Diplomatic relations between Washington and Pretoria had been muted for nearly seven years. Or the equivalent of Donald Trump’s mandate, plus a few years of uncertainty. A presidency marked by his disdain for “the countries of shit” (shitholes countries) of the African continent. A period that Antony Blinken refuses to mention in order to focus on the future, “the past does not matter”, he sweeps away.
America wants to come back in force in Africa and shows it through a delegation of about fifty officials and experts. “It’s a signal, proof of the importance we attach to our relations with South Africa,” said the head of American diplomacy. Apart from the Trump parenthesis, the two countries have good relations. “The United States is one of our most valuable partners,” confirmed Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations.
The shadow of Moscow
South Africa is the largest trading partner of the United States on the continent with the presence of companies such as General Electric or Ford. Between 2010 and 2021, trade between the two countries grew from US$13.9 billion to US$21 billion. The United States is the second largest destination for South African exports. “The United States still has a future in our country,” promised Naledi Pandor. Something to reassure Americans gone in the reconquest of the continent to counter the growing influence of Russia. At the end of July, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, visited Uganda, Egypt, Ethiopia and Congo-Brazzaville.
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The shadow of Moscow hangs over the US Secretary of State’s South African trip, as Pretoria refuses to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. For his part, Antony Blinken denounces the imperialism of Vladimir Putin, hoping to find a particular resonance in Africa, a victim of colonization. But South Africa does not appreciate being pushed to choose a side.
Punish those who don’t follow Washington
A bill, passed by the House of Representatives, had the gift of angering Naledi Pandor. It plans to require the US State Department “to present to Congress a strategy and plan to counter Russian influence and malign activities in Africa.” In a column published a week before Antony Blinken’s visit, the head of South African diplomacy criticized a text intended to “punish countries that do not follow the American line on the conflict between Ukraine and Russia”. An “offensive” bill, repeated Naledi Pandor at a press conference. The Secretary of State declined to explain what the hypothetical application of such a law would mean.
Pretoria and Washington tout a candor relationship as the foundation of a solid friendship. Friends who do not agree on many subjects, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ruling African National Congress calls Israel an apartheid regime. The recent Israeli strikes on Gaza allowed Naledi Pandor to highlight the inconsistency of the United States when it comes to condemning human rights violations around the world. “We should be as alarmed by the fate of the Palestinians as by that of the Ukrainians”, slipped Naledi Pandor.
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Another point of divergence: Western Sahara. Under Donald Trump, the United States recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, while Pretoria defends the cause of Sahrawi separatists. “I do not think I am being inelegant in disclosing to our colleagues that we had had very frank discussions at times when we disagreed, but it did not break our friendship, on the contrary it strengthened it”, appeased Naledi Pandora.
To say everything to each other is also to curb the ardor of the United States concerning its vision of democracy in Africa. One of the highlights of Antony Blinken’s visit to Pretoria was to be the presentation of a new American strategy for the continent. Among his four priorities, the Secretary of State insisted on the point number 2: “Working with our African partners to realize the promise of democracy. For the Americans, democracy must be obvious on the African continent and they propose to defend it.
“The overwhelming majority of African citizens prefer democracy to any other form of political regime,” said Antony Blinken, based on an Afrobarometer study published in 2019 and carried out in 34 countries on the continent which reveals – among other things – that 72 % of Africans reject military regimes. Making amends, Antony Blinken admitted that the American model was not perfect. “We are not going to treat democracy as an area where Africa has problems and the United States has the solutions. We recognize that our democracies are facing common challenges, which we must meet together, as equals,” added the Secretary of State.
A few hours earlier, Naledi Pandor warned against the temptation to impose his model. “If your tactic is to approach African countries by telling them that they must be democratic and use your model, because it works, you risk not being heard. History teaches us that a different approach is needed. And I would recommend paying more attention to tools developed by African countries,” Naledi Pandor advised.
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The end to end of the disagreements between the two nations should not overshadow the good operation of Antony Blinken. The US Secretary of State set foot on friendly ground before continuing a more complicated tour, marred by tensions between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. South Africa, a democratic nation since 1994, was the right country to discuss the benefits of this regime for peace and prosperity. It is also a privileged destination to address the rest of the continent.
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“What South Africa says, what South Africa does, has repercussions around the world,” flattered Antony Blinken at the end of a series of praises. His visit follows that of European Council President Charles Michel in July, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in June, French President Emmanuel Macron in May 2021.
It was from the Future Africa campus in Pretoria that Antony Blinken unveiled the new American strategy for Africa. At the very place where Emmanuel Macron had given a long speech on the means to be granted to Africa to fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. This amphitheater is a tailor-made setting for leaders in search of symbolism. To see if the ideas which are expressed there cross its walls and are well received through the continent.