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Report November 28, 2017

Forging a New Era in US-South African Relations

By Anthony Carroll

As one of the African continent’s largest and most sophisticated economies, South Africa offers a myriad of opportunities for engagement with the United States on diplomatic, commercial, security, and social fronts. It is a self-sufficient, complex, and dynamic country in a struggling, complex, and dynamic region. Yet, the centrality of South Africa to the United States’ relationship with the wider continent is underappreciated by Washington’s policy community, which has become distracted by the displays of dysfunctionality and high-level corruption that have come to characterize South African politics. These political dramatics have knocked US relations with South Africa off track by obscuring the enduring social inequities at the heart of South Africa’s problems, both in media depictions of South Africa and in serious policy discussions.


As Anthony Carroll details in the Africa Center’s newest report, Forging a New Era in US-South African Relations, the United States has a significant stake in South Africa’s future. The country has the potential to serve as a peacekeeper and economic flagship for the whole of Africa. Currently, it falls far short of this potential—but the upside trade and security benefits of an improved relationship between Washington and Pretoria are significant. At the same time, the downside risks of ignoring the relationship are severe: increased social unrest in South Africa would have disastrous consequences for the entire continent.

This report assesses the potential role of the United States in assuring South Africa’s passage through a difficult political and economic period, and recommends a new high-level effort to investigate progress on four tracks: trade liberalization, business-to-business relations, government-to-government relations, and university and think tank collaboration.

South Africa is a strong and independent nation, and relations with the United States have been strained. The findings of this report suggest a need—on both sides—for a stronger and more vigorous relationship between Pretoria and Washington. 

Image: Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg, which connects two economic hubs of the city. Completed in 2003, the project is a symbol of Mandela’s visionary leadership and his ability to bridge apartheid South Africa with the “new” South Africa. Photo credit: South African Tourism.