A Question for Washington and Pretoria: Do African Lives Matter?

It’s hard for the United States to be looked up to in Africa if it is not standing upright.

5 February 2024 ·   7 min read

A Question for Washington and Pretoria: Do African Lives Matter?

The day before the International Court of Justice passed judgment on the case of genocide instigated by South Africa against Israel, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, made a call to his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor. The read-out of the conversation is bland.

“The Secretary reaffirmed support for Israel’s right to ensure the terrorist attacks of October 7 can never be repeated. Secretary Blinken and Minister Pandor also reaffirmed the importance of the US-South Africa partnership and cooperation on shared priorities, including health, trade, and energy.”

While such statements are usually an exercise in diplomatic banality, such a vapid commentary on a subject of such importance is as maddeningly unwelcome as it’s mostly unsurprising. The Biden administration has form on democracy in Africa.

This week, President Cyril Ramaphosa warned darkly of countries with “a regime-change agenda” interfering in South Africa’s election. This was because South Africa had “exposed the moral bankruptcy of those countries who, by their acts of omission and commission, are allowing genocide to take place in Gaza on their watch. We say this humbly, without pointing fingers.”

SA’s President was not referring to Russia of course, which has some form in election gerrymandering, and not only at home. The finger was pointing at the US, which the ANC has decided is to be the target of its new populist foreign policy as it repositions itself as an anti-Western friend of Russia, Iran and China.

Ramaphosa’s tilt at the imperialist windmill is somewhat ironic. The US has in recent times been more than accommodating of liberation movements and their rigged elections.

Little over a year ago, Blinken gave his country’s blessing to Angola’s 2022 general elections, saying, “We congratulate President-elect João Lourenço on his election as Angola’s next president. We look forward to working with him to strengthen the vital relationship between Angola and the United States.”

The US, Blinken said, commended “the millions of Angolan voters who cast their ballots in this election, and in doing so demonstrated their commitment to strengthening democracy”.

Blinken’s comments were a new high point in Orwellian doublespeak. There are very few serious observers of the election who concurred, at least in private. More Angolan voters voted for the opposition party Unita than for Lourenço, a fact claimed by Unita using a parallel counting method and backed up by the independent civic movement Mudei, which monitored the election.

Despite the fact that some 2.7 million “deceased people” were on the voters’ roll, Angola’s courts rejected Unita’s challenge and, as soldiers were mobilised across the country to put down protests, the dodgy result stood.

“We demand electoral truth. No to fraud!” said one of the many young Angolans who had voted to throw out the MPLA government which had ruled since 1975, enriching its elite and failing to bring development to the country despite massive oil revenues.

Barely a month later, Lourenço was at the White House shooting the breeze with US President Joe Biden.

Biden said: “Simply put, a partnership between Angola and America is more important and more impactful than ever.”

Then he got down to business: “Together, we’ll be mobilising more than … $1-billion for railway lines that extend from Angola to Zambia to the DRC, and ultimately to the Indian Ocean, connecting the continent for the first time from east to west.”


Presumably, this path is not because African democracy is not worthy of Washington’s support. More likely, commercial interests trample values, again.

And yet the strongest selling point among Africans, especially its younger cohort, of the US is precisely its democratic status, a feature preferred by more than 70% of Africans polled.

When asked which country they saw as the best model for their future development, 33% of respondents in a 2021 Afrobarometer survey chose the US, while 22% chose China. Out of 34 countries surveyed, the US polled more than China in 23 countries, greater than the number two years earlier. Younger Africans (36% of people aged 18-25) said they were more likely than older Africans (26% of people above 55) to prefer the US as a model for development.

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‘Big man politics’

The endorsement of the flawed election and the embracing of the Angolan strongman who rigged it was revealing on two levels.

First, it showed that the US was still stuck in the “big man” politics of Africa where you concentrate your efforts on winning over an elite, usually with expensive projects.

Second, it showed how US geostrategic interests — in this case, competition with China for the renewable energy mineral portfolio of the southern Congo — are the key drivers of its African interventions. The trains on the Lobito Corridor will be the bearers of these minerals.

The Angolan electoral doublespeak was followed by DRC electoral doublespeak in December after that country held elections that also failed the credibility test. Nothing, not even democracy, should stand in the way of Biden’s trainloads of minerals.

The problem with this approach is that it is focused on elites — usually corrupt, frequently human rights abusers and by no stretch of the imagination, democrats — at the expense of the people who are at their mercy.

How do the voters of Angola view the US proselytising about human rights elsewhere when their right to choose their government was taken away from them with the enthusiastic support of this same government? The answer is, “with a great deal of anger and cynicism”.

The US needs to wake up to the fact that this “big man” old guard, which has held on to power way past its sell-by date, does not represent the continent and is, in fact, the root of its failure to develop and offer a better life to its people.

But Washington appears blind to the fact that there is an African Renaissance under way. It is not so much the developmental renaissance imagined by then President Thabo Mbeki as a political renaissance led by highly resilient opposition figures who wish to see democratic transformation.

The Brenthurst Foundation hosted many of these leaders last year in Poland where the Gdansk Declaration was signed. This 21-point document commits leaders to follow democratic practices and to act with openness and accountability.

One of the signatories was Adalberto Costa Júnior, the leader of Unita, a party which ought to have won the 2022 election. Leaders from Tanzania, Uganda, Namibia, South Africa, Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya, among many others, signed the pledge.

Writing about the declaration, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, former Polish president and Nobel laureate Lech Walesa and former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko said: “We are in the era of intellect, information and globalisation. The old order is collapsing, but the new order has not yet arisen.

“Those wanting to build a new society need to work together and win one another’s trust.

“This struggle between the old and the new is epitomised by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is a struggle between those who are seeking to create a new imperial order where might is right and those who believe in democracy and the application of global rules around sovereignty.”

The US needs to understand that its “big man” diplomacy might yield cynical short-term gains, but undermines the much-needed transition to democracy in Africa by ignoring those across the continent who are sacrificing a great deal to bring about change.

It also undermines the US’s strongest selling point in Africa: its freedoms of opportunity, political as well as economic, and the prospect of social mobility.

Little wonder that US foreign policy no longer carries the weight it once had when it resonated with those wanting democracy across the globe. It’s hard to be looked up to if you are not standing upright.

The US attitude towards democracy on the continent, and indeed towards a SA which, to misquote President Lyndon Johnson, “is inside the tent pissing in” when it comes to being on Washington’s side in managing international crises, may sympathetically be explained by the limits to its bandwidth.

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Regional challenges

The international system is facing several simultaneous regional challenges.

Across the Middle East, Iran and its proxies, including Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen, are waging war against various combinations of Israel, the monarchies of the Gulf and Jordan, and the US. These fights have threatened to spill over into the Red Sea states, in the process inflaming domestic insurrections among some littoral states, but with a regional design.

In East Asia, China is deliberately flexing its muscles against what it sees as US containment. As Xi Jinping told delegates to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in March 2023, “Western countries led by the United States have implemented comprehensive containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development.”

In addition to its constant testing of the defences of tech-rich Taiwan, Beijing has also spoken out against those other regional countries allied with Washington: Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. These countries, one Chinese military official has remarked, are “the three running dogs of the United States in Asia. We only need to kill one, and it will immediately bring the others to heel.”

The US has to find the means, too, to counter China’s $1-trillion commercial-diplomatic Belt and Road Initiative, which uses a combination of loans and infrastructure to extend influence.

The BRICS grouping should be viewed in the same light, purportedly representing the interests of the “Global South” in an attempt to remake the extant rules-based international order more to China’s interests.

This includes the ambition to undo the US dollar’s dominance as the preferred reserve currency, driven by the fear of being trapped by a weaponised dollar through the imposition of extraterritorial measures, along with a more general thrust among poorer nations for greater economic independence.

And in Europe, considered for 70 years to be mostly stable and settled, war has returned as Russia, a declining power, has attempted to assert its primacy in the former Soviet states. Not only is this set to last, at various intensities, for years in a bitter proxy struggle with the West, but it could expand to draw in other states under a pretext of reinstating Russian rights, notably in bits of the Baltics, such as the Suwalki Gap in northeastern Poland linking Belarus with the Baltic.

In Latin America, where populists abound, across the Sahel and into West Africa, where big men increasingly once more rule, and with ongoing Islamist insurgencies in several places, the US has apparently found its limits in managing multiple multi-theatre crises. It doesn’t need to inflame a problem with South Africa.

Across these regions, the starkest division is between those with authoritarian governance and geopolitical gripes on the one hand, including a desire to refashion the multilateral order (though none of the aggrieved can agree on how), and a more liberal order which has delivered relative prosperity in the generation since the end of the Cold War (if imperfectly so).

The perception seemingly shared among those challenging the current rules-based order is that these rules have been made unfairly in the interests of the West, the “haves”, against the interests of the “have-nots” — even though there is little aside from their in-principle grievances on which the “have-nots” agree.

For now, however, there is a common enemy in the US, itself divided at home and uncertain abroad.

At best, Blinken’s call with Pandor is to signal (to like-minded colleagues, among others) that Washington and Pretoria are talking.

The question is: to what end? Perhaps the silent treatment might have delivered more, or at least not signalled tacit acceptance of SA’s one-eyed view on Israel’s excesses while remaining silent on the multitude of African abuses.

Ramaphosa’s use of the foreign-funding bogeyman should remind Washington what happens when you are perceived as weak or distracted.

Then again, it’s hard to moralise on much when you have such a flip-floppy attitude towards democracy on the continent. At this rate, Washington will be promising us rides to the airport next. Just ask any Afghan about the value of that pledge.

This article originally appeared on the Daily Maverick

Photos: Michel Porro/Alex Wong Getty Images