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A damaging tweet about a damaging policy

Aug 23 2018 18:56
By Daniel Silke

Donald Trump's overnight tweet on the polarising land expropriation debate in South Africa sure has done one thing – it has put South Africa back on Washington’s radar screen after what seems like an extensive period in geo-political limbo for the Southern African nation. Unfortunately, it's for all the wrong reasons.

It should be noted that this is not the first time the US president has used Twitter to vent on South Africa. Back in 2015, prior to him assuming the presidency, he tweeted, "As I have long been saying, South Africa is a total - and very dangerous - mess."

Trump therefore carries with him a mental picture of the country that probably needs little encouragement when faced with a big issue like the current land debate.

For South African conservative lobby groups like AfriForum, the Trump Administration is indeed a very receptive animal. Their recent US-visit clearly laid the groundwork for an ongoing campaign to infiltrate think-tanks and present the facts the way they see it on issues of farm murders and more latterly, the land issue.

But of course, this message of concern for events in South Africa was not just confined to the current peculiarities of the White House and its maverick Commander-in-Chief.

In recent weeks, the liberal New York Times (hardly a friend of the Donald Trump) ran a damning piece on ANC Deputy President David Mabuza, while the influential Wall Street Journal equally sullied the state of South Africa by comparing President Ramaphosa to Robert Mugabe on land-related issues.

Within the last two days, the venerated (and Libertarian) CATO Institute issued a separate note indicating concern for land expropriations and explicitly requested President Trump to take action on the issue.

All these issues came together in an interview on the Trump-supporting Fox News, which largely combined the conservative views of anchor Tucker Carlson with CATO’s Marian Tupy in presenting a concerning picture of the current land debate.

Within a few hours of the airing of the Fox interview – known as a TV network that is often intricately linked to President Trump’s tweets and broader policy agenda, the president issued his now controversial tweet. 

Opportune moment

It was almost a perfect opportunity for President Trump to latch onto an issue that had gained traction across the ideological divide in the US media and integrate this with a political spin that also plays well to his base of more conservative voters – particularly in the rural heartland of America.

For South Africa – as a result – there are a number of concerns. First and foremost is the ongoing bad press the country is receiving – and not just from the Trump administration at that.

The real lesson is that positive expectations created by the leadership changes in the ANC were not only domestic in nature – the expectations were felt in many parts of the world and especially in a more conservative United States. Both Liberals and Conservatives alike have felt disappointed in the new Ramaphosa administration – and their deteriorating relationship between South Africa and the US press is indicative of this.

Of course, this issue also underscores just how quickly domestic politics within South Africa can become globalised. Ultimately, the land issue is essentially a local issue and the interference by another country in domestic policy is often frowned upon. Not so in the United States and clearly not so for the Trump administration.

South Africa also therefore has to learn a lesson that what it does domestically is now a target for international sentiment. And, this lesson comes at a particularly awkward time for the country as it seeks to revive its flagging economy via large-scale foreign direct investment (FDI).

The media disappointment with the broader Ramaphosa administration, coupled with Trump’s tweet, will be damaging to securing greater US investment in South Africa.

While domestic policies are often controversial across many developing countries seeking FDI, you can bet your bottom dollar that when the president tweets on the issues, those considering greater South African exposure will think again.

Immediate effect

The Trump tweet had an immediate effect of weakening an already beleaguered Rand. So from an economic perspective, the brand damage done to South Africa has had an effect on markets.

But perhaps the biggest area of concern is what other more direct consequences could there be as a result of Trump’s focus on South Africa.

It is clear that the current US administration is not shy to speak out on internal matters of not only more distant countries like South Africa – but even on 'allies' like the UK and Germany. So a much weaker (and distant) South Africa can become a useful punching-bag for Donald Trump whose support for White farmers will resonate with a core support group of his in the farmlands of the USA.

Only two weeks ago, another emerging market, Turkey, was hit with Trump-related wrath as the administration slapped a double-tariff on Turkish metal exports as retaliation for Ankara’s intransigence in releasing a detained American pastor. The spat with Washington precipitated a run on the Lira and engulfed a broad swathe of more vulnerable emerging markets.

The reaction to South Africa’s land issues should also be seen in this context of a US administration unfettered by the classic modes of foreign diplomacy. It is an administration that is prepared to influence – both in rhetoric and punitively – those jurisdictions it argues runs counter to its own values.

Narrow agenda

Certainly, the Trump doctrine is not afraid to use the hard edge of foreign diplomacy to also bolster its own narrower political agenda back at home. And, in a week in which President Trump’s former confidants, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen have both fallen foul of the law, an array of global distractions may be employed to shore up a Presidency under severe internal pressure.

A quasi-authoritarian Recep Erdogan in Turkey and an errant Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa play well into this narrative. Two countries on the opposite side of the world to Washington, yet the fight Washington picks can cleverly combine with domestic US politics at home.

South Africa, too, runs the danger of suffering in a trade-related spat with Washington as a result of the heightened awareness of the land issue. Already, the AGOA agreement tends to benefit South African exporters more than it benefits Americans. And, in the context of shoring up the Republicans support back at home, threatening to reduce the AGOA benefits can play well.

Although it is early days to assess whether AGOA is in any danger, it’s a soft underbelly for South Africa in times of deep economic distress. And, it can be a bargaining chip for the Trump administration just as steel and aluminum were for Turkey.

But make no mistake, whatever the domestic political motives for the recent Trump tweet, South Africa’s muddled and divisive debate on land expropriation is more than enough to get negative global overage.

Race-related issues in South Africa will always be big news globally. It was big news when we went through a period of reconciliation post 1994 and it is big news when that glue begins to become unstuck – especially in the light of the current expropriation debate.

Sympathies for South Africa globally have largely run their course. The nation cannot command any special treatment or expect any special commitment from outsiders. South Africa has to make a credible case for standing tall in the global arena based on credible leadership, effective governance and a willingness to implement best-practice economic policy.

South Africans may bleat in disgust at the Trump world-view, but they too will need to accept that policy making that panders to populist political interests will be punished – not only by the markets but by changing political dynamics in the United States.

So for many in the ANC, these events will point them further in the direction of a ‘non-judgmental’ China and related BRICS partners. The critique from Washington does just that – it runs the danger of pushing Pretoria further into the clutches of Beijing and even the Putin sphere-of-influence.  

Both sides, therefore – Pretoria and Washington – need to understand the consequences of their actions. Both sides show a degree of confusion and muddied thinking that leaves both vulnerable to unintended consequences and collateral damage.  

South Africa needs AGOA and a good relationship with the US – but if pushed, it already is well-positioned to take its global seat among other rising powers.  

Still, South Africa needs to think of the damage the land debate is exacting not only on internal cohesion but also on international investor relations. The Trump tweet might be heavy-handed, but don’t think that these sentiments are only present in the White House of today. Businesses – both domestically and globally – will think twice about large-scale investments within this unsatisfactory context.

What we see playing out is just how domestic politics across the world can collide – with in this case, South Africa at the centre. Ultimately, this spat won’t work for Washington. nor will it work for Pretoria. 

*Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

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