[OPINION] Getting SA back on the foreign-policy A-list

I am probably over-egging it a bit to say South Africa has fallen out of the bus in its relations with the United States.

My argument is based on Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari becoming the first African to make a state visit to Washington and South Africa’s omission from the first African calls made by the new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

These went, again, to Buhari, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, AU Commission head Moussa Faki Mahmat, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmet.

No doubt about it, South Africa is off the A-list.

Then there is also the warning from Washington’s Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley of funding possibly drying up for those countries most likely to vote against the US at the United Nations.

South Africa is squarely on that list along with the likes of Venezuela, North Korea and Syria.

The UN envoy, with her own political fish to fry, was indubitably being too blunt.

And there is clearly a case to be made for not being the best pal of President Donald Trump.

Moralists might make the point that South Africa’s foreign policy is not for sale.

Could South Africa have done without the $6 billion Washington gave it to fight HIV/Aids? At a push, probably. But why should it?

To get back to my introduction, should South Africans be saying they don’t even want to be on the bus?

Is this the way they want to play diplomacy, that art of the possible where there are no friends, only interests?

In those first heady years of democracy, South Africa had the closest possible ties with Washington.

The binational commission built with the Clinton administration put ministers from his and the Nelson Mandela governments at the ends of their respective telephones and on first-name terms.

Instead of standing way down in the US queue behind other Africans, as they currently do, South Africans had to tread carefully so as not to appear too close to Washington for their fellow Africans’ comfort.

Things got a little chillier with the Bush administration.

But South Africa was still top of the list when President George W Bush visited the continent and, with PEPFAR, he remains the president that made the largest medical help contribution in history to a country in history.

Barak Obama unashamedly demonstrated his adoration of South Africa.

He appointed Ambassador Patrick Gaspard to make this known at every conceivable turn.

This was not reciprocated by President Jacob Zuma who was preoccupied abroad with developing ties with Brazil, Russia, India and China and at home with enriching himself and his cronies.

Moving down the receiving line does not mean Washington has completely turned its back in South Africa.

Pompeo took foreign minister Linda Sisulu's call to hear South Africa’s strong objection to the US moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan discussed a range of issues with Sisulu when they attended the G20 ministerial meeting in Argentina earlier this week.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is attracting considerable interest in Foggy Bottom - particularly in his fight against corruption.

Trump bluster aside, the US is looking at Sisulu’s setting up a panel to work at restoring the human rights-based foreign policy that enabled South Africa to punch above its weight during the Mandela years.

Success in this project would oblige not only Washington but London, Berlin, Paris and others to reconsider their view of South Africa and quite likely put the country back on the A-list.

Jean-Jacques Cornish is an Africa correspondent at Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @jjcornish