Wearying of the Zumacrats

“People are saying it may be time throw South Africa under the bus”. That’s what I recently heard from a household name in Washington Africa policy circles, closely associated with the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

The context was a conversation about AGOA, the centrepiece of America’s official engagement with the Africa Rising narrative. Specifically we were ruminating on whether and under what conditions SA would continue to enjoy AGOA’s benefits when it is renewed, as it must be by September.

What my interlocutor was picking up was not a tactical talking point. It was not a line designed to pressure Kevin Lovell and the SA Poultry Association into letting American Big Chicken violate his industry with surplus drumsticks. It expressed a larger and more important frustration.

The Zumacrats may treat this as a feather in their caps, but Washington, on a bipartisan basis (and to the extent it can be bothered), is growing tired of them, their sanctimony, their statism, their graft, their time-warped loyalty to the discredited ghosts of Bandung, their BRIC fixation, their pandering to autocrats and other violators of principles for which thousands of South Africans died, their ill-concealed resentment of the West; in sum, what is perceived as their utter lack of Mandela-liness.

Hillary Clinton, quite possibly the next president, still has a bitter taste in her mouth from her last visit as Secretary of State. It very nearly didn’t happen, she wrote in her memoir, Hard Choices, because of a sophomoric spat over the number of guns her security detail could bring into SA. “Sometimes,” she wrote acidly, “it is difficult to interpret the reasons behind the government’s actions.”

Don’t get me wrong. The US business and investment community still has lots of respect for its SA counterparts as well as for the better angels of the state — Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the judiciary being prime examples.

They still see SA, with its capital markets, skills, inventiveness, infrastructure and dolce vita, as a great base camp from which to reach summits elsewhere on the continent. But of government beyond the oases of competence, honesty and discipline, there is a growing wari- and weariness.

As for the view from the White House, the Washington Post’s front page lead of Sunday, March 15, sent an unmistakeable message: we’re done with trying to play nicely with you on nuclear safety so we are going to help the press sensationalise your lack of cooperation on what, to us, is an existential danger.

National Security Council suprema Susan Rice and her team had obviously hoped that South Africa, the first and only country to have built and then foresworn its own nuclear weapons, would contribute to the legacy of the first US president of African descent by helping him rid the world of highly enriched uranium (HEU) good only for turning into bombs.

Fat chance, evidently. South Africa shares with Belarus the distinction of being the last country not to make a commitment to divest itself of HEU by blending it into or exchanging it for less dangerous grades.

The Zumacrats will not be budged. They seem to be off on some crusade of their own, getting all defiant about their sovereignty and hubristically imagining they can trade PW Botha’s HEU for global nuclear disarmament.

It is not as if the experts who advise Mr Obama do not share South Africa’s stated objectives in this area. They simply wonder how the three prime objectives of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which SA policy is nominally anchored (non-proliferation, disarmament and universal access to nuclear power for peaceful purposes) can be advanced while large amounts of bomb-grade uranium and plutonium are still out there for the stealing.

They wish that instead of going into an angry defensive crouch about the November 2007 break-in at Pelindaba, South Africa would seize the opportunity to lead openly on nuclear safety. Two teams, well-armed and -trained, clearly with inside help, penetrated what was, in fact, one of the world’s better protected nuclear facilities. Whatever they were after — and since they have never been found, that remains unknown — this was not some third rate burglary.

No serious person looks at what happened and says it just goes to show you can’t trust Africans with nukes. Sophisticated heists and other security breaches happen everywhere — the US, Sweden, Belgium, you name it.

What serious people do know is that Al Qaeda was testing a nuclear triggering system in the Afghan desert before 9/11.

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