The leaders of South Africa and the US yesterday called for close cooperation on health, security and climate – as US President Joe Biden puts a new focus on African powers after their reluctance to take on Russia in its war on Ukraine.
President Cyril Ramaphosa was set to meet Biden weeks after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid his own visit to South Africa and promised that the US will do more to listen to Africa.
Starting his visit over breakfast with Vice-President Kamala Harris, Ramaphosa voiced gratitude to the US for its “considerable support” during the Covid pandemic as the Biden administration donated 1.1 billion vaccine doses around the world.
“The visit really is about strengthening the relationship between South Africa and the United States,” Ramaphosa said, adding that Washington had a key role to play on security issues across Africa.
Harris hailed the leadership of Ramaphosa – who is under growing pressure at home over a scandal – and said she would discuss working together on fighting climate change, a key priority for the Biden administration.
“I cannot emphasise enough how important the relationship between our countries is to the people of the United States both US, South Africa move closer after Ukraine discord in terms of our security and our prosperity,” she said.
Like other developing nations, South Africa – whose province Mpumalanga has one of the world’s largest concentrations of coal – argues that industrialised nations should bear the brunt of efforts to cut emissions due to their historic responsibility for climate change.
Wealthy nations at last year’s Glasgow climate conference promised $8.5 billion (about R150 billion) of financing to South Africa to transition away from coal.
Successive US administrations have focused much of their energy in Africa on countering the growing influence of China, which has become the continent’s dominant trading partner.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered a new front in the battle for influence in Africa, where many nations have been reluctant to embrace the West in its campaign to punish and pressure Moscow.
South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor denied being neutral but said “there are reasons for the perspectives that exist and one should never, I think, try to pretend that there aren’t histories.”
She pointed to the former Soviet Union’s championing of anti-apartheid forces compared with periods of Western cooperation with South Africa’s former white regime.
“I think we’ve been fairly clear, in our view, that war doesn’t assist anyone and that we believe the inhumane actions we have seen against the people of Ukraine can’t be defended by anybody,” she said this week at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
“But what we have said is that a lot of the public statements that are made by leading politicians are not assisting in ameliorating the situation, because the first prize must be to achieve peace.”
The US has sought to highlight the invasion’s role in food prices, as Ukraine was one of Africa’s largest suppliers of grain.
Russia has sought to blame food scarcities on Western sanctions, an argument dismissed by the US, which says it is not restricting agricultural or humanitarian shipments.
Pandor broke with the usual polite bipartisanship of foreign dignitaries visiting Washington, not mincing words on Biden’s Republican predecessor Donald Trump, who notoriously referred to nations in the developing world with an epithet.
“You will recall how President Trump described Africa and no one has apologised as yet,” Pandor said.
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