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Biden Invites South Africa’s President Ramaphosa To White House For Talks On Trade, Food Security, But Ukraine War May Top Agenda

President Cyril Ramaphosa will meet US President Joe Biden in Washington on 16 September, the White House has just announced. Russia’s war against Ukraine is likely to be high on the agenda, though it was not explicitly mentioned in the statement.

“The leaders, building on their productive call in April and the US-South Africa Strategic Dialogue in August, will discuss opportunities to deepen our cooperation on trade and investment infrastructure, climate and energy, and health,” it said. 

“The two presidents will affirm the importance of our enduring partnership and discuss our work together to address regional and global challenges.”

Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, confirmed the meeting on Friday morning, adding: “Over and above the issues outlined by the White House, President Ramaphosa will raise the issue of supporting Africa’s transition from food insecurity to food security, which he also tabled at the meeting of the G7 leaders. Peace and stability in our region and the rest of the world will also be discussed.”

The “global challenges” on the agenda seems very likely to include a discussion on Russia’s war against Ukraine, now in its seventh month.  South Africa and the US have differed markedly in their approach to the war. The US has sharply condemned it and provided billions of dollars of military hardware and training to Ukraine to resist Russia’s invasion and occupation.

By contrast South Africa has taken a “non-aligned” position, avoiding taking sides and never condemning Russia for what the vast majority of UN members called its “aggression” against Ukraine, in a vote in the UN General Assembly on 2 March.

South Africa abstained from that vote and from two others at the General Assembly in March which also condemned Russia’s invasion and demanded that it withdraw its forces. Even so, on 24 February, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) issued a statement, saying: “South Africa calls on Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the United Nations Charter, which enjoins all member states to settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered. South Africa emphasises respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.”

However, there were unconfirmed media reports at the time that Ramaphosa had disagreed with this statement and reprimanded International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor for issuing it. The statement remains on Dirco’s website though the government has never reiterated the call on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine.

Ramaphosa has on the contrary blamed NATO for the invasion because he said it had pushed its membership up to the Russian border.

South Africa and the US have nevertheless maintained civil relations and Pandor and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared to get on well when he visited South Africa last month for the two ministers to co-chair the SA-US Strategic Dialogue, to which the White House referred in its statement. 

Russian business in Africa

Another related topic that Ramaphosa is expected to raise with Biden is the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, a bill which was passed in the US House of Representatives by a huge majority but which has not yet been passed by the Senate so that it might become law.

The law would oblige the US administration to punish some Russian companies which do business in Africa and African entities which do business with the Russians could also be punished.

The legislation seems largely aimed at Russian private military companies like Wagner which is believed to be very close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and which is extending its presence across Africa, often clashing with Western interests, in countries like Mali and Central African Republic. 

But the South African government has questioned why Africa has been singled out for attention by the US and officials believe this is because 26 African countries did not vote in the UN General Assembly on 2 March to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Pandor has raised her concerns about the bill several times, including with Blinken. Washington sources tell Daily Maverick that despite the bill being passed by a huge, bipartisan 415-9 vote in the House of Representatives, in April it may have stalled in the Senate because of the growing criticism of the legislation, especially from African governments and other interests. 

Renewables and vaccines

Biden’s invitation to Ramaphosa suggests that despite their differences, the US still regards South Africa as an important player and also one which has considerable influence in Africa. 

Ramaphosa and Biden are also likely to discuss the African summit which Biden is to host in Washington in December and to which Ramaphosa seems certain to be invited. 

US support for South Africa’s “just transition” from its heavy dependence on coal for generating electricity, to renewables and also US support for South Africa’s efforts to develop new vaccines for Covid-19 and other diseases, are likely to be on the agenda too.

First published in Daily Maverick

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