Tiptoeing across the minefield of neutrality
Recent US-South Africa relations appear to be firmly stalled in the cul-de-sacs of imperial or sub-imperial diplomacy.
What does South African president Cyril Ramaphosa’s visit last Friday to the White House—and the trip last month by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Pretoria—mean for geopolitics and the US-Africa relationship?
Start with symbolism. Typical of the way Joe Biden conducts politics is with self-flattering reminiscences, in the hope he won’t be caught out. At a crucial, primary-election-changing South Carolina campaign rally in early 2020, he bragged to an African-American audience: “I had the great honor of being arrested with our UN ambassador (Andrew Young) on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see (Nelson Mandela) on Robbens Island.”
Well, he was certainly called out on that whopper. So last Friday at the White House, he made fun of himself a bit: “I had been stopped trying to get to uh to visit him and see him in prison. And uh, I had said once, I said I got arrested. It wasn’t arrested. I got stopped and prevented from from from moving.”
The incident in December 1976 was apparently just a diversion during his entry to South Africa in December 1976, at Jan Smuts Airport, because he wouldn’t go to the Europeans-Only queue (thus separating from African Americans on the same delegation); and sure, good for him. But Soweto was a long long long way from Robben Island (offshore Cape Town), where Mandela served most of his jail term. That self-serving story obviously rests on his conscience.
And yet Biden is indeed actually owed some gratitude because in the mid-1980s when Ronald Reagan’s veto on anti-apartheid sanctions had to be overruled by Congress, he actually played a very strong role.
US imperialism resurgent
But nearly everything else he’s been up to with Ramaphosa since early 2021 reflects US imperialist interests: in the conflict with Russia and China, in climate politricks where Biden and Senator Joe Manchin are now pushing for more oil and gas drilling (although vigorous climate justice opposition rises), and in global vaccines policy where his representative to the World Trade Organization confirmed in June that the US may talk left on the crucial debate over waiving patents on Covid-19 medicines, but will walk right when it counts. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Deborah James explained:
What was agreed was not a real waiver, due to EU, US, UK, and Swiss determination to protect Big Pharma’s profits. The agreement only grants a limited flexibility on one provision; excludes all forms of IP except patents; excludes treatments and tests; and requires far more intrusive monitoring and reporting than the existing rules (among other excessive restrictions) …
Throughout the ministerial, developed countries worked to create a media narrative to place the blame for the lack of consensus outcomes on developing countries, particularly India. But in reality, as one headline put it, it was the EU, “UK, Swiss and US positions likely to stymie WTO negotiations.” After the ministerial was extended for another day, activists dramatized the “blame game” by asking, “Who blocked a real TRIPS waiver? Who’s blocking fisherfolk protections? Who blocked REAL food security? Who blocked WTO transformation? EU, US, UK, Switzerland! Give them the blame award!”
In contrast, Ramaphosa was mealy-mouthed to Biden: “… thank you for the support that the United States gave to South Africa and to the African continent with regards to fighting COVID-19, the vaccines that you made available, as well as the support that you gave us when we were advocating for a TRIPS waiver at the World Trade Organization, and we are grateful for that.”
The only real public friction point was with the US House of Representatives’ “Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act.” Although it’s an arm-twist of African countries—and although Ramaphosa and his foreign minister Naledi Pandor are firmly against it—members of the Congressional Black Caucus led by Gregory Meeks are adamant in promoting this legislation. Meeks points out the Russian mercenary Wagner Group’s mess-making in at least a half-dozen African countries.
This role was confirmed in a report at the end of last month by global unrest monitor Acled, which reminds of how Moscow paramilitary operatives are responsible for Central African Republic (CAR) attacks on civilians. Other sites of Wagner intervention reportedly include Angola, Libya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Mali, Zimbabwe, and in late 2019, northern Mozambique. There the main beneficiary was meant to be TotalEnergies, whose $20 billion gas processing plant required protection from Islamic insurgents. But the latter killed at least seven Wagner troops so the mercenaries soon left.
South Africa’s rulers need both Russian elites and US imperialism
If the House bill passes the Senate and is signed into law, it may be due to US strong-arming of South Africa, because Biden and Blinken want to reverse the Ramaphosa government’s implicit support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. This occurred at the same time a major financial contribution was made by Russian oligarch (and Putin ally) Viktor Vekselberg to the coffers of Ramaphosa’s ruling party.
The African National Congress (ANC) received its only major financial gift during the first quarter of 2022 on March 1, following Pandor’s initial statement on February 24 against Putin: “South Africa calls on Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the United Nations Charter, which enjoins all member states to settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice are not endangered.”
But perhaps considering how the ANC is periodically on the verge of bankruptcy, its international relations subcommittee insisted on abstention in any condemnatory statement against Russia in the United Nations General Assembly.
Last week at the US Council on Foreign Relations, Pandor attempted to explain the fence-sitting, and although she reminded her audience of past solidarity (and implicitly, US official support for apartheid until the late 1980s), in the process Pandor went back to criticising the Russian invaders:
Russia—the Soviet Union—was prepared to provide support to the liberation movements when many governments were working very closely with the apartheid state and even murdering our leaders. So we can’t suddenly, you know, forget that history and behave in a different way. But I think we’ve been fairly clear in our view that war doesn’t assist anyone and that we believe the inhumane actions we have seen against the people of Ukraine can’t be defended by anybody and we’ve not defended them nor have we been neutral about it.
In another exchange in August, Blinken defended sanctions against Russia, and Pandor replied, “We should be equally concerned at what is happening to the people of Palestine, as we are with what is happening to the people of Ukraine.”
Indeed, who can object—aside from US imperialists desperate to continue promoting Israel’s interests, especially with the Egyptian regime now looking to much tighter partnerships with China. Brazilian dependency theorist Ruy Mauro Marini considered “antagonistic collaboration” to be a feature of the sub-imperial location, and it’s obviously in evidence between Pretoria and Washington even when both stand up to oppose sanctions against Tel Aviv. Indeed, if Pandor cared about Palestine, why isn’t she advocating Israel-BDS? The prior foreign minister, Lindiwe Sisulu—a competitor of Ramaphosa—did at least withdraw South Africa’s ambassador to Israel, but the critical step of imposing sanctions is yet to be contemplated in Pretoria.
Pandor’s critique of Russian humanitarian abuse in Ukraine reflects growing stress in Putin’s alliances with fellow Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) members in recent days, including Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi at last week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit. But on the other hand, her nostalgia both elides Ukraine’s (not just Russia’s) role within the USSR as a firm source of solidarity, and neglects Putin’s own February 21 threat to “decommunize” Ukraine.
Certainly the ANC’s allies in the SA Communist Party do continue to defend Putin’s invasion. And more surprisingly, so does the leadership of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), for example in their July congress documents:
With South Africa, China and Russia all being part of BRICS for President Cyril Ramaphosa to not take a firm stand on the side of Russia and offer unsolicited negotiations and then instead of putting his vote with the forces who were refusing for Russia to be expelled, he abstains. This is a very deliberate confusion created by Ramaphosa and the ANC and we must ask whether they are, in reality not with NATO?
Pretoria’s apartheid-era parastatal firm, Armscor, is certainly allied with NATO (Germany, the US, UK, and six other regimes). Along with another parastatal, Denel (formerly an Armscor subsidiary), weaponry is regularly exchanged with Western armies, a point of extreme controversy in South Africa when George W. Bush and Tony Blair acquired arms for their war on Iraq. And although Denel is on the verge of bankruptcy, and its main in-house union is NUMSA, this desperation to commercialize its operations is likely to worsen as the South African Treasury imposes austerity, even on an army called not only to serve Total, ExxonMobil and other Big Oil firms in northern Mozambique, but to regularly police the South African streets.
At its July congress, NUMSA expressed another grievance at the decay of these sub-imperialist State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs):
ARMSCOR, DENEL, etc. are subjected, in one way or another, to a form of sabotage so that they are rendered dysfunctional. A public opinion is created that these SOEs ‘waste taxpayers’ money and therefore they should be sold.’ In some of these SOEs, especially DENEL, workers are not paid salaries for months, which destroys morale. This in turn collapses the SOE from within. All the sinister strategies that we have outlined above are part and parcel of forcing privatization.
The weapons acquired and made by Armscor and Denel are, regrettably, being put to use in neighboring Mozambique, where one million people have been displaced by fighting over natural resources, and more than 4,000 have died. At the outset of the White House meeting, statements by Ramaphosa and Biden revealed converging interests there: ExxonMobil’s offshore gas holdings coincide with US military imperialism (including Africom advisors to the Mozambican military) and South Africa’s lust for “Blood Methane.”
Ramaphosa made this remark, presumably so as to get the Pentagon to dedicate even more support to the Southern African Mission in Mozambique, whose role is defense of gas extraction in what some say now is the world’s largest field, Rovuma, offshore Cabo Delgado:
PRESIDENT RAMAPHOSA: And of course, we want to discuss what I would call global stability and security, particularly in relation to our region where we’ve had insurgents targeting one of our neighboring countries, Mozambique
PRESIDENT BIDEN: Yes.
PRESIDENT RAMAPHOSA: —so that we can discuss that as well. Of course, for us, that’s very important.
To his credit, Biden did actually pull out of Afghanistan, so hopefully—behind those closed doors—he told Ramaphosa not to follow the Pentagon that deep into the quicksand. But that seems to be where energy minister Gwede Mantashe and the head of the Eskom parastatal corporation Andre de Ruyter are leading—to a radical increase in methane-gas within a South African power grid desperately requiring rapid increases in generation capacity. A successful public-interest lawsuit earlier this month against proposed offshore gas drilling by Shell and a local partner, plus the evident durability of the Cabo Delgado insurgency, apparently don’t yet deter those trying to inject methane gas into the grid.
There are many other features of the US imperial and South African sub-imperial relationship, especially insofar as super-exploitative conditions allow for profitable investment and trade. Behind China and Europe, the US is South Africa’s next largest trading partner, with 600 firms’ assets here valued at nearly $8 billion in 2019, and from January-April 2022, there were 44,000 US tourists. Given this context, when hosting Blinken in August, Pandor was defensive and annoyed about the looming anti-African sanctions legislation, and told her US counterpart:
Russia is an economic partner with South Africa, but it is less than $4 billion in trade compared to the $20 billion … with the US. This fear that exists … is on a totally unfounded belief on our relationship with either country… You cannot say that because Africa is doing this, you will be punished by the United States. That has been a disappointing passing of that legislation. We must respect our ability to hold different positions. We are sovereign states. One thing I dislike is being told to choose this or that. I will not be bullied in that way, nor would I expect any other African country to agree to be treated that way.
Meanwhile, most South African corporations are no longer doing business in Russia, notably Africa’s largest firm, Prosus/Naspers, which is finally ditching mail.ru, Avito and related subsidiaries.
So, the current conjuncture is a critical time: Putin’s forces are in retreat in the east of Ukraine. He has partially mobilized a much larger reserve army. And he intends holding dubious referenda for the residents of Ukraine’s occupied territories (much the way in 2014 he legitimized the takeover of Crimea). This presents an interesting—albeit unlikely—opening for Ramaphosa to step up as a mediator.
The problem is, that evidently no one is ready to stop the war. And South Africa’s efforts to tip toe across the minefield of neutrality are not paying any dividends.