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Hamas Allegations Threaten Another Breakdown in US-South Africa Ties – Foreign Policy Research Institute

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A nation must think before it acts.
The Biden administration is facing an emerging challenge that could result in another breakdown in the strategic partnership with South Africa. In the aftermath of the Hamas attack on Israel, there are concerns that the South African government has engaged in international affairs that, at face value, violate the eligibility requirements for certain non-reciprocal trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Members of Congress are likely to want the Biden administration to respond to these concerns before South Africa hosts the AGOA Forum next month.
Sadly for the White House, it is becoming a very long year for bilateral relations between South Africa and the United States. The latest threat to the strategic partnership revolves around a reported call between Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, and South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor. During that call, Hamas claims that Pandor “affirmed South African solidarity with the Palestinian people and with Gaza in the Al-Aqsa flood battle.” South Africa acknowledges that Pandor “reiterated South Africa’s solidarity and support for the people of Palestine.” However, it steadfastly denies that Pandor “offered support” for Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, which the United States has publicly denounced as a “brutal terrorist attack.” 
These conflicting accounts are an unwelcome development. If Pandor actually expressed solidarity for the Hamas attack on Israel, then South Africa may have not only undermined US national security and foreign policy. It may have provided support for acts of international terrorism in the eyes of American officials. Either would carry serious policy implications for US-South Africa ties. For one, they would provide strong grounds for deeming South Africa ineligible for the non-reciprocal trade benefits under AGOA. That is why members of Congress will likely want the Biden administration to provide an intelligence assessment on the reported call as soon as possible. They will want to know if the concerns are warranted and whether something more is going on behind the scenes.
Federal agencies may not be afforded much time to provide this intelligence assessment to oversight bodies. The Biden administration is widely expected to provide the United States Congress with the 2024 Annual Review of Country Eligibility for Benefits Under AGOA before the end of this month. This will ensure that they remain in compliance with annual reporting requirements. This year, there are expected to be a lot of eligibility changes due to the number of coups and patterns of democratic backsliding across the continent. Over the summer, serious questions were also raised about the eligibility status of South Africa, too. The formal investigation into whether South Africa transferred arms to Russia during the seemingly clandestine docking of the Lady R at Naval Base Simon’s Town last winter was a necessary step in addressing those questions. So was a BRICS Summit no-show by Vladimir Putin. 
In the exercise of their oversight duties, it seems reasonable to assume that Congress will want answers to the questions circulating in the public domain about the complex web of relations between Hamas, the African National Congress (ANC), and South Africa when the annual eligibility review is delivered to them. This includes those members of Congress who penned a letter to the Biden administration over the summer that called “into question” the AGOA eligibility of South Africa and its suitability to host the AGOA Forum. Those signatories included Sens. Christopher Coons and James Risch, as well as Reps. Gregory Meeks and Michael McCaul.
To be clear, the ultimate decision on whether South Africa remains eligible for the duty-free trade benefits afforded by AGOA rests with the US executive branch. The White House has the power to alter whatever annual determination has been made on the eligibility of South Africa. However, a reading of the tea leaves suggests that the White House will not want to make any changes to the eligibility of South Africa at this time. It would be a huge political hit to give South Africa the Burkina Faso treatment, even if what was alleged in the Hamas statement rings true. Five days before the Hamas attack on Israel, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his South African counterpart, Sydney Mufamadi, had a call to discuss the investigation into the Lady R incident by South African authorities. The call readout declared that Sullivan and Mufamadi “reaffirmed the strong partnership between South Africa and the United States, and recommitted to advance shared priorities.” The White House will be mindful that a reversal on AGOA eligibility could not only deal a fatal blow to a strategic partnership that they have worked incredibly hard to rescue. It could also be weaponized by political opponents in the run-up to the national elections in the United States next year.
Of course, it does not help that the White House is already under heavy fire for separate remarks made by Sullivan about the Middle East. Eight days before the Hamas attack on Israel, Sullivan openly acknowledged spending far less time on Middle Eastern affairs than his immediate predecessors. To make matters worse, he emphasized that the region was “quieter than it has been in two decades.” Unsurprisingly, pressure has been steadily mounting for President Joe Biden to hold individuals accountable for what has transpired since those remarks were made. One of those individuals is the national security advisor. Some political opponents have called for Sullivan to be fired, and he has been singled out for responsibility for the harsh response by the Arab world to attempts by the Biden administration to negotiate a solution to the crisis that is aligned with US interests. While a reversal on the AGOA eligibility of South Africa would be nowhere near as harmful to US national interests as the last-minute cancellation of the Arab leaders summit last week, it would severely undermine the credibility of US efforts to reset relations with South Africa. And that could negatively impact other bilateral and multilateral relations across Sub-Saharan Africa, including US relations with the African Union and Southern African Development Community. 
Whatever happens between now and the AGOA Forum, members of Congress should strongly resist the temptation to jump to conclusions about the relationship between Hamas and South Africa solely on the basis of media reporting. Like the Lady R incident, there will be “a lot of hypotheses, hunches, conjectures, and suppositions being masqueraded as facts.” There are not only many actors who would benefit from a statement of support for Hamas by South Africa—there are many who would benefit from spreading disinformation and misinformation about such a statement. Some might see it as a useful means of resurrecting the image of the ANC as a liberation movement in the run-up to the South African national elections next year. This includes factions within the ANC. Others might see it as a practical way to derail the ongoing attempts by the Biden administration to reset relations with the Ramaphosa administration in the aftermath of the Lady R incident. This includes Hamas, Iran, and major power competitors of the United States (e.g., China and Russia). Still others might see it as a vehicle for discrediting the ANC as a political institution on the national and international stage. There is a wide range of political desires that could motivate such a perception. Some want to see opposition parties defeat the ANC in next year’s elections. Some want to see a reversal of the downgrading of diplomatic relations with Israel. Some want to bring an end to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign against Israel. The list goes on and on.
While Congress awaits an intelligence assessment from the Biden administration, the US Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety should engage on these concerns in the host country. Unfortunately, many South Africans see Brigety as being neither an expert nor a trustworthy interlocutor in the wake of an anonymous attack on his credibility by the National Security Council and the rejection of his allegations by South African investigators. This presents a massive problem for the United States. The US embassy needs a chief of mission who can be persuasive in front of the media, not the subject of speculation, in the event of major contingencies. It remains unclear how that can happen in the current environment. More attention needs to be paid to addressing this problem.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
Image: State Department (Photo by Freddie Everett)
Michael Walsh is a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Africa Program.
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