I HAVE no doubt that primary economic sanctions against South Africa are not being considered by either the Americans or the European Union (EU).
This point of view may sound implausible precisely because President Cyril Ramaphosa also claimed this recently, but unfortunately — or perhaps rather fortunately — it is correct. South Africans should not be led astray by fears of opposition parties or civil rights organisations with an interest in making political capital out of dark scenarios.
The situation is already dire given the implausibility of Ramaphosa's word and the ineptitude of international relations and cooperation minister Naledi Pandor, but perhaps we should also not sell our peripheral vision of wisdom so cheaply to political astrologers with unlimited access to the media.
There is no indication that the EU has the political energy for international sanctions against South Africa. In fact, the EU has been exerting pressure on America for months to reconsider sanctions against Zimbabwe.
And the US will not or even cannot apply primary sanctions against South Africa unilaterally and without European support. As is the case with the US, the EU's trade relations with Mzansi are complex and span several industries. Countries that apply sanctions do not necessarily escape the consequences.
Targeted sanctions are in effect
But secondary or targeted sanctions against individuals or organisations that threaten US national security are clearly already in place.
During the past week, the Biden administration placed three South African aviation schools on a list of 40 entities that are considered a risk to US national security. These entities are effectively exposed to US sanctions. Against the background of the accusations by Reuben Brigety, the US ambassador to South Africa, that South Africa supplied weapons to Russia during its conflict with Ukraine, this is actually the last thing Pretoria can afford.
The Union Buildings and Luthuli House, but also the private sector, would do well to take note of the application of secondary sanctions. Such sanctions can often initially be pragmatically discounted in the context of the larger economy, but the damage to the fabric of trade and diplomatic relations manifests over time as a political cancer in the relationship between capital markets and the state.
Three flying schools — the Test Flying Academy of SA, Pearl Coral 1173 CC and the AVIC International Flight Training Academy — have been placed on a red list by the Americans and are restricted from exporting and importing goods deemed contrary to US national security interests. The three entities are accused by President Joe Biden and Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, of training China's military pilots with the help of Western and Nato sources.
It is important to note that this decision was made by the White House, which until now has shown great leniency and patience with South Africa's political unpredictability.
The problem for these aviation schools is that they often use contractors and pilots with a military past in the US or Britain. The Americans may, therefore, have a point regarding their fears that Western skills and equipment are used to train Chinese pilots in South Africa.
The head of the department of strategic studies in the military science faculty at Stellenbosch University, Prof Abel Esterhuyse, provides a sober version of events: “Of course South Africa has the weather conditions that make basic flying training possible, and the three flying schools are only used to teach the Chinese pilots basic flying skills. All three facilities are privately owned and there was no specific state involvement from the South African side. The advanced training is done elsewhere. The pilots are trained in countries where English is a primary language, because they will eventually operate in an international environment."
However, these facts did not deter the Americans from taking action against private sector companies doing business with the Chinese air force.
By this time, Washington is also convinced that it is important for Russia and China to maintain their military relations with South Africa, precisely because it sends a much stronger message than even ideological ties.
In reality, South Africa does not have a military industry of specific value to the Chinese and the Russians. The cadres have already looted anything that was available, and the symbolism of reciprocal military cooperation is certainly more important than the reality.
Importance of Agoa letter
However, Ramaphosa and the ANC may have a bigger responsibility than the Union Buildings realise regarding the decision on Vladimir Putin's impossible Brics visit to South Africa.
The Americans don't really have a problem with the improbability of Putin being arrested during the Brics summit in South Africa in August. The White House is not part of the International Criminal Court or the Rome Statute, and on top of that the Yanks have an unhealthy mistrust of international organisations that can patrol Washington's military industry.
It is more about mistrust that arises when South Africa allows Russian vessels and aircraft to use our military installations. But equally important is that lawmakers and the committees of both Houses are informed almost daily by intelligence services of international actions or events that take place contrary to US security interests and legislation. The White House, national intelligence, the diplomatic service and Congress in Washington operate in a coherent complexity that can be replicated by few other countries.
The South African media and alarmist opposition parties have been making much of a letter to the White House by four prominent US lawmakers this past week. Under the letterhead of the Congress of the United States of America, Christopher Coons (Republican), Gregory Meeks (Democrat), James Risch (Republican) and Michael McCaul (Republican) asked the White House to move the proposed rotational meeting of the Agoa Forum, which was supposed to take place in South Africa this year, to another African country. This bipartisan letter was addressed to Blinken, among others, as well as to Biden's national security adviser, Jacob Sullivan.
These four gentlemen are indeed heavyweights on Capitol Hill, and the Union Buildings should view their note to the White House with caution. Coons chairs the Senate subcommittee on foreign operations; Meeks is a former chair of the House foreign affairs committee; Risch is a member of the Senate foreign relations committee; and McCaul chairs the House foreign affairs committee. Even more important is that the letter came from Republicans and Democrats, and the fact that its signatories would not have sent it without the support of their committees.
Their proposal offers Biden and Blinken the most harmless or even symbolic form of protest against South Africa's fixation with Russia and Putin, without further alienating South Africa by threatening sanctions.
But equally important is that the White House will not treat this reasonable request lightly. The fact is that the Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Democrats the Senate. This puts tremendous pressure on Biden to make compromises that could lead to support from Republicans in Congress for other, far more weighty issues, such as military spending in Ukraine.
For South Africa, the loss of the Agoa Forum would be a severe setback and would increase pressure on the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) to deal responsibly with Putin's probable visit in August.
In truth, if Putin is allowed to set foot ashore in South Africa, it is almost inevitable that the Agoa Forum will take place elsewhere in Africa — and Ramaphosa and Pandor know this.
Mutual economic damage
But there is still time to fix the matter. Pressure group specialists from American companies with fixed investments here have already commenced discussions with US lawmakers to point out the enormous damage these companies would sustain if South Africa were left out of Agoa. South Africa, in turn, risks losing billions of rands in export revenue if the country is excluded.
Western Cape premier Alan Winde's visit to Washington in an attempt to repair the damage caused by Pandor's statement that South Africa will give up Agoa to protect our so-called non-alignment regarding Russia is more valuable than Dirco will want to admit.
Biden's historical empathy with liberation politics is well known, and US law gives the president the final say when it comes to this trade agreement. Biden may decide the forum should be moved, but afterwards he will call his friend in the Union Buildings and tell him: “Bru, don't let me down now."
By granting the four lawmakers' request, Biden may just find a loophole to temporarily sidestep the inevitability of South Africa's removal from Agoa and at the same time assure Congress he is not spending tax money in Ukraine without protecting America's national security politically.
The long and short of the matter is that South Africa's foreign relations and the complex variables which determine them should not always be read through the eyes of political parties, civil rights organisations or even the media.
Whatever the outcome, it can be understood as the result of pragmatism rather than that of an international punitive expedition. Governments that apply sanctions do so at a political as well as an economic cost for entrepreneurs in both countries.
That is precisely why secondary sanctions are a form of diplomatic pressure and primary sanctions are a last resort.
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