Assertions by Deputy Defence Minister Kebby Maphatsoe that Public Protector Thuli Madonsela is a CIA agent are, on the face of it, not that serious. Madonsela is rightly miffed and the US Ambassador will lodge a formal complaint. After some diplomatic egg-dancing, the affair will blow over and life will return to what passes for normal amongst our paranoid politicians.
Seasoned diplomats will recognise Maphatsoe’s remarks for what they are: an elderly party political hack attempting to brown-nose the boss. Such things happen, they’ll muse to each other over their drinks at the next diplomatic cocktail party. Wise, witty, urbane - these are men and women of the world, whose job it is to smooth ruffled feathers and oil the wheels of international exchange, whether it be financial, commercial or otherwise.
In Foggy Bottom, that part of Washington DC which houses the US State Department, there are none smoother, wiser or wittier. They’ll exchange rueful smiles at poor old Kebby’s faux pas, and just add it to the long list of gaffes by certain African governments.
But in another part of Washington, you’ll find a very different kind of political animal. In the undergrowth up on Capitol Hill lurk beasts long in claw and red in tooth, who specialise in spotting this kind of arrant nonsense from foreigners and using to their advantage at every opportunity.
They’re called Senators and Members of the House of Representatives - Congress - and they’re beholden to no-one but the voters back home in places like Ohio and Florida and Illinois. Such voters not only elect these political beasts, but they also complain to them ceaselessly and very bitterly about the number of American jobs that have been exported overseas, about how US tax dollars are being spent helping ungrateful people from other nations, and about how significant numbers of ‘our boys’ have been killed pointlessly in places like ‘Eye-Raq’.
That many of these voters don’t know the difference between South Africa and the South Pole is irrelevant. To them, we are “overseas” at best, “foreign” at worst, and woe betide anyone who dares besmirch the reputation of the United States. Anyone like Kebby Maphatsoe. If you think a US Senator is going to cut someone like Maphatsoe any kind of slack at the expense of one of his or her voters, you’re dreaming.
Senators also read newspapers like The Economist, which quite recently had a picture of the five BRICS leaders on its cover, after the 2014 BRICS summit in Fortaleza. There stood Jacob Zuma, hand-in-hand with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and their Brazilian and Indian counterparts.
This is the same Vladimir Putin whose proxies in Eastern Ukraine are shooting down innocent civilian airliners, and the same Xi Jinping who is causing the US and its allies such difficulties in the South China Sea. Well, that’s the way it would have played in places like Akron and Miami and Chicago. “And there’s that South African - right beside ‘em! And didn’t he go visit ‘Pootin’ just after he shot those poor Malaysians out of the sky?” Nor is it only in America that they say “You know a man by the company keeps!”
My point is a simple one: the next time South Africa goes looking to the US for favours, like the renewal of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which has to go before Congress for approval, guess what we can expect? AGOA makes it easier for African countries to compete in the US, but at the expense of certain sectors of the US economy - at the expense of those very voters who send Senators and Representatives to Capitol Hill.
Thanks, Mr Maphatsoe. You’ve just given Congress ammunition to say no, and made future renewals of AGOA a little bit more difficult. As someone recently remarked, South Africa must be the only country in recent history to have defected from the West.