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International relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor. Picture: DIRCO
International relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor. Picture: DIRCO

SA international relations and co-operation minister Naledi Pandor was recently in Washington addressing various forums, in an attempt to stave off the adoption of a new US bill, the US-SA Bilateral Relations Review Act. If passed, the law would require the Biden administration to reconsider, among others, the substantial trade benefits SA enjoys under the African Growth & Opportunity Act (Agoa).

The bill easily passed with a bipartisan vote in the US House of Representatives’ foreign affairs committee, and goes next to the full House of Representatives for a vote, which will probably pass it too. At issue here is Pretoria’s shifting foreign policy, which is seemingly moving SA away from its traditional Western partners in favour of the likes of Russia, China and Iran under the guise of neutrality, at least at one level, while hanging on for dear life to substantial trade and benefits at another.

However, as the ANC in Pretoria may be about to find out it’s hard to play this game on two contradictory platforms, especially as in the latest theatre of conflict Pretoria has embraced Hamas and the Palestinians to Israel’s detriment, pleading for the latter’s international isolation and punishment.

This has angered many influential people in Washington. So too did earlier perceptions of the ANC government’s closeness to and support for Russia in respect of the war in Ukraine, among other controversial interactions with Russia. 

Yet in Washington, Pandor gave assurances that it was essentially business as usual, and the relationship between SA and the US was still as good as ever, mainly because in her view the Biden-led executive had a far better understanding of SA’s international position than those dastardly US legislators.

Really? Then why bother to travel to Washington on a spin-doctoring mission? It may well be argued that in this US election year, with Donald Trump once again knocking at the White House door, Biden will be careful not to further antagonise segments of the US electorate that are already unhappy with his pro-Israel handling of the war in Gaza, and therefore would adopt a softer stance towards SA.

But behind the scenes Biden’s understanding of Pretoria’s controversial new direction will not differ much, if at all, from that of the legislators. And a potential Trump administration is unlikely to have any sympathy for an ANC government’s foreign policy preferences. Has Pretoria — especially Pandor and her boss, President Cyril Ramaphosa — actually thought through the potential longer-term consequences of their actions and the immense harm it could cause SA?

That is to say, if they can remain in government long enough to see these actions through given that our own elections could bring about change on that front too. Nonetheless, being kicked off Agoa would be merely the start of a slippery slide to pariah status for SA. 

Some would no doubt argue that it is time for small countries such as SA to choose their friends as they see fit and to stand up to US bullying tactics that dictate “Do as we say or be punished”. That may be so, but the US is equally entitled to protect its own strategic interests as it sees fit, and in Washington’s view SA is compromising those interests with its current activities on the global stage. Washington certainly does not have to apologise over those it sees fit to trade with. 

It's hard to see what the ANC government’s motivation may be for these shifts in policy, other than ideological preferences and historic relations going back to the socialist-dominated, USSR-led so-called Non-Aligned Movement of the Cold War era. But those don’t bring benefits in hard currency or real-life advantages. It’s equally hard to see what future benefits it may hold for SA other than perhaps one or two Russian-built nuclear power stations that have long been on the Kremlin’s wish list.

Or is it all just an ego trip of politicians and a governing party that is on its way out of power, guided by its own misconceptions, a kind of defiant last stand to try and leave what it perceives to be a better mark on history than all its many governance failures?

Equally puzzling is Pandor's central and dominant role in all of this. She is by far one of the best minds in the ANC and its government since the inglorious departure of Pallo Jordan for falsely claiming to possess a PhD. In Pandor’s case the multiple qualifications are all real and legitimately earned. In Washington last week her participation in an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Africa Programme to provide insight into current relations between SA and the US served to remind one how articulate she is.

Her impressive career — both academic and political — and raises the question: what went wrong? Why does she so enthusiastically defend and promote this self-destructive foreign policy shift when she is more than capable of bringing to the table a far more balanced, neutral and advantageous foreign policy offering? Perhaps she tried and failed, as witnessed when immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine her department issued a statement calling for Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. Within hours that statement was replaced with one far more supportive of Russia, apparently at the behest of an angry presidency and ANC, who were scared of bedevilling their friendship with the Kremlin. From there on it was all downhill — to Russia and Vladimir Putin’s great advantage. 

For the most part a charming Pandor’s replies to questions at the Carnegie event were articulate, well-reasoned and even reasonable, setting out some understandable shifts in foreign policy. But when she indicated that US-SA relations were as good as ever, a warning light came on. A policy propped up by deceit and lies can hardly hope to succeed in the longer run or result in measurable benefits for a suffering country like SA.

This was strikingly on display in Pandor’s performance at the Carnegie event when she said, without blinking an eye, that the Ramaphosa government had never extended diplomatic immunity to Putin when he hoped to attend the Brics summit in SA in 2023, thereby circumventing an international arrest warrant for him. Yet she published in the Government Gazette of May 29 2023 a general immunity for all who would attend the summit, in full knowledge that Putin was the only person who would actually need such immunity. Disingenuous to say the least. 

And the cherry on top: when asked by the Carnegie moderator about SA associating in Brics with authoritarian regimes such as Iran — invited in 2023 by SA to join Brics — she answered that there were no authoritarian regimes in Brics. When a clearly speechless Carnegie moderator asked her, just to make sure, whether she did not think Iran might be an authoritarian regime where human rights are trampled upon, she repeated her answer even more emphatically: Iran is not an authoritarian regime.

Many ordinary Iranians, especially women hounded by the religious police, would undeniably differ from her. And apart from Iran, what about Russia, China or the UAE, all clearly authoritarian regimes? Given that some security analysts suspect that the devastating terrorist attack in Moscow by Islamic State (IS) gunmen last week was retaliation for Moscow’s support of Shia Muslims, SA’s love affair with Iran may carry other risks too. IS hates few more than Shia Islam and those who support it.

If this astonishing denial of reality by Pandor and her government is anything to go by, one wonders in how many other respects our unfolding new foreign policy is being shaped in similar fashion … with smoke and mirrors, deceit and lies, the creation of imagined realities, and total disregard of the likely consequences. What, eventually, will be the price SA will have to pay? 

• Terblanche, a former journalist, is an independent political risk analyst based in Cape Town.

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