Confidential Memo to President Cyril Ramaphosa

You, Cde President, have a great following and particular legitimacy in America and you should make it a personal priority to re-engage with the US.

11 September 2018 ·   6 min read

Confidential Memo to President Cyril Ramaphosa

From: International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu
Subject: Dealing with the Donald, and America
Date: September 2018

President Donald Trump’s recent bizarre tweet about “land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers” in our country was easily dismissed as the uninformed repetition of right-wing scare tactics. After being on the defensive during the presidency of Jacob Zuma, it felt good to regain the moral high ground that we occupied for so long during the struggle and Madiba’s presidency.

However, this own goal by the American president should not obscure a much bigger and more important issue: we have a major problem with the US that is mainly of our own doing. We do, of course, have principled disagreements with the Americans on important issues and we should not be shy about airing those differences.

Unfortunately, much of foreign policy toward America is not founded on a clear-eyed vision of our interests but is distorted by misplaced revolutionary ardour, virtue signalling to particular constituencies, and personal pique. In other words, we are sometimes quite Trumpian.

Voting patterns in the UN are one indication of the fundamental differences between Washington and Pretoria. Since 1994, the annual voting coincidence in the UN General Assembly between South Africa and the US has averaged 26%. It declined from the mid-30s under Mandela and Clinton in the 1990s to the teens under Mbeki-Bush, the low 20s during the Obama years, and 18% for 2017. South Africa agrees on just one in five issues in the UN with our second-largest trade partner and largest investor.

On human rights, voting overlap peaked at 62.5% in 1995 and reached its nadir at 8.3% in 2013, early in Obama’s second term. On issues of economic development, the coincidence of interest has been just 8.2% over the 23 years.

Even the most sympathetic American president will have to realise that we don’t like them and do not share their ideology.

By comparison, South Africa’s votes with China most of the time: in the high-80s and early-90s, averaging 89.1% since 1994.

On the world stage, we have flaunted our disagreements with the US long before Donald Trump entered the White House. It can be argued that these votes are just cynical bones thrown to our comrades because nothing done in the General Assembly really matters. However, we devote considerable time to the UN and we should also agree that our hostility to American preferences is our real policy, or change our voting.

At the same time, since 2001, the US has provided considerable aid, especially to combatting HIV-Aids through its Pepfar scheme, some R6.2-billion (at our current depressing exchange rate) in 2016 alone. This money was given despite the fact that South Africa is considerably richer than many of America’s other recipients.

While we have tried to diversify our economy towards high-growth partners in Asia and through the BRICS initiative, whatever our record about the decline of the US and its economy, we should not kid ourselves that it is unimportant. It is still the biggest market in the world, $19-trillion of the $80-trillion global economy (China is $12-trillion). We have to realise though that the per capita GDP in the US is at $60,000, more than seven times greater than China’s.

Subscribe to our newsletter

The US remains our second-largest trade partner behind China. Unlike China, from whom we now import twice as much as we export, the balance of our two-way trade figure with the US of $12.8-billion is in our favour, nearly $3-billion in 2017.

These figures assume even greater importance given that 250,000 of our citizens are employed directly and indirectly by the 600 American companies operating in South Africa. There is also an important continental dimension to this. America is the second-largest trade partner with Africa (with two-way trade of $55-billion in 2017).

The small number of people in the US who follow South Africa and have considerable influence on actual policy have long noted successive post-apartheid governments almost reflexive anti-Americanism in many public settings as well as actions that seem largely designed to antagonise Washington, notably our friendship with Iran.

The US military has not found our defence force to be a willing partner. To the contrary, we have consistently pushed back on American efforts to help our deteriorating armed forces which as, you known, we ourselves declared in 2014 to be in a “critical state of decline”.

Instead, we have turned to the Russians and Cubans to try to help us, cementing a negative view of our country’s strategic direction among the world’s most powerful military actor and economy. American diplomats complain that they are routinely frustrated by their lack of access to our administration.

Most importantly, a wider swath of Americans have come to realise that we are no longer the rainbow nation of Mandela’s hopes. A series of recent articles in the New York Times, still the paper of record for many Americans, and hardly a right-wing rag, can be taken as an indication that we are becoming, in their perspective, just another corrupt developing country.

Lest we attribute this bad news to just the wrongdoings of the last administration, it is useful to focus on a recent article in that paper that noted, among other things:

Under the ANC, “the education system has been in a shambles, so gutted by corruption that even party officials are dismayed at how little students are learning, in schools so decrepit that children have plunged to their deaths in pit toilets”. The article asks if our new leaders, including Cde Deputy President David Mabuza, are “part of the problem”.

The informed American elite are also well aware of South Africa’s problems with State Capture, the long record of credit downgrades, and, most importantly, the failure of South Africans themselves to invest in our country.

Our intelligence agencies tell us that Washington is tiring of what we hear they refer to as our “obvious dislike and disregard” for them. We overhear that they are at the point of “cutting us loose”. We must judge whether this is something to risk as the consequences would be disastrous for our relationship. We can already discern a change in Washington’s attitude. It rejected our request for exemption from tough new import tariffs on steel and aluminium. They had warned us for voting so regularly against them in the UN, which we did not, I am afraid to report, take seriously.

World map


Browse our content by country

Explore now

I would, in the circumstance, recommend that we urgently review our approach to this bilateral relationship. There are small steps that can be easily taken that can change the atmospherics and trajectory of our relationship.

We need to rebuild trust through high-level political engagement. Our binational commission, which was labelled the Gore-Mbeki Commission, has limped along since 1995, increasingly crippled by politics. Such institutions have just proven a fig-leaf for deeper problems which we are now reaping.

You, Cde President, have a great following and particular legitimacy in America and you should make it a personal priority to re-engage with the US.

In addition, we need strategic political alignment. I would propose three immediate avenues.

First, through increasing people-to-people diplomacy in a manner that is mutually beneficial. I would like to propose that we approach the US to increase the number of scholarships. Currently there are 41,000 African students studying in the US, nearly 1,800 from SA. We should ask them to provide 5,000 places for our civil servants each year.

Second, we should ask the US for assistance in rebuilding our air force transport fleet. Currently just two of our nine C130 aircraft are flying. We should ask them for pilot-training places at their academies. Our attempts to increase our pilot numbers in Russia and Cuba have been an abject failure, and without them, our air force is effectively grounded. Working with the Americans on this simple issue would signal our desire to reinvigorate the security relationship.

Third, we must ensure we not only keep the trade relationship flowing, but grow it at this moment of acute economic stress. There is a complex schizophrenia on both sides of the Atlantic here. President Trump currently preaches a trade war but is busy renegotiating deals. We profess a commitment to free trade, but our Department of Trade and Industry practises increasingly a one-way mercantilism with all sorts of non-tariff barriers. We should be bold. We should look at a US-SA Free Trade deal.

Our broken relationship with America has been a long time in the making. There is far more complexity to the US-SA relationship, however, than just the tweets of the 45th president. Remove him from the relationship, and the tone might change even if the problems won’t easily go away.

But first we have to change the things that are within our power. We have to admit where we have gone wrong, and amend these ways. That will require a different approach from the whole of our government and be led by you.

This is a fictional memo about a serious topic, compiled by the SA-US team of Greg Mills and Jeffrey Herbst.

The original article can be found on The Daily Maverick.