The Washington-Pretoria-Tel Aviv Relay

Durban, South Africa.

What, ultimately, was the importance of the Africa-US leadership summit at the White House last week? It came at a very decisive moment for geopolitical relations in the axis linking Washington, Pretoria and Tel Aviv. And surprising US-China economic connections were also revealed, potentially reaching deep into Africa. Mega-corporations of both US and African parentage revelled in the attention and repeated blasts of public subsidies, with deals alleged to have reached $37 billion over the three days.

We may never know the backroom Faustian Pacts done by African elites with these firms, but what public signals were sent? How dangerous is it that President Jacob Zuma is welcoming US military and corporate institutions back to Africa with open arms, as the continent’s aspirant gatekeeper?

The Palestine test

First, Middle East turmoil is now, to use a word we must regrettably return to, paramount. Iraq, Libya and Syria remain profoundly unstable. But in Gaza, where ‘incremental genocide’ is underway, according to Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, world concern is most urgent. During Israel’s escalating war against Palestine, even United Nations leader Ban Ki-Moon – formerly a behind-the-scenes supporter of Gaza bombing – bemoaned the ‘criminal’ brutality of Tel Aviv’s indiscriminate attacks, as UN schools were periodically demolished. US president Barack Obama, meanwhile, restocked the ammunition so the Israelis could reload. More than 2000 people have died in the latest attacks.

What did we learn at the frontline of Palestine solidarity, South Africa? On the one hand, many were surprised and appalled by the August 3 outpouring of support for the war by around 10 000 Israeli supporters, including leaders of two (marginal) black political parties and a major black evangelical church. Called by the hard-line South African Zionist Federation at the Huddle Park golf course in eastern Johannesburg, the backslapping rally occurred just as Israel was bombing more UN schools, but no sign of humility was displayed. A similar rally in Cape Town a week later attracted 4000.

South African Zionists exhibit breath-taking chutzpah. Those gathered at Huddle Park were amongst the main economic beneficiaries of apartheid (you can tell this by skin colour), and also of post-apartheid neoliberal economic policies whose historically unprecedented high interest rates and liberalised exchange controls reward those already wealthy.

Yet the same people feel beleaguered on the cultural front, with many experiences in mainstream society leaving Zionists alienated and exasperated. Bruises to the South African Zionist ego have been found during the annual ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ events, in current controversies over Israeli products for sale at upscale supermarket Woolworths, especially the Sodastream water carbonator scandalised by Scarlett Johansson, and academic boycotts of Israel that have raised tensions at major tertiary institutions since 2011.

The same week that Zionists waved the flag in Johannesburg, one of Israel’s most celebrated intellectuals, Pappé, made the round of major South African universities and community halls. The majority-Muslim audiences gave Pappé standing ovations after not only a dissection of the ‘incremental genocide’ now underway and account of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine over the last century, but even his insistence on the need for a ‘one-state solution’ narrative to emerge.

When Pappé shared a stage with the higher education minister Blade Nzimande, the University of Johannesburg crowd roared for Pretoria to do more in solidarity with Palestine. Showing that academic boycotts are institutional and not personal, Pappé’s tour added more angst to the Zionists’ laager mentality. But what makes the battle over solidarities much more acute was that 30 000 Durban residents protested very forcefully against Israel (July 25) and 100 000+ then came out in Cape Town (August 9).

As society polarises, it is often the function of weak rulers to make soothing sounds so as to maintain status quo relations, and Zuma did not fail. After increasingly vocal calls for Zuma to cut diplomatic and business relations with Israel, as Latin American countries are doing, he openly announced there would be no expulsion of its ambassador, Arthur Lenk, to a standing ovation at a Washington press conference. South African Zionists were also delighted by Pretoria’s blind eye to the Gaza massacres, as Democratic Alliance MP Darren Bergman crowed to the ultra-Zionist SA journalist Ant Katz: “at a time like this it was not right to apportion blame to anyone but to rather seek a quick and lasting solution. Give that man a Bells” (sic).

This came on the heels of Zuma’s implicit rejection of the February 2014 Cape Town Declaration, which demanded a variety of SA-Israeli links be broken. It was supported by most political parties, including the ruling African National Congress (ANC), and as a result, Katz reported of Zuma, “The pressure they have been under to act (against Israel) has been enormous. The President chose to change the direction, appoint a top ambassador to Israel and encourage growth in trade,” citing a foreign policy source.

One source of counter-pressure could well be Ivor Ichikowitz of the Paramount Group, Africa’s most aggressive arms-dealing entrepreneur. The proximity he enjoys is impressive, perhaps because of deals – including the fabled Iraqi food for oil scandal – with ANC fundraisers like Sandi Majali, and his own millions in contributions to the ruling party. For example, in 2008, Ichikowitz provided Zuma with free flights to Lebanon and Kazakhstan where interesting “business meetings” were held, and again in 2011 to Washington. Before the 2009 election, Ichikowitz flew an ailing Nelson Mandela from Johannesburg to Mthatha airport for the ruling party’s political gain, “unleashing a furore over whether the ANC had jeopardised his health and disregarded his strict travel protocol.” More recently, his air-chauffeur role again courted controversy, even in Israel, because he gave Ambassador Lenk and his family a free flight and weekend holiday at his Madikwe Game Reserve lodge.

“We will not supply countries that have a bad human rights record,” Ichikowitz claimed to a Sunday Business Times reporter in 2013, because “the South African government would not allow us to supply countries that would be inappropriate.” Pretoria’s arms sales oversight is, in fact, notorious, most spectacularly just before the 2003 US/UK invasion of Iraq on false premises, when Denel supplied the Western belligerents with ammunition shell-casing, artillery propellants, and laser range finders. According to a 2013 Amnesty International complaint, the Arms Control Committee led by Minister Jeff Radebe “authorised conventional arms sales to governments without the required scrutiny,” even following a 2010 scandal in which the Auditor General slated 58 dubious arms deals between involving South Africans, including with rights-violating regimes in Sudan, Gabon, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Algeria, Egypt and the Central African Republic.

In 2005, the Defense Department accused Ichikowitz’s firms of “violating arms control rules in exports to several countries, including Angola and Ghana,” bribing at least one army colonel in the process. Two years later, he was involved in what the Sunday Times termed “a mining venture in the war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with the Makabuza family, whose members have been accused of illegal arms trading and funding a rebel group charged with war crimes.”

This year, Ichikowitz made the news for allegedly corrupting the Malawian government with transport and also supplying the vicious Brazilian police with weapons to use in its clampdown on the favelas before this year’s World Cup, featuring extra-judicial killings and mass displacements. He began his career working with Rwanda’s authoritarian ruler Paul Kagame (allegedly responsible for many of the five million deaths in neighbouring DRC), and praises Equatorial Guinea’s hated dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo as well as the late DRC dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, whom he called “a strong, powerful leader loved by many of his people.”

This man is a dangerous asset for Pretoria to wield in a context of extreme internecine competition over markets – including military equipment – between South Africa, China, the European Union and the US. Ichikowitz apparently understands the need to buff his image, through his family foundation’s new film publicising a French commodities trader who had a minor role in anti-apartheid deal-making during the late 1980s, through sponsoring a book about Jewish anti-apartheid heroes, and in the press.

With this kind of public relations concern, stretching to hiring professional sock-puppets to edit his Wikipedia entry, we should follow Ichikowitz’s moves more closely. For example, on August 13 he reported back from Washington to Johannesburg Star newspaper readers on the main editorial page, “The primary challenge as I see it for the US will be to overcome the reputational damage caused by the infamous mantra of the ‘regime change’ approach in years past. This bellicose security and defence issue remains a major concern to African emerging market actors.”

He is speaking of himself, for Ichikowitz is attempting to have US aid and International Monetary Fund rules relaxed so that he can do much bigger arms deals with African tyrants. Ichikowitz claims that these elites have “no capacity to be able to afford the solutions they require because of limitations imposed by the international community on how they use their budget.” (Making the same case in the US last week, Ichikowitz faced ridicule in at least one major periodical, but in South Africa, ownership of The Star by ANC ally Iqbal Survé appears to lower the vigilance level.)

At the same time, two other Israelis are in the news for their controversial extractive industry activities. Commodities czar Dan Gertler – according to Forbes, worth $2.6 billion – has found massive oil reserves in the DRC, working in collaboration with Zuma’s nephew Khulubuse, whose prior extractive industry accomplishments are not impressive. Both are very close to DRC authoritarian leader Joseph Kabila, which Global Witness suggests “raises further corruption concerns.”

Yaron Yamin is the second: a Bulawayo-based magnate who arrived in Zimbabwe with no english skills and no money, but with a controversial fundamentalist Israeli religious connection – Rabbi Eliezer Berland whom he now funds with half his proceeds, even arranging a Lear jet shopping trip for Johannesburg essentials every week. Last December, Yamin announced he would do business with Zimbabwe’s corrupt military and mining elite in the Marange diamond fields, well known as the source of the country’s tragic Resource Curse, including several hundred murders of resident informal-sector diggers by the army in 2008.

US corporate seduction

This is the kind of arrangement that generates militaristic links between the contending powers, mainly for the sake of resource extraction. It also helps explain Zuma’s re-embrace of Washington, for as he explained last week in a talk to US Chamber of Commerce, “Amongst our flagship projects, we have invested more than one trillion rand in infrastructure since 2009. We are further investing more than 840 billion rand in infrastructure development over the next three years. The bulk of this spend is going into energy and transport related infrastructure.”

For expanding Transnet’s reach with a locomotive joint venture, Zuma praised General Electric. After all, he explained, “South Africa’s economic growth is inextricably linked to that of Africa as a whole. That is why we put great emphasis in developing not only our country’s infrastructure, but that of the African continent too.”

The warm reception impressed Johannesburg Business Day reporter Nicholas Kotsch, who cited GE chief executive Jeff Immelt applauding Washington for US Export-Import Bank subsidies: “In a very competitive world where we are up against China Inc and Europe Inc, it’s good to have this sort of support.”

In contrast, Kotsch felt obliged to observe, “The summit had almost nothing to say about 200 schoolgirls held captive in northeast Nigeria by Boko Haram guerrillas and the attacks in Kenya by other Islamist extremists. Legislative hounding of gays in Uganda and a few other countries were ignored,” because, he opined, “Perhaps the fear was that addressing such sensitive political matters would be bad for business and if ever a summit was about the nexus between presidents and business, this was it.”

Not to be left out of the nexus, however, Beijing’s Africa handlers must have felt insulted by the prior week’s Economist magazine interview of Obama: “My advice to African leaders is to make sure that if, in fact, China is putting in roads and bridges, number one, that they’re hiring African workers; number two, that the roads don’t just lead from the mine to the port to Shanghai.” Naturally Obama wants those African ports to host ships with minerals and oil headed for New York, New Orleans and Houston.

China’s challenge

The competitive relationship with China is especially interesting because the US State Department’s top official for Africa from 2009 through last year, Assistant Secretary (A/S) of State Johnny Carson, very openly described – to leading Nigerian businesspeople in a February 2010 friendly chat whose details Chelsea Manning liberated for WikiLeaks via a US State Department cable – China as a a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals.” He continued, The Chinese are dealing with the Mugabe’s and Bashir’s of the world, which is a contrarian political model.”

Unlike the Chinese leaders, Obama has very strong morals. He does not deal with the likes of Mugabe or Bashir, who were banned from last week’s meeting at the White House. (Instead, Obama is dealing with African democrats who abhor corruption and would never practice brutality against their citizenry, good men such as Uhuru Kenyatta, Paul Biya, Blaise Compaore, Paul Kagame, Yoweri Museveni, Teodoro Obiang, José Eduardo dos Santos, Idriss Deby, Joseph Kabila, Jacob Zuma, Goodluck Jonathan, Yahya Jammeh and Hailemariam Desalegn – whose praises are also sung by Alemayehu Mariam – and others in the same league such as King Mswati and Alpha Conde.)

Tellingly, former Rwandan Ambassador to the US Theogene Rudasingwa wrote a pleading letter to the Obama administration, asking Secretary of State John Kerry to “reign in your national security team. The hawks among them will insist that there is a red threat (China) looming over Africa, which must be contained or neutralised. Furthermore, these hawks argue, it is US security and economic interests that should take precedence over anything else, even if this means baby-sitting some of Africa’s most dangerous big men.”

But the red threat is being neutralised, if Obama succeeds in winning more African tyrants’ hearts and minds. The Economist interviewer asked, “You see countries like China creating a BRICS bank, for instance – institutions that seem to be parallel with the system, rather – and potentially putting pressure on the system rather than adding to it and strengthening it. That is the key issue, whether China ends up inside that system or challenging it. That’s the really big issue of our times, I think.” Obama replied, “It is. And I think it’s important for the United States and Europe to continue to welcome China as a full partner in these international norms.”

As if on cue, the Wall Street Journal reported a “proposal by Beijing to work together [with Washington] on large infrastructure projects such as the Inga-3 hydroelectric dam in the DRC… For the US, a partnership with China on such projects could sustain long-term the central role of the World Bank and IMF.”

Added the Financial Times, “US officials say that a partnership with China on Inga-3 or another dam would be an important breakthrough in collaboration at a time when military rivalry between the two countries in Asia is growing.” The main project under discussion, a dam on the Congo River three times larger than China’s Three Gorges, would send the vast majority of its electricity into mining and smelting. South Africa knows the terrible denouement caused by a Minerals-Energy Complex taking over state power, personified in this week’s testimony by Cyril Ramaphosa about why he, a 9 percent owner in Lonmin, called in police to conduct operations against his “dastardly criminal” platinum mineworkers, who were striking at Marikana two years ago.

The Chinese elites are still not short of cash, and to illustrate the symbiotic relationship, Beijing purchased $107 billion of US government bonds in the first five months of 2014. According to the Wall St Journal last month, this was “the fastest pace since records began more than three decades ago.” The Chinese, in return, now apparently want US cooperation to lower risk and intensify the exploitative process in Africa, even at the risk of assisting a competitor to get its boot back down hard on local throats.

The potential for US military activity in Africa remains great, given Washington’s need to prop up friendly dictators against all manner of local resistances – not only religious extremists, but also social activists whose rate of protest has, in 2011-13, been growing even faster than the 2010-11 North African uprising period, according to the African Development Bank’s latest count.

But in contrast to frightening recent reports from the brilliant US journalist Nick Turse about the Pentagon’s “war fighting combatant command” in dozens of African countries, there is still a rather blunt division of labour at work between Washington and its deputy sheriff in Pretoria. Strategists from the Africa Command have already explained why they are doing so much training of African militaries, including SA National Defence Force soldiers: “We don’t want to see our guys going in and getting whacked.”

It is here that Zuma offered the most disturbing words last week, a veritable sub-imperialist manifesto: “There had been a good relationship already between Africa and the US but this summit has reshaped it and has taken it to another level… We secured a buy-in from the US for Africa’s peace and security initiatives… As President Obama said, the boots must be African.”

Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society in Durban.

Patrick Bond is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He can be reached at: