AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
South Africa has fallen off the radar for much of the American media, and events over the past few weeks indicate the same was true of the Biden administration’s foreign policy team. As a result, the world of diplomacy was witness to an unusual sight: the U.S. ambassador to a foreign country making accusations against his hosts, and the Biden administration using anonymous sources to all but call him a liar but nevertheless leaving him in place.
The South African affair began when Ambassador Reuben Brigety said he “would bet my life on it” that South Africa’s government was shipping weapons to Russia and lying about it.
Brigety then came under withering fire from sources within his own government. “Multiple U.S. officials” told Politico that the ambassador’s “accusations were overstated and he may have damaged American interests in the long run.” A senior Biden administration official, who insisted on anonymity, even called into question the intelligence Brigety was operating with, suggesting the ambassador had exceeded what was known.
There was a time when a U.S. ambassador who disobeyed orders and insulted a host country using intelligence that Washington felt was unfounded in a manner which could damage American interests could expect to be sacked. Moreover, he could expect to be fired by senior officials who would see no need to hide behind the cloak of anonymity to engage in passive aggression through the media.
But under the Biden team, that is apparently not the case. Brigety remains in place, despite having called South Africa’s government liars and the Biden administration having implied he himself was full of it.
The failure to fire Brigety can perhaps be explained by some of the other quotes given by an unnamed senior official, who described South Africa as “definitely the de facto leader of sub-Saharan Africa,” before going on to declare “I don’t think we ‘need’ them. But it’s also not smart to make them an enemy.”
Either South Africa is important or not. Either the U.S. wishes to avoid making them an enemy, or American leadership is willing to make them an enemy to get what they want. The Biden administration seems indifferent at a critical point for the “de facto leader of Sub-Saharan Africa”.
Without a doubt, a critical moment is approaching for South Africa, and by focusing the relationship on South Africa’s attitude toward Ukraine, the Biden administration seems set on ignoring the forest fire for an obstructive tree.
The current government of President Cyril Ramaphosa is spiraling. Ramaphosa is a businessman who came to power with the promise of restoring functional government and the well-being of the ruling ANC in 2018 following the disastrous tenure of Jacob Zuma, who infamously suggested that HIV could be cured by a hot shower.
Rather than presiding over a recovery, Ramaphosa’s tenure has instead seen an acceleration of the deterioration of the country. He never managed to control the ruling African National Congress. He owed his election to a coalition among disparate anti-Zuma factions, and his allies failed to secure election to any of the other key party positions.
As the cabinet and regional officials are elected by the party, not selected by the president (a legacy of the ANC’s status as a Marxist liberation movement), this left Ramaphosa at best able to shuffle corrupt and incompetent officials around, not remove them. If anything, his authority was weaker than his predecessor.
Zuma’s corrupt proteges at least owed their positions to him and responded with loyalty, while he weaponized anti-corruption efforts against opposing factions. Without a strong faction loyal to Ramaphosa, any corruption prosecutions look like an attack on rivals, leading to Ramaphosa largely giving up on governing in order to focus on personal survival.
The result has been a national collapse. The country is suffering rolling blackouts, with residents of Cape Town going without power for up to 10 hours a day. Crime has skyrocketed, and the only response the government seems to have is to ban legal firearm ownership, denying law abiding citizens the ability to defend themselves. Few expect a government which cannot keep the lights on to be able to respond to illegal firearm ownership.
South Africa has elections scheduled for 2024. There is a serious risk that the ANC will lose its majority, forcing it to either form a coalition with the militantly left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters of Julius Malema, famous for his not particularly woke renditions of the song “Kill the Boer” at campaign events, or resort to support from Russia and China to maintain power. That would spark danger for the country’s remaining 3.5 million white residents, who would rapidly become targets in a civil war.
South Africa’s overtures to Russia and China are a product of its domestic collapse, not the preferences of Ramaphosa, who is nominally one of the most pro-Western figures since the end of Apartheid. A desperate government and party is likely to seek recourse to desperate means, and that includes accepting the friendship of anyone who is willing to offer it, whether that be Russia or China. Russia is not only willing to pay South Africa for arms, but is willing to pay South Africa to launder its international reputation on Moscow’s behalf, while China is willing to offer loans.
What is the United States under Joe Biden willing to offer South Africa, which the anonymous senior official termed the “de facto leader” of Southern Africa? The answer is hinted at by the official’s next remark: “I don’t think we need them.”
The U.S. attitude toward South Africa can at best be described as disinterest. The Trump administration, to its credit, expressed concern about the deteriorating domestic situation, including the widespread killing of mostly white farmers. This was rapidly spun as evidence of “racism” by Trump’s domestic critics, but the seriousness with which the concern was taken is evidenced by how quickly the ANC mobilized its defenders to flood Western media with stories about how the charges were overblown.
Pressure did work, as President Cyril Ramaphosa was forced as late as October 2020 to condemn attacks on farms as acts of “criminality.”
As noted, Ramaphosa is weak, and Trump’s pressure actually worked to the South African’s advantage. He was able to argue to ANC officials that the rising criminality, including attacks on white farmers, along with racially charged rhetoric on land seizures, was directly harming South Africa economically. Most relevantly to them, this threatened the flow of foreign money they could line their own pockets with. For a brief period, self-interest drove corrupt and often racist officials to work for good government.
There is a prior example of this process “working.” Robert Mugabe’s rule of Zimbabwe was never enlightened or democratic, but until the late 1990s, it was functional. That was because the white community was a source of greater profit remaining in Zimbabwe than dispossessed. Core to this was the use of British aid money, marked since 1980 for “land reform,” as a source of funding for senior Zimbabwean officials. By providing funding and investment to “study” land reform and economic development, an incentive was created never to undertake it, working for everyone.
Starting with the election of Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1997, the money was cut off. Officials argued it was being “stolen,” which in a sense it was, and therefore cut it off, removing both any incentive Zimbabwe had not to move against the white community, and creating a necessity to do so in order to find another source of money. The result was a collapse of the state which by 2019 left Zimbabwe alone with its mineral resources under the control of China.
Right now, the United States under Joe Biden is repeating those mistakes in South Africa. The Biden administration is simultaneously obsessed with tertiary demands of South Africa – that it condemn Russia in Ukraine or commit to arresting Vladmir Putin if he visits (which will merely ensure he does not) – while being unwilling to pay in hard cash rather than principled words, the only language South Africa’s rulers understand.
Now, with Brigety’s impolitic comments, even the words are passive aggressive and hostile. South Africa’s leaders want to hear what the U.S. will pay them not to trade with Russia or do to them if they refuse. They are not interested in evidence that they are doing so. They are fully aware of that, and it is impossible to shame those presiding over 10-hour daily blackouts.
They might respond to economic pressure, and the ambassador’s statement drove South Africa’s currency to a new low, but with the White House repudiating his action, all Biden has done is cost them money without either a stick or carrot.
China, by contrast, is ready with carrots, or at least corn. China agreed to buy more than 1 million pounds of corn from South Africa after canceling orders from the U.S. The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, is threatening to sanction South Africa for allowing Chinese firms to provide digital investment, including 2,000 cameras to detect criminal offenses, but there is no sign of an effort to push investment from America.
When it comes to the Biden administration’s approach to foreign policy in much of the world, South Africa is a case study. Few countries work on idealistic principles. Many more work on the principle of “What have you done for me lately?”
The Biden administration’s approach—“I don’t think we ‘need’ them, but it’s also not smart to make them an enemy”—ensures the worst of all worlds. Enough U.S. pressure to provoke resentment, but too little interest to promote change. The approach has cost Biden America’s historic friendship with Saudi Arabia. It is now costing him South Africa. It may well cost him the election if the inevitable explosion, including mass flight of white refugees, occurs before the 2024 U.S. election.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.