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President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: BLOOMBERG
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Nurturing a sense of crisis is sometimes helpful if you want to get something done.

Certainly, it would be naive to suppose that the US’s very public ratcheting up of pressure on SA over the past few months is not strategic. It is a perfectly rational response to the department of international relations & co-operation’s chaotic projection of our supposedly nonaligned position in global geopolitics.

It is common cause that the department is not what it used to be. Our recent conduct on the global stage has been a rolling circus. As in real life, it is not clear whether the clowns are supposed to be funny or terrifying. And so, when we cosy up to the world’s pre-eminent imperialist regime while it is firing rockets into civilian buildings in a European capital, one should expect some of our important trading partners in the West to find ways to express their irritation.

They do not really care about the ANC’s political affinity to the long-dead USSR, and the ideological positioning of the party would seem to most foreign observers to be from a different era. They have expressed this in many quiet ways, but most overtly by the US raising the worrisome possibility that SA may lose lucrative tariff-free access to the US market via the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).

It is therefore a good thing that President Cyril Ramaphosa has moved to cool a growing sense of worry about our continued membership of Agoa, due for renewal in 2026. Sending finance minister Enoch Godongwana to the US last week was a good call, but asking minister of trade, industry & competition Ebrahim Patel to tag along was less helpful. He is poorly regarded in Washington and is rightly seen as an obstruction to international investment and trade. He struggles to get decent meetings and as a result, the effect of the trip is said to have been limited.

The US has made its point, though. If President Vladimir Putin travels to SA to attend the Brics summit in August, then we are out. Nobody really wants this to happen, and it seems likely that Putin will attend digitally, and that we will remain in Agoa. But did it need to be such a drama?

The hullabaloo is an important lesson for the department of international relations & co-operation and the department of trade, industry & competition. After Agoa, the next large international trade crisis heading our way is the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM).

Ostensibly it is designed to arrest what is called “carbon leakage”, in which companies operate in more liberal emissions jurisdictions and then import the resulting products into the EU. Others claim it is just greenwashed protectionism. Either way, it has been coming for years but only recently has the government started to worry.

Western funders have offered a carrot to offset the CBAM stick, a concessionary green finance deal called the Just Energy Transition Investment Plan. Our government has engaged in startlingly bad faith on this deal. The transition from coal represents a big political and financial challenge because patronage structures around the coal supply chain have been well established for years. It is the only viable path to reaching SA’s commitments in the Paris Agreement, but it is not going to happen until the ANC can discern a viable path for its own survival as coal supply chains wind down.

These are all legitimately complex local issues that are hard to communicate. But it is not impossible. Ramaphosa should demand better of his diplomatic service. The consequences of its delinquency are starting to become expensive.

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