Johannesburg — A handful of senior U.S. lawmakers from both parties have sent a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jacob Sullivan and top U.S. trade envoy Katherine Tai calling for South Africa to be punished for its perceived support of Russia amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.
The June 9 letter, obtained by CBS News and first reported by The New York Times, argues that in spite of its stated neutral stance on the Ukraine war, the South African government has strengthened relations with Moscow since President Vladimir Putin launched Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, making it necessary, the lawmakers argue, for the U.S. to take action.
The letter (below) is the first call for open retaliation for what many in Washington see as South Africa moving toward alignment with Russia in a possible threat to U.S. national interests. Specifically, the lawmakers call for an upcoming summit under the auspices of the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to be relocated from South Africa to another nation.
The letter, signed by Sen. Chris Coons (D) and Republican Sen. Jim Risch, both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and endorsed by members from both parties on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says they’re “seriously concerned that hosting the 2023 AGOA Forum in South Africa would serve as an endorsement” of the country’s “support for Russia and possible violation of U.S. Sanction laws.”
The lawmakers say recent actions by South Africa call into question the country’s eligibility to benefit from the AGOA, which grants duty-free access to the U.S. market to goods from certain sub-Sharan African nations, including South Africa. There is a requirement in AGOA that benefiting countries should not engage in activities that undermine U.S. national security or foreign policy objectives.
South Africa, the continent’s largest single economy, exported about $3 billion worth of goods through AGOA to the United States in 2022.
South Africa’s relationship with the U.S. has been strained since the country declared a “non-aligned stance” on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It deteriorated further in May when U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety, speaking to local media, accused South Africa of secretly loading arms onto a sanctioned Russian ship in Simon’s Town harbor in December 2022, before the ship returned to Russia with its contents.
Brigety called it “fundamentally unacceptable.”
His comments came after tension flared in February when South Africa hosted joint naval war games off its coast with Russian and Chinese warships.
The lawmakers point to both incidents in their letter, saying the “actions by South Africa call into question its eligibility for trade benefits under AGOA due to the statutory requirement that beneficiary countries do not engage in activities that undermine United States national security or foreign policy interests.”
Last year, the U.S. removed Ethiopia, Mali and Guinea from AGOA over alleged human rights abuses.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced recently that an African leaders’ Peace Mission would travel to both Ukraine and Russia in June, and he’s expected to lead the delegation as soon as this week.
Both Presidents Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine have said they will meet the Africa leaders.
“Principal to our discussions are efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the devastating conflict in Ukraine,” Ramaphosa said when he announced the trip, on which he will join the leaders of five other African nations.
South Africa and Russia have a historically strong relationship, forged during the years of the apartheid regime. Moscow supported the now-ruling African National Congress when it was still a liberation party fighting to end the racist regime.
CBS News producer John Nolen in Washington contributed to this report.