Former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, left, and President Donald Trump at a meeting at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Picture: REUTERS
Former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, left, and President Donald Trump at a meeting at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Picture: REUTERS

South Africa has an odd relationship with the US. The countries are far apart in geography and influence, and SA is not a particularly large terrorism concern for the US although cases do pop up every now and then. The histories of the two countries are not particularly intertwined in the same way they are with some European countries. In the world of US diplomacy, SA is a low priority for reasons both positive and negative.

Yet there are two very crucial bilateral aspects of the relationship, and one multilateral. First, there is the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which is the major force behind providing about 3.7-million South Africans with anti-retroviral treatment. This programme was introduced by former president George Bush and so far the US has spent about R70bn in SA since 2004. How many lives this has saved is hard to know, but "countless" would be an adequate description.

Second, there is Agoa, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which was introduced by former president Bill Clinton in 2000. The aim is to improve market access for African countries in general. SA has been a major beneficiary, and the result is that SA’s trade with the US is probably unusually high.

Firing Rex Tillerson  while on his first African tour was in itself an act of contempt for the African continent by Trump

SA’s government over the years treated this enormous generosity initiated personally by two US presidents from different sides of the aisle with a kind of loose contempt. ANC documents vigorously attacked the US for various political reasons, so in a sense it was not particularly surprising that former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson decided to skip SA on his short African tour. Yet eyebrows were raised since the multilateral reason for SA’s connection with the US is primarily as a continental leader and an important component in continental affairs.

But perhaps skipping SA was a good thing since Tillerson was fired by US President Donald Trump by Twitter post while visiting Kenya. Why he couldn’t wait till Tillerson got home to the US is hard to know. Firing him while on his first African tour was in itself an act of contempt for the African continent by Trump, but we who live in "s***hole" countries have come to terms with that.

More intriguing is why Tillerson was fired and whether his departure means anything for the remaining strands of the African and indeed South African relationship with the US, such as it is. The best guess is that it is ominous news. Tillerson, the "tough Texan", was by all reports unable to create a bond with the US foreign service. His tenure was accompanied by a string of high-profile departures — and a whole host of ambassadorships remain open, including that of ambassador to SA. So that on its own might have been the reason, although it seems unlikely.

Interestingly, Tillerson was fired after he remarked that the nerve gas attack recently carried out on a former Russian spy in England was a "really egregious act", but the US state department has forcefully argued that the decision to fire him was taken prior to Tillerson’s statement. The state department is very sensitive to the claim that it is soft on Russia, which the UK government is absolutely certain carried out the attack. But it doesn’t seem impossible that there is a link as the UK has since expelled 23 Russian diplomats over the attack and has sought assistance from its allies in this process. One of those "allies" is, of course, the US, which has so far not offered any assistance, although perhaps understandably since the new boss, former CIA director Mike Pompeo, has hardly got his feet under the desk.

Tillerson was widely seen as a force for keeping US policy on this side of rational, arguing for keeping a nuclear deal with Iran, continuing aid to Palestine and trying to moderate Trump’s verbal attacks on Qatar in its fractious relationship with Saudi Arabia, and maintaining respectable relations with the EU. Whatever the specific cause of the rift, the positive for Trump is that he now apparently has someone on board who agrees with his point of view. The negative for the world is that Trump apparently has someone on board who agrees with his point of view.