South Africa’s AGOA challenge: A strategic foreign policy shift is needed – Phumlani Majozi

In the aftermath of the AGOA summit, South Africa must rethink its foreign policy approach to ensure AGOA’s success. While the USA seeks to strengthen AGOA, South Africa’s inconsistent foreign policy threatens its membership. Recent missteps regarding Israel have strained relations with Western allies. To maintain AGOA benefits, South Africa must align its foreign policy with US interests and promote a balanced approach that’s not anti-West or anti-Israel, as a failure to do so could jeopardise its membership.

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After the AGOA Summit

By Phumlani Majozi*

Now that the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) summit is behind us, it may be wise to reflect on the significance of the summit and how South Africa’s government will need to improve its strategic approach to foreign policy conduct going forward, to ensure that AGOA works well for South Africa.

The United States of America (USA) wants to enhance AGOA and renew it with zero hurdles in 2025, according to USA Secretary of Antony Blinken and USA Trade Representative Katherine Tai. That is positive news and should be welcomed.

What we also heard this past week is that Uganda, Niger, Central African Republic, and Gabon, were kicked out of the AGOA program. Well, the US has a right on whom it wants to include or excluded in the AGOA programme. But, there are lessons in the booting out of these countries. Lessons that other African countries nations should take note of. 

In South Africa, our government keeps bungling foreign policy, putting our relations with the West at risk. 

We nearly lost the AGOA summit earlier this year – as there were concerns in America that South Africa sides with Russia in the Ukraine-Russia war.

It is important to remember that AGOA has played a significant role in bolstering trade between the USA and Africa. However, USA could opt to weaponise AGOA against South Africa. It has chosen not to do so, yet.

The USA has shown goodwill toward South Africa over the past three decades. At times, we have been anti-West. Yet the USA has continued to engage South Africa on terms that seek to strengthen the ties between the two countries. 

Why this attitude toward South Africa from the USA? Well, the spirit of Nelson Mandela is still alive amongst America’s governing elite. Post-Cold War, South Africa was seen as an emerging, nascent democracy that embarked on the reconciliation process and built relatively better democratic institutions in Sub Saharan Africa. These institutions have largely been independent over the past three decades of the country’s democracy. Many in America love that.

The fate of South Africa with respect to AGOA membership has already been debated in the USA – which has unnecessarily put the country at risk of being removed from the program. Many amongst US political leaders have lost trust in South Africa due to its foreign policy conduct.

The United States is using AGOA as a mechanism to maintain its influence in Africa. This is during a time when Russia and China have made inroads in Africa in recent years to advance their influence in the region. 

Big business, Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) and the Black Business Council (BBC), want AGOA to succeed. The USA administration understands that AGOA keeps it closer to the African continent, which explains the comments by Tai and Blinken this past week. South Africa remains Africa’s most advanced economy and the USA will want to maintain the relationship with South Africa, in hopes that any differences that arise will be addressed, but Congress will need to be convinced of this as well. 

Could it happen that South Africa loses its membership of AGOA in future? Yes, the USA could pull the plug. That risk will exist, and the challenge for our leaders is to reduce that risk, which will begin with improved foreign policy conduct.

Read more: The ANC v/s Israel: Ambassador wants dialogue amid calls to shut his embassy, eject him – and boycott Israeli goods

We blew it on Israel attacks again

Any honest, objective person who watches South Africa’s foreign policy closely will agree that the South African government has been careless in recent years in its foreign policy   conduct. This carelessness has happened during a time where our country ought to be very cautious, given the uncertain, and turbulent geopolitical environment.

South Africa’s initial reaction to Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel was a blunder of great proportion that endangered our relations with the West and Israel. 

The official statement that was released by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) post the attack lacked rationality and was issued with zero strategic thinking.

There was no genuine condemnation of Hamas’ barbarism, and the statement blamed Israel for Hamas’ terrorist act that resulted in at least 1400 Israelis dead and many held hostage.

South Africa’s government should have been unequivocal in its condemnation of Hamas. That condemnation should have been reflected in DIRCO’s statement. South Africa should have stood on the side of Israel at a time when that country was mourning the slaying of its citizens. Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda stood on the side of Israel. Hamas must be eradicated. There is no peace that can be achieved while Hamas is alive and operates in Gaza.

After the October 7 attacks, our President Cyril Ramaphosa joined pro-Palestine rallies. I believe he did that at a very wrong time. He should have never done it. What message does this send post the attacks on Israel? 

Minister Naledi Pandor’s visit to Iran post October 7 was also an ill-thought foreign policy step. Iran congratulated Hamas for its October 7 attack on Israel – which was shameful from Iran. There are also arguments that Hamas could have never succeeded in the launch of October 7 attacks without help from the Iranian regime.   

Iran is an enemy of Israel and wants the destruction of Israel. Pandor’s visit was 100% a strategic error given its timing. 

The United States of America (USA) is a staunch ally of Israel. Should that have an influence on which nations we choose to deal with or not to deal with? No. However, we must be strategic enough to recognise that somethings ought to be done at a time when they will not send a wrong message to the world. 

In my recent interview with Voice of America TV, I said that the governing party the African National Congress (ANC) sees the Israel-Palestine conflict as a situation where the Palestinians are fighting for their freedom and land. This has been the perspective of the ANC for decades. 

At some point, the ANC must acknowledge that the Palestinian radicals want Israel eradicated in the Middle East. Hence, there will be no peace anytime soon in that region. For any peace to be achieved, there must be a recognition of Israel, and both Israel and Palestine must compromise. 

If AGOA is to work well for South Africa in the upcoming years, then our government must be strategic in its foreign policy, by ensuring that it pursues a balanced foreign policy that is not anti-West and anti-Israel.

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*Phumlani M. Majozi is author of upcoming new book “Lessons from Past Heroes” and senior fellow at African Liberty. His website is phumlanimajozi.com. Follow him on Twitter: @PhumlaniMMajozi. 

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