The White House says a recent high-level call "reaffirmed the strong partnership between South Africa and the United States" — a move that analysts said Tuesday improves what has long been a tense relationship, marred by a public diplomatic spat and Pretoria's reluctance to disengage from Russia.
In a readout issued late Monday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said he spoke by phone to his South African counterpart, Sydney Mufamadi, and that the two "recommitted to advance shared priorities including trade and investment, infrastructure, health, and climate."
Sullivan also thanked South Africa for hosting an upcoming high-level meeting on the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which allows duty-free U.S. market access and expires in 2025. South Africa is one of the program's top beneficiaries, and congressional Democrats and Republicans had suggested that South Africa be excluded from this year's forum over the diplomatic dust-up.
Four different analysts told VOA that Monday's call between the two national security advisers makes clear that the diplomatic disagreement has been laid to rest and that the two are redefining their relationship.
"Overall," said Ebenezer Obadare, a Nigerian American academic who follows the continent at the Council on Foreign Relations, "Pretoria seems to have emerged from this a little bit stronger and Washington with some egg on its face."
The tale of Lady R
The two nations have been on the outs since May, when the U.S. ambassador publicly accused South Africa of secretly supplying arms and ammunition to Russia, in violation of U.S. sanctions.
That prompted Pretoria to call him in for a dressing-down, and for President Cyril Ramaphosa to launch an investigation into the saga behind the Russian cargo ship Lady R, which docked near Cape Town in late 2022 and was unloaded in the dead of night. The vessel was under U.S. sanctions and had been turned away for that reason when it attempted to dock at another port.
In May, U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety described the situation as "fundamentally unacceptable" and said, "We are confident that weapons were loaded onto that vessel, and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion."
South Africa's investigation into the matter wrapped up last month. The government's summary of the classified report said the ship was carrying unspecified equipment meant for South Africa's military and that "despite some rumors that some equipment or arms were loaded on the ship, the panel found no evidence to substantiate those claims."
The incident deepened a divide between the two: South Africa was among the 35 countries that abstained from a United Nations vote to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.
The Moscow-Pretoria friendship traces back decades, because the Soviet Union supported the then-banned African National Congress (ANC), which has led the nation since it abandoned racist minority rule and became a democracy in 1994. The two are among the five BRICS nations — the bloc that also includes Brazil, India and China.
Obadare said South Africa's status — the democratic stalwart is also a continental mining, banking and telecoms leader — means Washington feels "it has no choice but to commit to the relationship for the long term. Washington no doubt resents Pretoria's continued dealings with Russia, but it is significant that it cannot afford to walk away. The South African leadership also knows this."
Joshua Meservey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said Washington comes out "looking confused and probably timid."
"South Africa escapes with its AGOA access intact, and the ANC doesn't now face the prospect of yet another economic blow before elections next year," he said, adding: "It appears that Washington has meekly accepted the findings of South Africa's Lady R investigation that exonerated itself.
"That means that either the intelligence that Brigety cited was bad, or that he was freelancing — neither of which is likely, given how publicly and forcefully he made the claims. So, it seems that the U.S. is merely rolling over on an egregious provocation."
But will any of this make South Africa sway from its nonaligned stance on Ukraine? From Johannesburg, governance and diplomacy researcher Isabel Bosman told VOA that seems unlikely and that Ramaphosa will continue to push for an African-brokered peace plan.
"Nonalignment is a vital component of South Africa's foreign policy, and its importance in the context of the African Peace Initiative on the Ukraine-Russia war should not be overlooked," Bosman said.
"The patching up of South Africa's relationship with the U.S. will not go unnoticed in Moscow. It will be interesting to see if any counterproposals to any U.S. offers on the indicated shared objectives between the U.S. and South Africa come from Russia."
Meservey predicted that the relationship will remain trade- and investment-focused "because there is little prospect of convergence on foreign policy issues. The ANC's ideals and values are fundamentally misaligned with the U.S.'s on foreign policy, and until that changes, or until the ANC no longer sets the foreign policy direction for South Africa, the U.S. and South Africa won't be close diplomatic partners."
But the diplomatic dust-up, said Michael Walsh, a senior fellow who researches South Africa at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, made an important point: "It did make people in the U.S. realize that South Africa is a country that matters, and we need to pay attention to it."
VOA also reached out to South African Foreign Ministry spokesperson Clayson Monyela seeking comment, but he did not reply.