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US lawmaker group wants S Africa punished over Russia ties

A group of US lawmakers has called for a US-Africa trade summit planned for later this year to be moved from South Africa in response to what they said was the country’s “deepening military relationship” with Russia.

In a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other senior officials, they also suggested South Africa is in danger of losing its benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) – Washington’s flagship trade programme.

South Africa is due to host the AGOA Forum in Johannesburg, a meeting of African leaders and US officials, to discuss the future of the programme, which is slated to expire in 2025.

South Africa’s exports to the US under AGOA reached nearly $1bn in the first three months of this year, making it the second-biggest beneficiary of the programme after Nigeria.

African nations are seeking to extend AGOA, which grants qualifying countries’ exports preferential access to the US.

“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, dated June 9, stated.

Referring to the letter, South African foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela said on Twitter, “There is no decision by the State Department/White House to move the AGOA Forum from SA.”

South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry, which manages the country’s trade relations with the United States, said it was not planning to respond publicly to the letter.

Judd Devermont, a special assistant to President Joe Biden focusing on Africa, said the White House shared Congress’s concern over South Africa’s “potential security partnership with Russia”.

However, he declined to say whether the administration was considering a change of venue for the AGOA Forum.

“I’m not going to get into the specifics of private conversations with the South Africans, but be sure we are having these conversations,” he told an online media briefing.

South Africa’s government has declared its neutrality in the war in Ukraine, and President Cyril Ramaphosa is participating in an effort by African leaders to mediate in the conflict.

However, the lawmakers voiced frustration with South Africa’s hosting of joint naval operations with China and Russia in February, as well as plans to hold a summit of BRICS leaders to which Russian President Vladimir Putin is invited despite being charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

The lawmakers also appeared to back up an accusation by the US ambassador to South Africa that a sanctioned Russian vessel collected weapons at a South African naval base last year. South African officials say they are not aware of such an arms transfer and have launched an independent inquiry into the incident.

Herman Mashaba, the former mayor of Johannesburg said on Twitter he will write a letter to the US lawmakers asking them to “give South Africa a chance until after the 2024 Provincial and National government [elections]”.

“South Africans should not be punished as a result of ANC government choosing to be on the wrong side of history,” he said.