The US had finally had enough of all the South African promises and missed deadlines, says Peter Fabricius.

Johannesburg - Well, have the chickens finally come home to roost in the long game of playing chicken which South Africa has been playing with the US over the fowl imports? Yes and no.

President Barack Obama has just officially informed Pretoria and the US Congress, with some fanfare, that he intends suspending all of South Africa’s agricultural benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) on January 5 next year.

That would jeopardise, in particular, billions of rand of food exports to the US and kill tens of thousands of jobs.

Obama’s apparently drastic move followed the South African government’s failure to implement agreements to allow limited imports of US poultry, beef and pork into South Africa. Pretoria had banned these for years on health grounds which the US considers spurious.

So is Obama’s move a disaster? Not necessarily. Obama inserted an escape clause. If the two sides agreed on a deal to allow the US meat in before the January 5 deadline, then South Africa’s agricultural benefits would not be lost.

And Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies insisted officials from South Africa and the US would nail down a deal that would let in US meat imports before the end of the year.

So why all the fuss from Washington, you might ask? Probably because the US had finally had enough of all the South African promises and missed deadlines so it issued a final deadline which is set in stone and cannot simply be ignored.

This deadline, unlike the previous ones, is in the form of a presidential determination, sent to Congress and to South Africa. If those US chickens do not cross the frontier by January 5, South Africa will indeed lose its agricultural Agoa benefits.

You can likely bet, therefore, that the January 5 deadline will be met. Then you could ask why South Africa played this game of chicken – or brinkmanship – with Washington for so long. Who knows? Maybe the ruling party felt it was being bullied by the US. Maybe it felt it could extract last-minute concessions.

Or maybe it just didn’t believe the US would be so mean and nasty to poor little South Africa struggling to create jobs and feed its people. But trade is a tough game all over the world. It’s where the kid gloves come off and naked national interests are revealed.

The deal on the table is not so bad for South Africa. It’s really a workable compromise between the tough demands of US meat producers, channelled through Congress and the more benevolent interest of wider US relations with South Africa.

Coincidentally, but significantly, South Africa will probably face another important deadline at the end of the year. Last week the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked the ICC judges to give South Africa a definite deadline of around the end of the year to submit its reasons for not arresting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, a fugitive from ICC justice, when he visited South Africa in June for the AU summit.

The ICC wants South Africa’s submission to help it decide whether or not Pretoria – an ICC member – broke the rules by refusing an explicit ICC request when Bashir was in the country to arrest him and hand him over.

The ICC judges had already extended the October 5 deadline for South Africa’s submission until its own internal legal processes relating to its failure to arrest Bashir are concluded. But Bensouda complained to the judges last week that the case could go to the Constitutional Court and drag on well into next year.

She noted the ICC processes and the South African legal process were completely independent of each other and asked the judges therefore to give Pretoria a definite deadline by about the end of the year to submit its explanation, regardless of the state of the South Africa domestic legal case.

She also expressed concerns that South Africa might use the pending nature of its legal and ICC processes as an excuse to allow Bashir to visit again – probably meaning for the Forum for China-Africa Co-operation next month.

One can detect a common thread between the Agoa and ICC disputes. In both cases, South Africa is playing for time, hoping that something will come up to let it off a difficult hook.

Pretoria needs to accept that South Africa is not a special case any more, even if it was in the Mandela era. There are international rules and commitments which simply must be obeyed.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday independent

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