US senator questions SA’s eligibility for Agoa

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) Forum is being held at the Nasrec Expo Centre. Picture: Itumeleng English/ Independent Newspapers

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) Forum is being held at the Nasrec Expo Centre. Picture: Itumeleng English/ Independent Newspapers

Published Nov 3, 2023


A US senator has slammed the Biden administration for forging ahead with the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) Forum in South Africa, saying the country has “concerning relationships” with Russia, Iran and Palestine's Hamas.

This comes as the 20th Agoa Forum was officially opened by President Cyril Ramaphosa in Johannesburg on Friday, where he also lobbied for early reauthorisation and renewal of Agoa, saying it would help to ensure the legislation achieves its objectives and reaches its full potential.

In recent months, South Africa’s ongoing eligibility for expanded duty-free access to United States markets through Agoa has become uncertain.

Agoa provides 35 eligible sub-Saharan African countries with duty-free access to the US market for more than 1 800 products, in addition to the more than 5 000 products that are eligible for duty-free access under the Generalised System of Preferences programme.

Many senior US officials have been unhappy with the South African government’s geopolitical stance concerning Russia and the war in Ukraine – a situation primarily exacerbated by the recent Lady R debacle.

US Senator Jim Risch, a Republican representative from the State of Idaho, and a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Thursday sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

In the letter, Risch said he was disappointed to learn that South Africa would remain fully eligible for Agoa’s duty-free trade preferences in 2024, despite its continued actions that allegedly subvert US national security and foreign policy interests.

“South Africa’s relationship with Russia, and most recently with Iran and Hamas, undermine necessary eligibility safeguards in the Agoa statute, and the administration failed to take standard formal actions to communicate Agoa-related concerns to South Africa through a warning letter or demarche,” Risch said.

“The administration’s handling of Agoa, exemplified by its posture toward South Africa, make it clear that Congress must take course-correcting action.”

To meet Agoa’s rigorous eligibility requirements, countries must establish or make continual progress toward establishing a market-based economy, the rule of law, political pluralism, and the right to due process.

Additionally, countries must eliminate barriers to US trade and investment, enact policies to reduce poverty, combat corruption, and protect human rights.

South Africa has maintained its foreign policy position when it comes to the Russia/Ukraine war, calling for reform of the multilateral financial institutions and the UN Security Council as a priority.

Ramaphosa recently said African countries should, as sovereign states, be able to pursue independent foreign policy approaches that are not beholden to any of the major global powers or blocs.

Risch said that arguments by some that stricter enforcement of Agoa eligibility requirements would hinder broader US trade and investment in Africa and hamper US efforts to counter economic threats by global malign actors were misplaced.

He said prioritising commerce over US principles and national security interests undermined their credibility as a strategic alternative to their way of doing business.

“I understand the importance of Agoa in bolstering the United States’ economic relationship with Sub-Saharan Africa. I support Agoa’s early reauthorisation before it expires in 2025,” Risch said.

“However, the administration’s decision to host the Agoa forum in South Africa and maintain South Africa’s eligibility for Agoa benefits in 2024 compromises the programme’s integrity and our trade preferences.

“As Congress grapples with Agoa reauthorisation, I urge robust changes to Agoa’s eligibility criteria, management of the Agoa programme by US Trade Representative, and oversight of the Act’s implementation by Congress.

“Recent actions by South Africa to directly challenge the United States and align with our adversaries make the Johannesburg Forum another example of the administration sending mixed messages and engaging in contradictory foreign policy.”