US senators target AGOA as South Africa faces Russia support blowback

A letter from US senators is the first sign that South Africa could face economic retaliation for its equivocation on the Russia-Ukraine War, and follows mounting tension between Washington DC and Pretoria.


Image : Sergei CHIRIKOV /AFP

Four influential bipartisan US senators have signed a joint letter calling on the US to strip South Africa of the right to host the 2023 AGOA Forum and accusing Pretoria of supporting Russia in its war in Ukraine.  

In the letter, signed by foreign affairs senators Chris Coons, James Risch, Gregory Meeks and Michael McCaul, and addressed to US secretary of state Antony Blinken, national security advisor Jake Sullivan and trade representative Katherine Tai, the Democratic and Republican senators said that South Africa should no longer host the flagship event for the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a tariff-free scheme to encourage trade with the US.

“We are seriously concerned that hosting the 2023 AGOA Forum 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…we encourage you to explore other possible locations to host this year’s forum.”

The letter is the first sign that South Africa could face economic retaliation for its equivocation on the Russia-Ukraine War, and follows mounting tension between Washington DC and Pretoria. The senators also raised the spectre of further action to remove South Africa from the preferential access scheme.

“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 US national security or foreign policy interests”…we question whether a country in danger of losing AGOA benefits should have the privilege of hosting the 2023 AGOA Forum.” 

South Africa is technically neutral in the conflict and will soon be participating in an African peace mission that will visit Kiev and Moscow in a bit to push for a peaceful settlement. But Ramaphosa’s government held joint naval exercises with Russia and China in February and in May was sensationally accused of supplying weapons to Russia from a South African naval base by US ambassador Reuben Brigety  – allegations that South Africa denies but which the senators repeat.

“South Africa’s government has formally taken a neutral stance on Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, but has deepened its military relationship with Russia over the last 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.”

The senators also highlighted the possible visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin for the August BRICS meeting in Johannesburg in defiance of a warrant from the International Criminal Court, of which South Africa is a signatory state. It has not yet been confirmed that Putin will attempt to attend.  

In a response to the letter, South Africa’s head of public diplomacy Clayson Monyela said in a tweet that there were no discussions on moving the AGOA Forum from South Africa. 

“This letter by the four US Congress members to Secretary Blinken is noted. There is no decision by the State department/Whitehouse to move the AGOA Forum from SA. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s special envoys recently visited the US to meet and explain South Africa’s active non-aligned position on the Russia/Ukraine conflict to key stakeholders and decision makers. Our diplomats in Washington continue to engage on these matters…The relations between South Africa & the United States of America is mutually beneficial…even in the context of AGOA.”

In a press conference, Judd Devermont, special assistant to the President and senior director for African Affairs at the National Security Council, said that the US was engaged in discussions with South Africa.

“We share Congress’ concern about South Africa’s potential security partnership with Russia. Russia is waging a brutal war against the people of Ukraine, and we’re constantly working to cut off support and funding for Putin’s war machine, and to undercut Russia’s ability to carry out this conflict.

As part of these efforts we are strongly encouraging countries not to support Russia’s war. I’m not going to get into the specifics of private conversations with South Africans but be sure we are having these conversations…we do welcome their commitment to investigate the Lady R. That is what responsible government does and we expect depending on their findings that they will hold those accountable who have been found to violate the laws of South Africa.

With respect to AGOA we have a process every year where we revalidate AGOA membership, and the law is very clear on what we we’ll follow, and that won’t change for South Africa, but we’ll go through the appropriate steps as we do every year as we look at AGOA eligibility.”

Threat to trade

Any threat to AGOA could hit trade between US and South Africa. According to the the most recent figures from the United States Trade Representative, US goods and services trade with South Africa totalled an estimated $17.8bn in 2019. Exports were $8bn; imports were $9.8bn. 

Jaco Kleynhans, head of international liason at the Solidarity Movement, an Afrikaans network of community organisations in Gauteng, said in a tweet that removal from AGOA could have serious implications for the South African economy.

“South Africa is in real trouble. Our economy (agriculture, mining, manufacturing) is highly dependent on AGOA and favorable export arrangements with the US. If we lose AGOA, the country’s economy could suffer such damage that it could lead to even greater unemployment, poverty and, without a doubt, anarchy. That is why we must convince the Americans not to kick South Africa out of AGOA.”

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David Thomas

Editor of African Business.