There were differences between SA and the US’s administrations on various matters, but these never led to bad relations, writes Thabo Mbeki.
The story told by Verashni Pillay about the historical United States-South Africa relations (How the US and South Africa became friends again) is pure fiction.
During all the years I was president, South Africa enjoyed very good relations with both the Clinton and the Bush administrations.
It is true that there were differences between us and these administrations on various matters. However, these never led to bad intergovernmental or interstate relations.
In this regard I will reflect only on our relations with the Bush administration, which covered the longer period from 2001 to 2008.
Contrary to what Ms Pillay suggests, there was never any conflict or tension between the South African and US governments about the implementation in our country of the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) programme.
In this regard, consistent with the good relations between our countries, President George Bush’s first 2001-2005 secretary (minister) of health and human services, Tommy G Thompson, visited our country in 2002 to meet his counterpart, the late minister of health, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.
Among others, the ministers agreed on a comprehensive joint programme against HIV and Aids, including the involvement of the nongovernmental organisations.
This agreement informed the implementation of the Pepfar programme in our country once this initiative was launched in 2003.
After the Thompson visit, the South African and US departments of health maintained regular contact to oversee the full scope of the co-operation between our two countries on all health matters, which co-operation had started when Donna Shalala was secretary for health in the Clinton administration.
Ms Pillay is correct that during 2000 I addressed the ANC parliamentary caucus on the matter of HIV and Aids.
This was both to keep the caucus informed about our government’s views and programmes relating to this matter and to encourage the caucus to pay due attention to the issue, given its importance.
To emphasise the latter, I drew the attention of the caucus to the fact that in a report that year, 2000, the CIA had gone so far as to characterise the global incidence of HIV and Aids as one of the threats to US national security!
The rest of the story about what I said to the ANC caucus, as reported by some in the media, was pure fabrication.
I might also mention that, with regard to the matter of Pepfar, the regional organisation of the Caribbean countries, the Caribbean Community (Caricom), once requested us to intervene with the US government, which we did.
Caricom informed us that the US government had decided on the Pepfar programme for the region without consultation, and had accordingly put in place a programme that was inconsistent with the views and priorities of the region.
As a result of our intervention, in addition to explaining to us its decisions in this regard, the US government did interact with Caricom to resolve the differences at issue.
I mention this matter to indicate that even countries as far away as the West Indies knew of our good relations with the US government and therefore of our capacity to represent them with regard to Pepfar operations in their region.
It is true that our government was opposed to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and communicated this view directly to the US government.
However, the assertion that this “led to an all-time relational low between the two countries” is entirely without foundation.
To illustrate the reality in this regard, as opposed to fiction, President Bush spoke to me by telephone about the planned invasion of Iraq a mere few weeks before it took place, to continue to canvass our views!
Contrary to the unfounded claim that there was ever a “relational low” between our two countries, the US (Bush) government worked with us to address some of the important international challenges in which we were involved.
For instance, at our specific request, the US ambassadors in both Kinshasa and Abidjan, acting on behalf of the US government, supported us as we facilitated the negotiations to end the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Côte d’Ivoire.
At our request, the US government also transported some of the African troops that joined the South African National Defence Force units in Burundi.
When President Bush paid a working visit to our country in 2003, he said publicly that I was “our point man” on Zimbabwe, to communicate his agreement with us that the US would respect and not interfere with what we were doing to help the Zimbabweans to resolve their problems.
We also maintained regular contact with the US government on the matter of the then and ongoing dispute concerning the access of Iran to peaceful uses of nuclear technology.
The particular role we played in this regard arose from the fact that we had good relations with both the US and Iranian governments.
With regard to the latter this related particularly to the then successive Iranian chief negotiators on the nuclear issue, Dr Hassan Rouhani, now president of Iran, and Dr Ali Larijani, now speaker of the Majlis (Parliament).
Because of the foregoing it was possible for us to convey some messages between Tehran and Washington, in an effort to encourage a peaceful resolution of the matter of the Iranian nuclear programme.
In this context and at our request the US government even sent a delegation to brief us about what it knew concerning the Iran nuclear programme relating to the allegation that the country was preparing to produce nuclear weapons.
Because of the need for sustained interaction on international affairs between the US and South African governments, we established a joint task force led by the US national security adviser, Dr Condoleezza Rice, on the US side, supported by Dr Jendayi Frazer and others, and Minister Sydney Mufamadi on our side.
Minister Mufamadi’s team included then Deputy Minister Aziz Pahad and advocate Mojanku Gumbi, my legal adviser.
This team reported both to the then minister of foreign affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and our presidency.
As President Bush was about to complete his first term, he nominated Dr Jendayi Frazer, then responsible for Africa in the US national security council, as US ambassador to South Africa.
This was done to strengthen the capacity of the US government to support us, especially in our efforts to help to resolve the conflicts on our continent.
Because of the role Ambassador Frazer played in this regard, later we resisted President Bush’s decision to transfer her away from South Africa.
Ultimately, President Bush called to inform me that he had appointed the ambassador as assistant secretary of state for Africa. She would therefore be in an even better position to extend such support to us as we might request.
None of the foregoing is intended to suggest that there were no differences on various matters between our government and both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Indeed, the three most challenging differences between us and the US arose during the years of the Clinton administration, concerning the African Growth and Opportunity Act, Enron control of Mozambique gas and our access to affordable drugs and medicines.
However, the assertion or assumption that the fact of differences between governments on particular matters necessarily means bad relations between these shows a primitive understanding of the conduct of interstate relations.
I have told the detailed story above to make the point that many have taken great liberties to falsify various important elements of the history of our years in government, as exemplified by Ms Pillay’s pure invention that US-South Africa relations reached their nadir “under Mbeki and Bush”.
It is perhaps time to lay all the canards to eternal rest.