South Africa/USA: Five things on the agenda for President Ramaphosa’s White House visit

By Carien du Plessis, Julian Pecquet
Posted on Monday, 5 September 2022 07:00

U.S. President Joe Biden talks with South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa
U.S. President Joe Biden talks with South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa as they arrive for a working session during G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Britain, June 12, 2021. Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS

The White House announced late Thursday (1 September) that President Joe Biden will be hosting his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa in Washington on 16 September ahead of the UN General Assembly in New York. Security, trade climate, food, health... here is a breakdown of the key points they will address.

The meeting is a chance for the US president to connect with the leader of America’s top trading partner on the continent and a key partner in Africa’s green energy transition for the first time since they spoke by phone five months ago. The two men will aim to deepen their countries’ strategic partnership, even as tensions persist over South Africa’s resistance to denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The leaders, building on their productive call in April and the U.S.-South Africa Strategic Dialogue in August, will discuss opportunities to deepen our cooperation on trade and investment, infrastructure, climate and energy, and health,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement. “The two presidents will reaffirm the importance of our enduring partnership, and discuss our work together to address regional and global challenges.”

The meeting could be the two presidents’ last chance to meet face-to-face this year. Ramaphosa may skip Biden’s US-Africa Leaders Summit in mid-December, as it will take place on the eve of elections for South Africa’s ruling African National Congress in which the president is hoping to retain his seat as party leader.

Here are five key things on their agenda:

Security

The war in Ukraine is likely to top the agenda between the two leaders, as the United States has differed with South Africa’s “non-aligned” stance on the conflict. During his visit to South Africa last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made it clear that he thought South Africa could take in a stronger stance against Russia’s invasion. His counterpart Naledi Pandor said South Africa would not be “bullied” into taking sides.

Pandor on 30 August had a phone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. After the call, the Russian diplomat praised Pretoria for its “responsible position” in “opposing the demands of the collective West to draw African states into a confrontation with Russia”.

South Africa has indicated that it preferred peace talks to continued war, and that it was prepared to offer its services as a mediator. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took issue with South Africa’s stance at a press conference last month, saying the cruelty displayed by Russia in the war “isn’t a dialogue, it’s not a road to peace”.

Ramaphosa is also expected to raise concerns that US sanctions could be extended to those doing business with Russia under the Countering of Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act. The bill has passed the US House of Representatives, but not the Senate.

The insurgency in the northern Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique is also likely to be on the agenda. South Africa has contributed troops to a Southern African Development Community (SADC) military intervention in the country.

One of the US’s big concerns is that it has identified Islamic State (ISIS) members and associates in South Africa as playing a role in facilitating the transfer of funds for terrorist activities across the continent. The South African government is likely worried that this would contribute to the country being grey-listed by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental task force that combats money laundering — a move which it has been scrambling in recent weeks to avoid.

Climate, energy and infrastructure

Biden together with other G7 leaders in June announced a Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) which promised to disburse up to $600bn through 2027 for green, sustainable and resilient infrastructure projects.

This would include funding for South Africa’s just energy transition partnership (JETP), which has received funding to the tune of $8.5bn from partner governments in order to decrease its reliance on coal. The country is in a scramble to find alternative power sources amid rolling blackouts due to inadequate infrastructure following years of looting of state funds from the public energy utility, Eskom.

The PGII is widely seen as a bid to challenge China’s global infrastructure programme, the Belt and Road Initiative. Both efforts also include an expansion of communications networks. The US has actively been trying to install western technology in order to counter the involvement of Chinese companies in building 5G networks in countries like South Africa, where Huawei’s penetration is high.

Trade

Trade is a bright spot in the relationship, with South Africa standing out as both America’s top export and top import market on the continent.

Two-way trade in goods surpassed $21bn last year, up 50% since 2010. Topping the list are South Africa’s $3.4bn worth of exports of platinum, a key catalyst in hydrogen fuel cells used to produce green energy.

There are several points of contention, however.

Ramaphosa is expected to press the US to lift tariffs on steel and aluminum imports that President Donald Trump imposed in 2018, citing national security concerns.

“Our objective should be to significantly expand two-way trade and investment, which will contribute to shared growth and prosperity of our people,” Pandor said at the opening of the US-South African Strategic Dialogue with Blinken on 8 August. “A good start in this vein would be to speedily resolve the longstanding unresolved trade issues around market access, including the removal of Section 232 tariffs on South African steel and aluminium imports into the United States.”

Another issue is the dispute over US chicken exports to the country.

The South African poultry industry last year convinced the country’s International Trade Administration Commission (ITAC) to impose anti-dumping duties on imports from the United States, Brazil and the European Union. Pretoria suspended the duties on Brazil and several European countries last month but kept them on US imports.

Ramaphosa will also likely repeat his calls for the US to lift sanctions on its neighbor Zimbabwe, which South Africa has long said is holding back the country’s economy and hurting the whole region. While President Emmerson Mnangagwa is under US sanctions and is unlikely to be invited to the December leaders summit in Washington, sources in Washington say South Africa is pressing for a top Zimbabwean official to be allowed to attend in his stead.

Another potential issue is the backlog of visa applications due to staffing shortages at US consulates in South Africa. Many South Africans have been waiting months or going to neighbouring countries to get their visas to the US.

Food security

The issue of food security amid rising prices for grain, fertilizer and sunflower oil is likely to be on the agenda as well. South Africa is not as dependent on grain products from Ukraine and Russia as some of the other countries on the continent, but it has also seen food prices increase — an issue that could fuel more social instability.

The $5.5bn in food aid provided by the US has gone to countries other than South Africa, The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has been involved in helping increase agricultural trade in South Africa as a way to help the country’s private sector play a role in improving food security.

“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,” said Ramaphosa’s spokesman, Vincent Magwenya.

Health

Finally, the two leaders will discuss efforts to help South Africa recover from the Covid 19 epidemic.

The Biden administration has disbursed billions of dollars to help vaccinate Africans and help the continent recover from the epidemic. But it lost much goodwill late last year when it temporarily barred nearly all non-U.S. citizens who had recently been in South Africa and seven other southern African countries from entering the country following identification of the Omicron variant.

Many Africans denounced the move as “travel apartheid.” Ramaphosa was one of the first to criticize the US move, saying travel bans are ”unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our Southern African sister countries.”

The Biden administration has changed its tune since then, applauding South Africa for helping identify the variant as well as its efforts to produce domestic vaccines. With one of the best regulatory environments on the continent, South Africa made global headlines in February when researchers at Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines in Cape Town were able to reproduce the Moderna vaccine.

“I especially want to thank South Africa and its world-class scientists for your role in identifying the Omicron variant and immediately, immediately alerting the world,” Blinken told on 8 August. “It’s no wonder that you’re becoming a hub of vaccine development to help Africa generate its own production and to help the world prepare, as necessary, for the next pandemic.”

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