A bipartisan group of American lawmakers has asked the Biden administration to punish South Africa for what it sees as the country’s support of Russia’s war in Ukraine by moving a major trade conference scheduled to be held in South Africa this year to another country.
The request, made in a letter sent last week, is the first concrete effort at retaliation by members of the U.S. government over the growing view in Washington that South Africa’s relationship with Russia is moving in a direction that threatens America’s national interests.
The letter, obtained by The New York Times, centers on an annual forum for the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA. The act provides duty-free access to the U.S. trade market for about three dozen African nations. South Africa, one of the continent’s most developed economies, is its biggest beneficiary, exporting about $3 billion worth of goods to the United States through AGOA last year.
U.S. officials have said intelligence suggests that South Africa may have helped supply Russia with arms for the war. South African officials say the country is “nonaligned” on the conflict, and deny selling weapons to Russia.
American lawmakers and the Biden administration have been at odds over how to respond to the suspicion.
While both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have said it is time for South Africa, usually a strong American ally, to face consequences, the White House has taken a wait-and-see approach to allow President Cyril Ramaphosa to fulfill his promise to investigate whether arms were indeed supplied.
The AGOA forum, which alternates locations between the United States and an African nation each year, is designed to deepen diplomatic and economic ties between America and the continent.
Beyond the forum, the more serious concern for South Africa is that it might lose its access to AGOA all together, which would be a painful blow to a country that relies on the United States as its second-largest trading partner. The lawmakers’ letter described South Africa as “in danger of losing AGOA benefits.”
The requirements for joining AGOA, which targets mostly low-income nations, are set out by Congress. Federal regulations empower the president to add or remove countries from AGOA, a process that is administered through the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The trade representative also coordinates the annual forum.
South Africa’s relationship with the United States has grown increasingly tense since Russia started the war in Ukraine.
American officials say they do not begrudge South Africa the right to maintain a friendship with Russia or to refuse to condemn the invasion. But they say that South Africa may have crossed a line and provided material support for the war. They point to a Russian cargo ship under U.S. sanctions, the Lady R, that docked at a naval base near Cape Town last December.
“Intelligence suggests that the South African government used this opportunity to covertly supply Russia with arms and ammunition that could be used in its illegal war in Ukraine,” the letter from the lawmakers said.
As evidence that South Africa is not neutral on the war, the U.S. lawmakers also pointed to joint military exercises that it held with Russia and China in February; a Russian cargo plane under U.S. sanctions that was allowed to land at a South African air force base in April; and South Africa’s plan to host an international summit known as BRICS in August that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia may attend.
“We are seriously concerned that hosting the 2023 AGOA Forum in South Africa would serve as an implicit endorsement of South Africa’s damaging support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” the letter said.
The letter was signed by Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and by Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the committee. It was also signed by the top Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the House’s foreign affairs committee.
In a statement, a spokesman for the State Department reiterated the importance of AGOA and the forum, but did not elaborate on how the administration planned to respond to the lawmakers’ request. “We share congressional concerns about South Africa’s security relationship with Russia,” the statement said.
Vincent Magwenya, a spokesman for Mr. Ramaphosa, said his office would comment once the United States made a decision regarding the AGOA forum. Mr. Magwenya noted that Mr. Ramaphosa is to lead a delegation of African heads of state trying to broker a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine.
Even before tensions erupted over the war in Ukraine, questions had been raised about whether South Africa should continue to have free access to the U.S. trade market given the advanced state of its economy, according to South African and American officials.
The feud over Russia has only further fueled speculation that South Africa could be written out of AGOA when the act is scheduled to be renewed in 2025.
Last year, the United States removed Ethiopia, Guinea and Mali from AGOA, citing human rights abuses and other violations of the program’s conditions.