COP26, with strong support from the U.S. and other countries. The JETP focuses on the transition of South Africa’s energy sector from coal to cleaner sources of energy.

Finally, given the recent spate of coups in the Sahel and Central Africa, South Africa and the U.S. are well positioned to collaborate on strategies for strengthening democratic governance across the region.

Initiating a policy review on how the U.S. and South Africa can enhance regional security, energy transition, and democracy in Africa, among other areas, is in the interests of both countries. Denying South Africa AGOA benefits—which would make it the 10th African country to lose access to the program in four years—would only drive Pretoria further from Western partnerships and markets.

  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    Special thanks to Prrashhrad Magesvaran, a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, for his research support on this commentary.