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US secretary of state Antony Blinken’s visit aims to reset relations with South Africa

A man in a dark suit and tie, against a background of national flags.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

US secretary of state Antony Blinken has embarked on a five nation tour of Cambodia, the Philippines, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

This is Blinken’s second trip to Africa; he visited Nigeria, Senegal and Kenya last November. The purpose of each national visit varies according to local and regional circumstances.

In South Africa he has two primary objectives, according to assistant secretary Molly Phee. One is to engage in a high-level “strategic dialogue” with his counterpart, international relations minister Naledi Pandor. And in Phee’s words:

Given South Africa’s leadership role, it’s an ideal location for the Secretary to deliver a speech announcing and describing the US strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa.

South Africa has a long, complex, deep and vital history of relations with the US and its people. A series of dialogues at this level started in 2010, during the administrations of presidents Barack Obama and Jacob Zuma. They were suspended during the Donald Trump administration.

The Blinken-Pandor dialogue will include topics that have been vital to both nations since before the series began in 2010. Today, they are even more important: trade and investment, public health, agriculture, education, climate, water, science and technology, among others.

More Americans than ever visit South Africa. The US recently surpassed the UK and Germany as the source of South Africa’s largest overseas tourism numbers.

Reaffirming priorities now is important, considering domestic and international developments since the last high-level dialogue in 2015.

A rocky road

Relations between the US and South Africa were of little interest to Trump. He immediately cancelled Obama’s large financial commitment to the Green Climate Fund. The fund was designed to assist African and other nations seriously affected by climate change. This caused consternation in South Africa.

So did his quick announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris climate change accord, vital to Africa’s well-being, and to which South African scientists have been essential.

President Joe Biden has reversed many of Trump’s actions. But such shifts have raised questions regarding America’s reliability.

In South Africa, financial scandals and state capture – the re-purposing and use of state organs for private gain – resulted in former president Zuma’s fall.

As COVID became a global pandemic, vaccine nationalism and travel bans further strained relations, even into the Biden administration.

Currently both nations face existential political crises, made worse by violence, xenophobia, extreme inequality, and rising voter frustration and apathy.

A question facing Blinken and Pandor is whether their efforts can deepen cooperation on issues of obvious practical importance to both nations, including those on the announced agenda. Reviving the high-level dialogues offers renewed opportunities to set priorities and guidelines favouring greater attention to overcoming inequalities and legacies of racial discrimination in both countries.

The shared goal would be to benefit national integration and support for institutions of democratic governance among chronically disadvantaged groups of Americans and South Africans.

On the margins of the meetings informal exchanges about priorities and commitments can be linked to their common goals to sustain nonracial, nonsexist and more equal and secure democracies. According to American University professor Amitav Acharya, progress on reconciling social divisions in the US can also yield a firmer national foundation for more effective and extensive foreign relations.

Global tensions

Deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman visited South Africa in May to prepare for Blinken’s visit and resumption of the strategic dialogue. She specifically downplayed any differences between the two governments over the war in Ukraine.

The US and South Africa had hoped to hold the dialogue in the first quarter of this year. The invasion of Ukraine temporarily derailed planning on the US side, according to officials with whom I have spoken. One hopes that next week’s high-level discussions can also mitigate persistent tensions that may exist between the two countries. The talks may also help ensure that Africa does not become the victim of a new Cold War in the wake of the war in Ukraine.

South Africa has resisted taking sides in the dangerous and costly war in Ukraine. Likewise, it has consistently resisted being drawn into taking sides on the China-US global competition for influence.

And when Biden invited 16 African leaders to his virtual “Summit for Democracy” in December 2021, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa was the only one to decline.

On the US side, the House of Representatives recently passed by a large bi-partisan majority, “The Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act”. It’s aimed at

countering Russian efforts to undermine democratic institutions in Africa.

I was told by South African officials that they will appeal to the Biden administration to kill this initiative in step with other African governments. Minister Pandor recently publicly described the bill as

intended to punish countries in Africa that have not toed the line on the Russia-Ukraine war.

Perhaps in their meetings Blinken, Pandor and their advisers could ensure there are no misunderstandings about the nature and intent of the act. They also need to ensure that any remaining differences will not negatively affect progress on any of the agreed priorities in their strategic dialogue.

Resetting US-SA relations

The process to reset US-SA relations should begin with a few home truths. Prominent Americans have described their nation as “The Shining City on a Hill” or the world’s “sole super-power”. This seems to many other nations, especially in South Africa with a similar history of racial oppression, as arrogant and ignorant of the US’s own history.

But there are large numbers of progressive Americans willing to listen and learn from others. They are eager for a reset of relations with South Africa. To cite one pertinent example: in the influential journal Foreign Affairs, scholar-diplomat Reuben Brigety II argues that Americans should begin by heeding their own advice to other countries and upgrade their own democracy.

He was recently confirmed to become America’s next ambassador to South Africa.

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