US Secretary of State came to SA, blinked and left

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, accompanied by South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor (not seen), speaks to members of the media after meeting together at the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation in Pretoria. Andrew Harnik/POOL/AFP

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, accompanied by South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor (not seen), speaks to members of the media after meeting together at the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation in Pretoria. Andrew Harnik/POOL/AFP

Published Aug 14, 2022


In yet another “lightning diplomacy” visit, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (aka Minister of Foreign Affairs), spent about 10 working hours in South Africa on August 8. His mission was to break South Africa’s resistance to joining the US-led economic war on Russia.

Biden’s America wants South Africa to impose total sanctions against Russia and demands that South Africa should condemn Russia’s occupation of the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. Like German Chancellor Scholz before him, during his visit on May 24, Blinken failed to deliver.

His South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor, reminded Blinken that international law requires conflicts to be resolved peacefully by the means of diplomacy and without the threat or use of force. Funding and arming one side in a military conflict can never end the fighting and the devastation of war.

At the press conference, Blinken looked tired when he referred to his visit to the Hector Pieterson Museum. Maybe he had come to realise that apartheid existed because it was armed and bankrolled by the West.

Sitting next to a stoic but still motherly, bemused Pandor, Blinken asked: “But if we allow a big country to bully a smaller one, to simply invade it and take its territory, then it’s going to be an open season not just in Europe but around the world.” Who doesn’t remember the schoolyard fun when a little guy is induced to insult and kick up dust against a bigger one, to provoke a reaction that can be used to get a teacher to reprimand and punish the unloved big guy?

Blinken’s imagery of an “open season” implies the coming of a “hunting season”. It hints at some stereotype “Russian Slayer” and it is childish and reflective of the “flat” view of the world that is so characteristic of American politicians.

The only “open season” known in Africa is the continually unhindered access to cobalt and other minerals that are critical for all battery-powered phones and vehicles. They are mined in sub-Saharan Africa at near zero cost, with reliance on the worst forms of child labour and exploitation.

Coinciding with Blinken’s visit, the US State Department issued a document titled “US Strategy Towards sub-Saharan Africa. It contains two critical and fundamental statements. First, the document puts on record the Biden administration’s decision to “work with the Congress on the future of Agoa (African Growth and Opportunity Act), which expires in 2025”.

No undertaking is given that the administration will defend the extension of Agoa, let alone make its continuation a cornerstone of future US-Africa relations. Agoa, by giving preferential access to the US markets to goods manufactured in southern Africa, is essential for the continuation of South Africa’s small but vital manufacturing industries, in particular car manufacturing.

By implication, Biden’s Africa Policy document raises the question of “the future of Agoa”. It is thus inviting sub-Saharan Africa to look with great urgency for alternative arrangements within the BRICS. The other key policy direction given in the US Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa document concerns the expansion of the work of Africom, the United States Africa Command.

Says the document: “In line with the 2022 National Defence Strategy, the Department of Defence will engage with African partners to expose and highlight the risks of negative PRC and Russian activities in Africa …. In addition, we will engage the US defence private sector via Prosper Africa to support sustainable technology and energy solutions for African militaries.”

This must be read together with the promise inserted on page 7 to “counter harmful activities by the PRC, Russia, and other foreign actors”. In effect, Biden’s new Africa Policy has added to the usual development aid conditionalities of a particularly American view of democracy, the countering of “harmful activities by China and Russia and others”.

Blinken’s visit to South Africa, the DRC and Rwanda happens against the backdrop of visits in May by the new head of Africom, General Stephen Townsend, to Somaliland, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, Angola and Rwanda. They all served the objective of expanding the US military footprint and influence in the officer ranks of defence forces throughout Africa.

Townsend is well experienced in underpinning American interests with a military influence, having been posted to Grenada, Panama and Haiti in the 1980s and 1990s and later in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria. In Somaliland, Townsend secured the return of 500 US special forces to Somali soil, after they had been withdrawn by president Donald Trump in early 2021.

The US contingent will support and train the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (Atmis). In Djibouti, Townsend welcomed Major General Jami Shawley as commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).

Shawley is a US Air Force helicopter pilot and the first female officer to oversee the 5 000 US forces stationed at Camp Lemonnier, in a continual stand-off with China’s People’s Liberation Army’s naval base in Djibouti. In Kenya, Townsend promoted the deployment of US attack drones from Kenyan soil to hit and “eliminate” (extra-judicially of course), suspected Al-Shabaab followers in Somalia.

In Angola, Townsend’s boosted naval co-operation with the US by assuring President João Lourenço, shortly before the forthcoming August elections, of unwavering US support. To oversee the elections, Congolese-born US Ambassador Tulinabo Mushingi is in Luanda.

A former executive director for Hillary Clinton, Mushingi has been the Democrats’ man in Africa for many years, in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Morocco, Tanzania, Burkina Faso and Senegal. Biden’s Africa policy is presenting itself as a military expansion strategy.

Forgotten is the promise of President Barack Obama, made during his 2013 speech in Cape Town, to bring “light to darkness” by investing a total of $16 billion into the region’s power grids. Instead of more light, southern Africa experienced more power blackouts. America’s new foreign relations with Africa appear more exclusionary and forceful than ever.

* This article was published first in

** Thomashausen is a German attorney and Professor Emeritus for International Law at Unisa