John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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The United States and South Africa: An Opportunity for Closer Relations

by John Campbell
August 9, 2012

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma attend a photo call after a brief meeting in Durban, August 8, 2009. (Rogan Ward/Courtesy Reuters)


Notwithstanding official rhetoric to the contrary, the bilateral relationship between South Africa and the United States is not as close as it ought to be.  The partnership has been thin on African regional challenges and the dialogue often superficial on issues ranging from reform of the United Nations Security Council to the leadership of international financial institutions or nuclear non-proliferation.  South African specialists in international affairs frequently see the United States as favoring violence over negotiation (as in the case of Libya) or as riding roughshod over the sovereignty of other nations (citing American-driven UN sanctions against Iran.) Americans, in turn, have seen South Africa as failing to assume a leadership role in Africa and too often inappropriately ascribing Western involvement in Africa merely to “neocolonialism.”

In a Policy Innovation Memorandum the Council on Foreign Relations has just released today, I argue that a convergence of views between Washington and Pretoria on developments in Zimbabwe provides an opportunity to work together for a democratic transition and thereby establish a pattern of closer bilateral consultations and cooperation. I also argue that given Nigeria’s current difficulties, South Africa is now the only African country with the clout to partner with the United States on a range of African strategic issues.

Read it here.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by John P. Causey, IV


    Great post! Since arriving in SA I’ve been amazed at the fragility and superficiality of the relationship between the US and SA. The elements for a sound partnership are in place; one can only guess as to why sentiments are chilled.

    The Zim angle is an interesting one! Would love to see more articles giving your views on ways for the US to effectively partner with African countries, namely SA and Nigeria.


  • Posted by Charlene Smith

    I have to confess that I have not yet read a worse critique of the situation in Zimbabwe, and South Africa’s role. Has the writer ever been to southern Africa? Who did he speak to? How long ago was he last there?
    As a southern African political journalist who has advised the MDC and the SA government at various times, and is an authorized biographer of Nelson Mandela, I’d like to make some points:
    * There is no good alternative to Mugabe, he is disastrous, but the MDC has also failed to rise to the challenge of effective leadership. What is the alternative? I believe that there will be a temporary leader after Mugabe goes, that will in turn lead to deeper power struggles and a period of uncertainty perhaps five years before a decent leader emerges.
    * Mandela loathed Mugabe.
    * Violence began with the 2000 presidential elections, not just in 2008.
    * There will be no civil war in Zimbabwe, not now, maybe never. At 95% unemployment and acute poverty, people are too hungry, too depressed, and lacking arms or the will to fight. All are equally disadvantaged by Mugabe’s rule. Civil war requires clear groups that will attack each other, this is not present here.
    * The SA population is not at all favorably disposed to the United States, they see it as imperialist and war-mongering. They loved Obama when he came into office in 2008, now they are deeply disillusioned, his drone attacks and signing into power indefinite detention without trial on December 31, 2011 did not help. South Africans remember detention without trial, they lived under it, those in leadership positions suffered because of it, they trust no one who will sign into law anything sanctioning that.
    * A co-ordinated approach toward Zimbabwe between the United States and South Africa would ensure Zuma would lose his hopes of returning to office – it would cause such anger in South Africa. Hillary Clinton is deeply respected, but not enough to justify a co-ordinated approach with the US.
    * In my experience poor advice from the US in the past helped the MDC lose its way. The United States would be supported in funding election monitors now, but frankly no one would trust SADC monitors, it would need to be a truly global group – and in the end what would that mean? Another report about another stolen African election? We really need to be looking at an end game for Zimbabwe here, not fiddling with side issues. Around half the Zimbabwean population is living in the diaspora in Botswana, the UK and South Africa – there are well educated, talented people among them. How should one create a viable group among them, and support those who are gifted to prepare for leadership positions? Few in the diaspore support any of the political groups now in power in Zimbabwe, and that includes the MDC, but among them are those who will one day lead a, hopefully, revitalised, and just, Zimbabwe.
    Two more points:
    * To suggest that the US should praise the SA leadership is to show an astonishing lack of awareness of SA politics today, the country is riven with corruption and maladministration. For the present US administration to praise it is to ensure that no South African will trust the United States administration.
    * And police action by SADC to curb election violence – I am astonished that the writer would suggest this. It would be like US troops/police going into Canada to curb election violence there. What was the writer thinking when he penned that? It is confirmation of a writer, who may be well intentioned but who is totally out of touch with southern Africa, and in the end good intentions are never enough. Thoughtful analysis is what one hopes for from the Council on Foreign Relations.

  • Posted by Roger Jolie

    Charlene, just curious, where are you based because from your website it certainly doesn’t look like you’re based in South Africa either – pot calling the kettle black, no?
    Most of your points are pretty good, but I suggest you refresh your memory of the last South African election results (>60% of people voted for the ANC). To suggest that the US, by praising SA leadership will result in the US administration not being trusted by South Africans is terribly naive, or using your own words showing “… an astonishing lack of awareness of SA politics today”.

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