South Africa’s legal action against Israel for its military campaign in Gaza could upset the country’s trade relations with Israel’s biggest ally, the US, and further threaten the renewal of the African Growth Opportunity Act (Agoa).
This was the warning by US foreign policy expert Professor Michael Walsh, a senior fellow in the Africa Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, who spoke exclusively to Business Report on Friday.
It comes as South Africa went to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and brought a case against Israel of contravening the Genocide Convention by allegedly committing acts of genocide against Palestinians through its military action in Gaza.
More than 24 000 Palestinians have been killed, mostly women and children, since Israel launched its offensive against Hamas in retaliation for its attack on Israeli towns on October 7 last year.
Since Israel is being heavily supported by the US in its military action in Gaza, South Africa’s legal action to stop the war in Gaza could be interpreted by the US as undermining its national security interest, which is one of the conditions for being disqualified from Agoa.
Agoa, which is scheduled to expire in September next year, enables more than 30 African countries to export 1 835 types of goods to the US consumer market, and, in turn, Agoa affords the US access to critical minerals, product value chains and investment opportunities in Africa.
The US has been mulling delaying an early renewal of Agoa for South Africa, after disproved allegations that South Africa was selling weapons and ammunition to Russia in its war against Ukraine.
Walsh said the Agoa renewal process happening right now created an immediate opportunity for any member of the US Congress who wanted to take action against South Africa, or voice displeasure with South Africa, to make that known.
He said members of the US Congress could start making calls for cutting off security assistance or public health assistance to South Africa, and Agoa was the natural place for this to happen “because it's already been politicised”.
“You're going to see members of Congress either joining the draft legislation, calling for the out-of-cycle review, or potentially having a hearing on South Africa,” Walsh said.
“I would expect that if there is going to be public criticism of South Africa beyond what's happened so far, I do think there's going to be proposals made to take concrete legislative or at least policy action against South Africa for undermining US national security and foreign policy interests.
“Now it's a double edged sword because there are obviously even members of Congress who have been critical of Israel's military incursion into Gaza.”
South Africa’s Minister of Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel on Friday said the US had reached a preliminary agreement with African nations to extend their preferential trade access by another decade, pending approval by Congress.
"We reached broad agreement on the need to extend it for another 10 years," Patel said.
However, Pennsylvania senator John Fetterman last week slammed South Africa for bringing a case of genocide against Israel, saying that South Africa “ought to sit this one out”.
“South Africa should instead focus on the spiralling humanitarian crises on its own continent – like Sudan, where more than seven million people have been displaced with widespread atrocities,” Fretterman said.
However, Walsh said what Fetterman said reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of South Africa.
He said such remarks not only brought into question Fretterman’s competence to represent his constituents on foreign affairs, but they threatened to reinforce the notion that Western political leaders have very little respect for African perspectives.
“It is one thing to criticise the grounds of the case being made; it is quite another to claim that the history of South Africa makes it inappropriate to bring the case in the first place. He should immediately issue a sincere mea culpa for that incendiary claim,” he said.
Walsh said the Biden administration had been outmanoeuvred by the Ramaphosa administration, as the government of South Africa has had to consider what the implications would be, but continued nonetheless.
“And they clearly considered the implications and they clearly continue to make decisions which create more and more tension in the relationship because they feel like that's in their national interest, or it's in the ANC's political interest to do that,” Walsh said.
“The Biden administration is responsible for the hyper-politicisation of Agoa that's happened, and I think it's gonna be very hard for the administration to be able to not address the elephant in the room, which is, what do you do about South Africa's status under Agoa. The risk for US-South Africa economic relations is the most serious it's probably ever been.”
Meanwhile, Jacques Nel, head of Africa Macro at Oxford Africa Economics, said South Africa had committed significant intellectual and financial resources to present a cogent case against Israel.
“The nature of the issue means facts will not easily sway opinion, but a favourable outcome at the ICJ will vindicate the country’s condemnation of Israel and put pressure on Tel Aviv’s main benefactors, most notably the US and UK, to reign in their ally,” Nel said.