US President Joe Biden greets South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, September 16, 2022.
Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters
South Africa’s accusation of genocide against Israel has put further strain on an already frayed relationship with the US and could have serious diplomatic ramifications.
The International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest legal body, will hear this week a case brought by South Africa which accuses Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinian people during the attack on the Gaza Strip. The lawsuit also calls for the immediate suspension of the military campaign.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby last week called the lawsuit “unmerited, counterproductive and completely without any basis at all.” Israel has dismissed it as a “blood libel”.
This is the latest deviation in a series of diplomatic spats between Washington and Pretoria, which the US sees as too close to Russia and China.
In May 2023, when US Ambassador Ruben Bridgetti accused South Africa of using weapons for Russia via a mysterious merchant ship. An investigation in South Africa found no evidence of the alleged arms shipment, but ties between the two historic allies remained close.
Before that, Brigety and other US officials had repeatedly criticized Pretoria for its policy of non-alignment on the war in Ukrainewhich Washington interpreted as favoring Russia.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa strongly opposed the proposal and his government has since made it clear that it does not support the Russian invasion.
But Chris Vandome, a senior fellow at Chatham House’s Africa Program, told CNBC on Monday that the conflict in the Gaza Strip has erupted at a time when the US-South Africa relationship is “at a low point”.
“Over the past two years a series of frustrations, including South Africa’s sense of pressure on Russia-Ukraine, the US ambassador’s statements about South Africa’s internal security and its relationship with Russia, and US policy on China in Africa, has contributed to the deterioration of that relationship,” Vandome said.
Although Africa’s most industrialized nation has long been a thorn in the side of the White House on Israel-Palestine, Vandome suggested the latest divergences exacerbate those frustrations.
PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA – JANUARY 23, 2023: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) meets South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor (R) during his official visit to Pretoria
Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
“Discussions in Washington on whether South Africa should continue to benefit from AGOA [the African Growth and Opportunity Act] have prompted diplomatic efforts by South Africa to protect its major investment partners, but many in the county view such talks as threats that only serve to harden ideological anti-Western positions,” he explained.
AGOA, which entered into force in 2000, is a cornerstone of US economic policy in Africa that provides duty-free US market access for more than 1,800 products to 32 eligible countries in 2024.
The Office of the United States Trade Representative states that, in order to meet the strict eligibility requirements, countries must “establish or make continuous progress toward establishing a market-based economy, the rule of law, political pluralism, and the right to fair process.”
“In addition, countries must eliminate barriers to U.S. trade and investment, adopt policies to reduce poverty, fight corruption, and protect human rights,” the USTR says.
“Solidarity Against Apartheid Oppression”
South Africa’s close relationship with Russia is based on a multitude of past and present factors. Pretoria has repeatedly cited the USSR’s historic support against apartheid, and there is a pragmatic push to maintain friendly ties with a fellow BRICS member.
During a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last January, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said the BRICS countries should play an active role in the emergence of a “redesigned world order”.
But the ruling African National Congress’s support for the Palestinian territories is different, Vandome explained, as it is rooted in “solidarity against apartheid oppression” — a cause inextricably linked to the party’s founding ideology.
“Support for Palestine was a mainstay of the ANC’s international relations policy before the dawn of democracy, and it was one of the few countries to take such a long and consistent position,” he said.
“Enshrining support for Palestine in ANC party documents voted and accepted at party conferences means that the President would be against the will of the Party if he adopted a different position at national level, and this would leave him very politically exposed to critics from rival factions’.
South Africa’s elections this year are being billed as the most important since the dawn of democracy after the end of apartheid in 1994. The ANC faces a serious challenge from the main opposition white-majority Democratic Alliance and is expected to fall below the 50 mark. % rule for the first time in 30 years.
This opens the door to possible coalition talks with smaller parties, and although foreign policy issues are not usually a deciding factor in South African elections, the Israel-Gaza divide could complicate how those coalitions are formed.
“This issue could prevent a ‘coalition of the centre’ between the ANC and the DA, which was stronger before the parties took divergent positions on it,” said Vandom.
“Furthermore, it could affect party funding, with some businesses that previously supported the ruling party now withholding support.”
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