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In Washington, Cyril Ramaphosa Defends South African Neutrality

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 16, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

South Africa Doubles Down on Russia Ties

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and U.S. President Joe Biden met last week at the White House to discuss trade, climate change, and energy transition. Washington is seeking to bring Africa back into the fold following pledges of neutrality from South Africa and many of its neighbors after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as resistance to the U.S. position on the war.

Biden praised South Africa as a “vital voice” on the global stage. The continent’s importance was highlighted after the United Nations voted to condemn Russian aggression, in which half of the abstentions came from African countries. Having been long neglected in U.S. foreign policy, most African countries are now largely aligned with China in their political and economic partnerships. As a result, Africa has played a major role in furthering China’s and Russia’s goal of weakening the United States as the dominant great power.

South Africa’s position is important as the only African member of the G-20. Other African nations have followed its lead in refusing to bow to Western pressure on Russia. As expected, Ramaphosa raised objections to a draft U.S. bill that would sanction Africans doing business with Russian entities that are under U.S. sanctions. The bill, called the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, would monitor African governments’ dealings with Russia and has been called “Cold War-esque” as well as described as “offensive” by South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor.

In Washington, Ramaphosa said Africans should not be punished for their historic nonaligned position. “We should not be told by anyone who we can associate with,” he said—a position that has been popular across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as Shivshankar Menon noted in FP in July, even if the ideology may not have much to offer in this day and age, as C. Raja Mohan argued recently.

South Africa and other African countries haven’t forcefully condemned Russia’s invasion in part because of close historical ties with the former Soviet Union, which supported anti-apartheid and African independence struggles at a time when the West would not. “There are reasons for the perspectives that exist and one should never, I think, try to pretend that there aren’t histories,” Pandor said.

A U.S. charm offensive. Washington has significantly stepped up its charm offensive in Africa. Last month, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield visited Uganda, Ghana, and Cape Verde. At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken toured South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda. And in December, Washington will host an Africa Leaders Summit.

Nevertheless, African leaders view the renewed engagement with some degree of cynicism, knowing that both U.S. and Russian interest in the continent is more about great-power rivalry than equal friendship. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Uganda, the Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Egypt in July.

Russia seems to be securing its relationship with troubled African countries using security and arms sales as a bartering tool. Authoritarian leaders, such as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, are reaping the benefits of being wooed by both Russia and the United States. This is a challenge for Washington because the large majority of democratized African nations don’t want to pick a side and be once again drawn into a global cold war.

A newly dusted-off Africa policy, which still focuses excessively on Russia and China and refers to a large majority of the continent under the contentious classification of “sub-Saharan Africa,” is not helping matters. As Zainab Usman, director of the Africa Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes, Washington “could have led the way in casting aside a perplexing demarcation that many Africans themselves do not subscribe to. It is surprising that a strategy that emphasizes its newness continues with the perplexing use of ‘sub-Saharan.’”

Kerry’s cold reception. Meanwhile, in Senegal, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry managed to anger both African leaders and climate activists when he attended the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment in the capital, Dakar. He cautioned against investing in long-term gas projects and said all nations had to pull together to combat the climate crisis, telling an audience: “Well guess what, folks? Mother Nature does not measure where the emissions come from.”

Many Africans perceived his visit as yet another U.S. official coming to lecture them about being green. The Pan African Climate Justice Alliance called Kerry’s presence a “public relations gimmick” that played with “semantics.”

Words and framing matter. As Kholood Khair, a political analyst and managing partner at Insight Strategy Partners in Sudan, previously noted in Foreign Policy, the authoritative tone of messaging coming from U.S. officials is failing to win support. “African leaders have increasingly become more allergic to that tone—something that China has figured out,” she said.

China tops the list of the world’s worst polluters, followed by the United States. By contrast, Nigeria—with Africa’s biggest economy and population—emitted 0.6 metric tons of carbon per capita in 2019 compared with 14.7 metric tons in the United States that same year. Meanwhile, Mozambique, Ivory Coast, and Senegal are gearing up to exploit recent discoveries of gas backed by European governments keen to secure their own energy needs and reduce their dependency on Russia. Criticism of those projects has led to talks of Western hypocrisy.

Ultimately, a continued focus on fostering economic partnerships instead of undercutting key African development goals is a better long-term plan. For example, the Biden administration won praise from Ramaphosa as one of few Western governments that said it would not stand in the way of the African continent’s fight to waive intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines at the World Trade Organization.

Ramaphosa said he would like to see the recently agreed Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights waiver extended to cover COVID-19 therapeutics and diagnostics. Although Washington initially hoarded vaccines, funding through the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation is supporting Senegal and South Africa to make their own vaccines, which could be used to fight malaria in the future.

Source: Foreign Policy