As South Africa Cozies Up to Russia and Hamas, Biden Admin Promotes Economic Forum in Johannesburg

South Africa hosted wargames with Russia earlier this year and engaged with Hamas amid Israel war

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
November 2, 2023

The Biden administration is under fire for promoting an economic forum being held this week in South Africa, a country that has been deepening its relations with Russia, China, Iran, and the terror group Hamas.

The Biden administration’s participation and promotion of the African Growth and Opportunity Act Forum (AGOA)—an economic gathering meant to bolster U.S. trade across the continent—is providing cover to South Africa as it pursues a range of policies that "subvert U.S. national security and foreign policy interests," Sen. James Risch (R., Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a letter obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

South Africa has emerged as a key African ally for Russia, hosting wargames with the country earlier this year, and has also developed ties to Iran and its terror proxy Hamas, which is waging war against Israel. By allowing South Africa to host the coveted AGOA forum, the Biden administration has provided tacit endorsement for the African country’s policies, which may even run afoul of requirements for membership in the trade pact, according to the senator.

"South Africa’s relationship with Russia, and most recently with Iran and Hamas, undermine necessary eligibility safeguards in the AGOA statute, and the administration failed to take standard formal actions to communicate AGOA-related concerns to South Africa through a warning letter or demarche," Risch wrote in the letter sent Wednesday to the State Department and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. "The administration’s handling of AGOA, exemplified by its posture toward South Africa, make it clear that Congress must take course-correcting action."

A State Department spokesperson confirmed that it had received the letter and declined to comment on congressional correspondence. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative did not respond to a request for comment.

South Africa has allowed sanctioned Russian ships carrying weapons to dock in its ports, and the country’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, recently held a phone call with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, highlighting the nation’s efforts to undermine Israel’s war efforts, according to Risch. Pandor also called on the International Criminal Court earlier this year to arrest "the leaders of apartheid Israel." The Biden administration’s silence on the matter and refusal to relocate the AGOA forum "only serves to ratify and endorse South Africa’s current policies publicly," according to Risch.

"Failing to impose consequences, including relocating the AGOA Forum, undermines the administration’s ability to engage credibly on such serious issues with the South African government," the letter states. "Worse, the administration’s moving forward with the AGOA Forum in Johannesburg and highlighting the U.S./South Africa trade relationship, despite bipartisan bicameral congressional concern about its government’s actions, only serves to ratify and endorse South Africa’s current policies publicly."

While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns about the United States’ elevated trade status with South Africa, the issue has taken on renewed significance since Hamas’s Oct. 7 slaughter of more than 1,400 Israelis.

"Recent statements and actions by the South African government against Israel’s right to self-defense and its engagement with Hamas ... following its October 7 terrorist attack on Israel further prove the administration’s policy towards South Africa is dangerous," according to the senator.

Risch says the AGOA trade pact must have more stringent requirements to prevent nations like South Africa from benefiting from preferential treatment by the United States. The pact is set to expire in 2025 and Congress is eyeing efforts to implement reforms that could impact countries working with America’s enemies.

"As Congress grapples with AGOA reauthorization, I urge robust changes to AGOA’s eligibility criteria," Risch wrote. "Recent actions by South Africa to directly challenge the United States and align with our adversaries make the Johannesburg Forum another example of the administration sending mixed messages and engaging in contradictory foreign policy."

"Prioritizing commerce over our principles and national security interests undermines our credibility as a strategic alternative to their way of doing business," Risch wrote.