How did America end up here?


How did America end up here?

After the presidential debate in the US, PIET CROUCAMP is convinced that South Africans should be more worried than ever about the prospect of Donald Trump in the White House.


I MADE the effort to get up at 4am last Friday to watch the US presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump on CNN. And it was a morbid experience. How did the world's largest economy  produce two presidential candidates like this, in what is considered to be a low point in its political history?

My dislike for Trump knows no bounds. Like our own Gayton McKenzie, he is simply poor political genetics. In fact, I find him and his entire family repulsive. But how did the land of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln get to this point? What in the US political system gives birth to a phenomenon like Trump?

Biden was a brilliant, razor-sharp politician in his youth, but now he belongs in Huis Herfsblaar rather than the White House. Watching him stumble like a lost soul over his own thoughts as the psychopathic, sexist Trump stared at him in bemusement left many more questions than answers.

Why does the Democratic Party allow him to stand, knowing it is probably handing the White House on a plate to the Republicans and Trump? In a political chess game, how can Biden face up to someone like President Xi Jinping of China? Why would Russian president Vladimir Putin or Nato leaders trust the judgement of a US leader who is at times unsure of who and where he is?

South Africans should also be concerned about Biden's neurological condition because the US election battle could have enormous consequences for us. Biden is well disposed towards South Africa and the liberation movement, but if Trump is sworn in as president in January, our international trade relations will sail into uncertain waters.

Talks about Agoa

In November 2023, talks about the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) were held in Johannesburg. The Biden administration's trade representative, Katherine Tai, is extremely positive about South Africa's value and supply chains. The 700 or so American companies with interests here moved mountains to convince her delegation of senior officials from US government departments and agencies, as well as professional staff from the US Congress, that South Africa is still a good place to do business.

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South Africa's trade and industry minister at the time was Ebrahim Patel. He and his erstwhile mining and energy colleague Gwede Mantashe can certainly be blamed for a significant part of South Africa's deindustrialisation in the last decade, but Patel and finance minister Enoch Godongwana did an incredibly good job of keeping South Africa in the Agoa agreement.

However, this can be largely undone with members of the US Congress in recent weeks having once again made a pertinent written request to the White House that South Africa's involvement in Agoa be revisited. With Biden as president, the likelihood of South Africa being removed from the agreement is slim, but if Trump replaces him this “shithole country" will be in uncertain waters. Trump will probably not take South Africa out of the agreement willy-nilly, but it is almost a given that he will reduce its trade advantages.

SA still on the grey list

All these issues and political storm clouds must be read against the background of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) announcement last week that South Africa has not done enough to be removed from the international watchdog's grey list for countries that do not have the capacity to act against international money laundering and the financing of terrorism. The FATF is an intergovernmental organisation established in 1989 by the Group of Seven countries to set international norms on these issues.

Godongwana indicated this week that he hopes South Africa can be removed from the grey list by mid-2025, but this is unlikely to happen. The FATF's 2024 report refers to the inability of our criminal justice system to investigate and prosecute complex commercial cases. More worrying is a reference to the Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC) finding that Islamic State has an entrenched presence in South Africa. This FIC update has moved South Africa's risk of being a jurisdiction targeted for terrorist financing from “moderate" to “high".

Think for a minute what background information the US Congress uses when it asks that Biden re-evaluates South Africa's risk to US security interests. Then foreign minister Naledi Pandor visited Iran on October 22 last year and held in-depth talks with then president Ayatollah Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi. Shortly afterwards, on December 29, South Africa brought its case against Israel to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. There are Americans who find these two dates too close to each other to be mere coincidence.

Hamas and Iran

For a paranoid Trump administration and a significant part of the US Congress, it is a morbid possibility that our arguments in The Hague are furthering the cause of Hamas and that Iran is involved in financing international terrorism in South Africa.

Well, South Africa is implicated, but what is the role of the ANC? During the election campaign, the party was in a difficult financial position. There is still no evidence that the it is funded by Iran, but this line of thought has been circulating in US intelligence circles for longer than is good for South Africa.

In his budget speech on February 21, Godongwana allocated R200 million to political parties for the election campaign. There is little doubt in many minds that a desperate ANC minister was helping his bankrupt party. The ANC, then still the majority party in the National Assembly, claimed the lion's share of this amount.

On May 7, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed into law amendments to the Political Party Funding Act, removing a clause setting an annual limit of R15 million on donations by a single donor. The threshold of R100,000 for declaring donations to the Electoral Commission of South Africa suddenly looks arbitrary. Unless the president simultaneously promulgates regulations governing the upper limit of donations and the reporting thresholds, there will be no limits and no reporting requirements. The tenderpreneurs in South Africa's value and supply chains will be able to fund the ANC with no risk of political stigma.

Rumours of money laundering

Innuendo linking money laundering to the ANC refuses to quieten down. Claims that the money from Phala Phala was intended for the ANC's treasury in Luthuli House will not go away. Especially with the ghost hovering of Bejani Chauke, an obscure character close to the president who sometimes flies to foreign destinations at state expense, allegedly to raise money for the ANC. The suspicions were reinforced when Chauke tried to be elected to the position of treasurer-general at the ANC leadership conference in December 2022.

Former politician Derek Hanekom found it necessary to warn Chauke on X that his access to funds was questionable. Rumours sometimes appear in the media of people whose lives are threatened when they raise Chauke's relationship with the president. Chauke recently appeared on the ANC's parliamentary list, then his name quietly vanished again. All these events cast a cloud over the integrity of Ramaphosa and correspond to FATF fears and US intelligence suspicions.

The Biden administration has decided not to take the Lady R incident any further, but US intelligence officers in the Pretoria embassy are standing their ground. Claims by ambassador Reuben Brigety that South Africa sent weapons to Russia for the war on Ukraine have never been repudiated. This is also the background for a News24 report this week that the US has placed a South African company under sanctions. The letter from Congress to the White House that Agoa must be reviewed comes in the same week that “evidence" was presented of a case where sanctions against the Test Flying Academy have become the last and only resort.

Test Flying Academy

The academy has an address in George in the Western Cape and appears to use Western and Nato military personnel to train Chinese military pilots. In 2022, the British issued a similar “threat alert" with reference to the academy, and the US Congress says South Africa is acting contrary to America's international security interests.

Normally, the Americans communicate with the government and intelligence services of the relevant jurisdiction before sanctions are applied. If the Test Flying Academy does not violate South African legislation, there is probably nothing the local authorities can do about it, but its impact on our largest trading partners' security interests could have consequences, not only for the Agoa agreement but also for our trade ties with Europe.

Biden called Ramaphosa last Tuesday and said he would like to visit South Africa soon. With the Test Flying Academy saga fresh in the minds of American intelligence, the letter from Congress to the White House asking that South Africa's involvement in Agoa be reconsidered and the FATF report pronouncing judgment on the presence of Islamic State in South Africa, this intended visit is surely not just a coincidence.

Finally, Pandor would have stayed on as minister of international relations and co-operation if she had been asked. What motivated  Ramaphosa to replace her with Ronald Lamola? This is probably a question for another occasion, but the answer may also be more complex and obscure than we think.


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