By John J Stremlau
Recent actions by US President Donald Trumpís administration are severely straining relations with South Africaís new government led by President Cyril Ramaphosa. And relations between the two governments are likely to worsen.
The first blow was last monthís threat by Trumpís UN Ambassador Nikki Haley that countries unwilling to tow the US line would be punished. According to a list of the 2017 General Assembly vote counts released in March, South Africa was one of the 10 least supportive countries. It voted with the US only 18% of the time.
More recently, Ramaphosaís expressed disappointment at Trumpís withdrawal from Barack Obamaís nuclear deal with Iran is likely to raise the US presidentís ire, especially as South Africa presses ahead with plans to expand trade with Iran.
And relations between the two countries could sour further following South Africaís decision to recall its ambassador to Israel in protest against the killing by the Israeli army of over 50 Palestinians protesting against the relocation of the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The relocation came after Trump recognized the disputed holy city Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
South Africa has a lot to lose. As the only liberal democracy on the State Departmentís list of ten UN members most critical of US policies, it is also the only one that benefits substantially from extensive trade and assistance agreements with the US.
Trumpís announcement that South Africa wouldnít be given exemption from his recent unilateral hikes in tariffs on US imports of steel and aluminum has not yet been linked to its UN voting record. But commentators have raised this possibility.
Losing out on the exemption could cost South Africa 7,500 jobs. The impact on the countryís economy could be far worse if Trump moves against South African manufactured products that currently enjoy special access to US markets under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). In my view, this threat may be exaggerated. And Trumpís targeting of South Africa would be rightly criticised as an attempt to undermine Ramaphosaís efforts to reform and revitalize his nationís troubled democracy and economy.
Given the size of the US economy relative to South Africaís, many will view this as another case of David versus Goliath, with most rooting for David. South Africaís challenge will be to exploit those conditions and facts that might disarm its more powerful adversary. Several are already evident.
First, the timing of the Trump administrationís actions is happening just as Ramaphosaís commitment to redress corruption and misrule under his predecessor Jacob Zuma is receiving international recognition and praise.
In addition, Ramaphosa is embellishing South Africaís image in a year-long domestic and international campaign celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the iconic Nelson Mandela. He is pledging fresh and determined efforts to uphold the Mandela legacy.
In this spirit, Ramaphosa lobbied and received unanimous African support for South Africaís bid for another two-year term on the UN Security Council. This is almost certain to be affirmed next month by the UN General Assembly in a vote thatís bound to raise South Africaís standing internationally.
The following month former US president Barack Obama comes to Johannesburg to deliver the annual Mandela lecture. The world will once again be reminded of Mandelaís values and ideals, as well as the contrasts between Trumpís character and that of his predecessor.
Second, itís worth revisiting the State Departmentís UN voting scorecard. The votes show that the mood of the General Assembly has become much more hostile since Trump became president. On the 92 issues that required UN General Assembly votes last year, the US was backed in only 31% of its resolutions Ė the lowest level of support since 2008.
This reflects the fact that Trumpís immediate predecessors tended to be pragmatic. Although for decades majorities in the General Assembly disagreed with the US on issues such as Palestinian rights, and the merits of US military adventures, there was nevertheless cooperation in other areas.
But Trump has long been dismissive of the UN and multilateralism in general as of little value or importance to the US.
Had South Africa voted with the US a few more times it would have joined the league of African states such as Kenya (20%), Ethiopia (21%) and Nigeria (22%). China (22%), Brazil (23%), and India (25%) arenít much higher.
Third, the US claim that it was refusing to exempt South African from the steel and aluminum tariff hikes for ďnational securityĒ reasons was laughable and might not survive World Trade Organisation scrutiny. South Africa supplies less than 2% of these commodities to the US. Yet the US saw fit to exempt nearly 60% of steel exports from the USís European and other allies.
Fears that Trump may try to abrogate other South Africa preferences that allow imports of manufactured products, notably BMW Series 3 and Mercedes C Class automobiles, with a lot more jobs at stake, are understandable. South Africa should lobby a receptive US Congress to prevent this. Bi-partisan majorities recently renewed duty-free access until 2025, after protracted and successful negotiations with South Africa.
South Africa can also draw on the Congressional goodwill that so far has resisted Trumpís attempts to cut development assistance to Africa, including SA.
And finally, the business community has responded positively to Ramaphosaís emissaries seeking support for his global campaign to raise USD$100 billion of investments for the country.
Standing up to a bully
There are many entrenched networks of cooperation between South Africa and the US among sister cities, provinces and states, civic organizations, educational and scientific exchanges, and various cultural and historical ties. They can all help to shield South Africa from Trumpís bullying.
Other countries, uncertain about how to respond to Trump, may not have the same means that South Africa has to connect directly and extensively with the American people. But, if Pretoria is willing to stand up to Trump, it might encourage African and other smaller countries to rethink simply trying to placate him as he persists in demeaning and denigrating them.
Professor John Stremlau is the 2017 Bradlow Fellow at SA Institute of International Affairs. He is also the Visiting Professor of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand.
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