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Biden Meets With South Africa’s President For The First Time In Eight Years

Image via Flickr: Diego Cambiaso

United States President Joe Biden welcomed South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa to the White House, marking the first time in eight years the two heads of state have met in Washington D.C. The meeting took place a day after China’s leader Xi Jinping met with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and others in Uzbekistan.

The Biden Administration recently released its policy toward Sub-Saharan Africa, announcing support for open societies, a commitment to democracy and security and advancing pandemic recovery and economic opportunity. 

Members of the international community expect that the talks included deliberation around Russia’s war in Ukraine, ending the COVID-19 pandemic, human rights and climate issues, trade and more. South Africa’s international relations minister, Dr. Naledi Pandor, said Ramaphosa would underscore the need for increased dialogue between Russia and Ukraine and an end to the conflict during his meeting with Biden.

Pandor added that the topic will be South Africa’s focus when it participates in the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting this week. Ramaphosa has held a neutral position when it comes to the war, and South Africa abstained from condemning Russia via a UN vote earlier this year.

Friday’s meeting followed the productive call between the two officials from April and the U.S.-South Africa Strategic Dialogue last month where U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, led approximately 50 U.S. government officials and experts in meetings with their South African counterparts.

In the meeting, President Ramaphosa raised almost 20 issues with President Biden, including the Malign Russian activities bill, stating concern that if the legislation passed, it would marginalize Africa because it would seem like punishment for having bilateral ties with Russia. Earlier this year, U.S. legislators proposed H.R.7311, or the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, to thwart African support of Russia.

The heads of state also discussed trade, investment, climate change and energy issues, with President Biden announcing the creation of a South Africa-U.S. Investment Advisory Task Force and a $45 million investment toward the Just Energy Transition Partnership.

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“In April, the leaders had a frank and open conversation about what was happening in Ukraine…there was a lot of listening, a lot of consultation, a lot of working through what is the best approach. I suspect that will be the same tenor for this conversation,” a senior U.S. administration official, who requested anonymity, told journalists on Sept. 15 during a White House press briefing.

“We’re very proud of our relationship with South Africa. There are some 600 U.S. companies based in South Africa, and it is the number one destination for U.S. foreign direct investment on the continent, reaching $21 billion in 2021,” the senior administration official said.

Dr. Phiwokuhle Mnyandu, a native South African, lecturer in the African studies department at Howard University, an alumnus of the university and an analyst who specializes in China-Africa relations, believes the meeting marked a significant moment in international affairs.

“Given the changing dynamics in the world and the big power competitions on the continent, South Africa is right in the center, and has been punching above its weight class for some time now. U.S.-South Africa relations is of primordial importance as these countries have always been friendly to each other, for better or for worse,” Mnyandu, said, citing the U.S.’ support of South Africa during the apartheid era.

“During apartheid, they were friendly with good relations, precisely because South Africa is a strategically located country with strategic endowments and an important economy. American interests are all over South Africa and U.S. citizens are the largest group of people that visit South Africa yet there’s a security imperative across Southern Africa,“ he continued.

Some experts have argued the importance of U.S. engagement with African nations due to the growing number of African migrants in U.S. cities, while others have argued Africa matters due to the continent’s youth and population bulge. Others have suggested interdependence and mutual benefits among the nations.

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The United States and South Africa have maintained a robust bilateral relationship since South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994. South Africa and the U.S. are strategic partners and frequently collaborate in the areas of health, education, environment and digital economy.

“My argument is that the Biden Administration should pursue a pragmatic turn in international relations with South Africa. ‘Pragmatic’ refers to a form of collaboration grounded in fruitful conflict and collaborative governance. The U.S. should broaden and deepen its cooperation on other issues. However, one could make an equally strong argument that none of these pursuits should come at the expense of democracy and human security in South Africa,” Michael Walsh, an expert on African security affairs and international relations, said.

Both Mnyandu and Walsh agree that, in addition to bilateral commitments, transnational security issues are of primary concern and should be discussed by the two national leaders.

In their recent Council on Foreign Relations article, they call the meeting an opportunity to deepen monitoring and evaluation of bilateral collaboration on defense, intelligence and law enforcement matters. The Hilltop released a joint letter by Mnyandu and Walsh regarding the ongoing situation. 

Prior to his White House visit, Ramaphosa was hosted by Vice President Kamala Harris for breakfast at the Naval Observatory as a sign of the strong partnership between the nations. The Vice President praised President Ramaphosa’s leadership in the global COVID-19 response and thanked him for promoting vaccine equity across the African continent.

Copy edited by Jadyn Barnett

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