- South Africa's position on Russia and the Ukraine war frustrates Western countries; they claim the country’s actions do not match its promise of neutrality.
- The recent diplomatic spat between South Africa and the US signals a change from the former relationship, which was characterized by politeness between the two countries.
- A strained relationship with Western countries would be disastrous for South Africa's economy.
There is growing political disenchantment in the United States and other Western countries with South Africa's stance on Putin’s Russia. As the southern African country continues to deepen its ties with Moscow, many observers have argued that the country risks straining its relationship with the West.
Last year, South Africa made it very clear that it would not take sides in the Russia-Ukraine war; however, Western diplomats are wary of what they see as partisanship masquerading as neutrality, claiming that South Africa's actions do not match its words.
In the US, this stance could become even more hostile if the Republicans win the next general election next year. If South Africa continues to go down this path, there is a possibility of Western sanctions. According to executive orders issued by US President Joe Biden and rules laid forth by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, sanctions will be imposed on people and organizations supporting Russia's military campaign.
South Africa and the US diplomatic spat
Reuben Brigety, the US ambassador, dropped a bombshell at a conference on May 11 that led to a diplomatic spat between Washington and Pretoria. The allegation that South Africa placed weapons on a Russian ship that had been sanctioned in December 2022 is serious and may significantly change bilateral relations.
Additionally, the spat signals a change from the former style of diplomatic ties between the US and South Africa, which was characterized by politeness. Throughout his press conference, the US ambassador suggested that the US would no longer treat South Africa with kid gloves. Despite Pretoria's lack of strong US ties in the past, Washington has generally been receptive to Pretoria's views and concerns.
Political observers argue that the US approach to ties with South Africa has been influenced by the idea that South Africa is too strategically significant to be provoked for fear of pushing it toward China and Russia. The US is now using both its economic and diplomatic might because it perceives a danger to its security interests.
South Africa criticized the US' megaphone diplomacy, claiming disrespect, and Brigety later apologized. The US has in the past come under fire for its bullying behavior.
Implications of a Strained Relationship with the West
A strained relationship or sanctions from Western countries would be terrible for South Africa's economy. The country should seriously consider a loss of US investment. More than 600 US firms have operations in South Africa, and the US is the top source of FDI, bringing in more than US$7.5 billion in 2021.
There are many other potential economic repercussions. After the diplomatic spat between South Africa and the US, financial markets experienced a shock, and the rand fell to a record low of 19.51 to the dollar. A day later, South African bonds also lost 1% of their value, outpacing their peers in other emerging markets. In an already dire situation of rising costs of living, the weakened currency will now cause inflationary costs. Additionally, it will raise the price of outside funding even more.
South Africa benefits largely from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which is set to expire in 2025; however, it is rumored that South Africa will be suspended from it. South Africa may have crossed a boundary that the US considers unacceptable, but this is not a given, and retaliatory action may be considered. In the past, human rights abuses and wars have been the main reasons for suspending AGOA.
What’s Next for South Africa?
The US and other Western countries continue to monitor the situation, and everything will depend largely on how South Africa handles the current diplomatic spat and its relations with Russia. Despite its threats, Washington will probably take a wait-and-see approach before taking extreme action, such as imposing sanctions and suspending South Africa from the AGOA.
With the Russia-Africa conference in July and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) summit in August, South Africa’s relationship with the West is more likely to grow colder. In the latter scenario, the International Criminal Court-wanted Russian President Vladimir Putin might travel to South Africa, and South Africa will be put under pressure to arrest him.
South Africa must decide whether sacrificing Western assistance, investment, and trade access is worthwhile given the potential benefits from other partners. It is playing Russian roulette and should be cautious of the financial repercussions.