The White House said Tuesday it shared concerns over South Africa’s relationship with Russia after lawmakers called for the longtime US partner’s expulsion from a major trade pact.
Four senior members of the US Congress across party lines asked whether South Africa should remain in the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, which offers duty-free access into the world’s largest economy for sub-Saharan African countries that meet democratic criteria.
“We share Congress’s concern about South Africa’s potential security partnership with Russia,” Judd Devermont, the top White House official on sub-Saharan Africa, told reporters when asked about the lawmakers’ letter.
He stopped short of discussing South Africa’s future in the trade pact, saying only, “The law is very clear on what we’ll follow, and that won’t change for South Africa.”
Molly Phee, the top State Department official on sub-Saharan Africa, said the United States had “respect” for South Africa’s “longstanding policy of nonalignment.”
“It’s our expectation that the South African government will adhere to that policy when dealing with this terrible conflict in Europe,” she said, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, in an unusually strong statement last month, alleged that a Russian freighter loaded up weapons and ammunition on a stop at a Cape Town naval base.
The United States later tried to played down the public spat with South Africa, which has abstained on UN resolutions on the war in Ukraine and has voiced appreciation for the former Soviet Union’s opposition to the former apartheid regime.
In the letter, lawmakers including Representative Mike McCaul, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat active on Africa, said that South Africa may have violated US sanctions.
“These actions by South Africa call into question its eligibility for trade benefits under AGOA due to the statutory requirement that beneficiary countries ‘not engage in activities that undermine United States national security or foreign policy interests,'” they wrote.
The lawmakers also called for an upcoming AGOA forum to be moved out of South Africa.
President Joe Biden’s administration earlier suspended AGOA benefits for Ethiopia due to human rights concerns as it waged a war against Tigrayan rebels.
The trade pact as a whole ends in 2025, with little plan yet for any successor.