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Ramaphosa gives US president’s democracy summit the cold shoulder

US President Joe Biden with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, UK on 12 June 2021. (Photo: Leon Neal / Getty Images)

Did Ramaphosa diss Biden because he is annoyed at the US — and other Western countries — for imposing a ban on South African visitors to stem the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus?

More than 100 leaders of democracies around the world attended US President Joe Biden’s virtual Summit for Democracy this week. But President Cyril Ramaphosa declined an invitation to attend. Why?

Was it because China had dismissed the summit as a “complete farce” — almost certainly because Taiwan was among the countries invited.

Did Pretoria decline to avoid offending its close ally Beijing? And also perhaps Russia, which was not invited?

Or did Ramaphosa diss Biden because he is annoyed at the US — and other Western countries — for imposing a ban on South African visitors to stem the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus?

Ramaphosa’s harsh criticism of these countries on the West African tour which he completed this week certainly suggests deep anger.

The president’s acting spokesperson, Tyrone Seale, offered the West African visit as a reason for the Ramaphosa not attending Biden’s summit. 

“We are just wrapping up our West Africa visit today. We will not be summiting,” he told Daily Maverick.

But that was on Tuesday, the day Ramaphosa returned to South Africa. The Summit for Democracy started only on Thursday and was to end on Friday. It would have required Ramaphosa to speak into his laptop for all of 10 minutes. 

International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor hinted at another reason for declining the invitation, in an interview with Daily Maverick journalist Carien du Plessis last Saturday in Accra, Ghana. 

Pandor said she had received the invitation letter the day before and that she was taken aback.

“The letter says things like, ‘America, a country that has always supported human rights.’ Really?”

Pandor suggested that perhaps her government declined the invitation because it thought a US summit for democracy lacked credibility.

That is certainly China’s assessment, at least officially. Last Friday, Le Yucheng, China’s vice-minister of foreign affairs, said in a call with his Russian counterpart on Friday that the event was a “complete farce”, according to Bloomberg.

The article also quoted other senior Chinese officials as rejecting the summit as a “joke” and saying the US political system didn’t represent a real democracy.

US politicians were agents of interest groups, and represented neither national interest nor the interests of majority voters, Tian Peiyan, deputy director of the Policy Research Office of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, said at a press conference in Beijing on Saturday for the release of a white paper on democracy which argues that China’s democracy is more real.

However, it seems Beijing’s main objection to Biden’s summit is that he invited Taiwan.

Tensions between the US and China have been rising over Taiwan, with fears that Beijing may be contemplating annexation of what it regards as a renegade province — while Taiwan functions as an independent state, but can’t openly call itself that. 

Biden opened the summit on Thursday by saying he had called it because, “In the face of sustained and alarming challenges to democracy, universal human rights, and — all around the world, democracy needs champions.”

Biden acknowledged that the US needed to work on its own democracy too. He noted that the International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance had judged that more than half of all democracies had declined in at least one aspect of their democracy over the past 10 years — including the US. 

Biden announced a Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, which he said would spend up to $424-million over the next year “to shore up transparent and accountable governance, including supporting media freedom, fighting international corruption, standing with democratic reformers, promoting technology that advances democracy, and defining and defending what a fair election is”.  

His views were largely echoed by several other leaders of Western democracies who also announced measures to strengthen freedom of the media in particular, at home and abroad.

It is not only Taiwan’s presence that made the summit controversial. Who’s in and who’s out was one of the key features of the event. Philippines and Pakistan, for instance, were invited, when neither is currently a shining light of democracy. Among African countries, Angola and Niger were invited, while Rwanda and Ethiopia were not. 

This has suggested to some that US strategic interests might have been more in play than concerns about democracy. Political scientists James Goldgeier of the Brookings Institution and Bruce Jentleson of Duke University wrote in Foreign Affairs that, “Determining who is sufficiently democratic to make the invite list would inevitably create tensions, and the entire concept of a democracy summit relies on an overly ideological approach to managing the global agenda.”

Embarrassing important allies by disinviting them was not strategic, they suggested, and Biden should rather go about promoting democracy less publicly. 

The summit is nonetheless proving to be a show-and-tell exercise where all countries with democratic pretensions feel they have to demonstrate what they are doing to advance democracy.

For wealthier countries, that tended to entail more sophisticated measures, like combating fake news and strengthening real media. Or sophisticated justifications for democracy, like the one UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered when he said: “Democracy is not just an ideal: it is the best practical way of creating the atmosphere of free inquiry that allows genius to breathe. 

“In an era when technological advance and therefore economic success depend on discovery and invention, it is no coincidence that of the 10 most innovative countries in the world, nine are liberal democracies.”

He said the UK was working with its friends to ensure emerging technologies were designed to safeguard freedom and openness.

Britain was using its new system of national sanctions to target those responsible for corruption or human rights violations across the world.

For others, the summit was about defending their records on the basics. Angola’s President João Lourenço, for example, explained how his government was doing everything possible politically and legally to remove limitations on democracy, particularly by giving the judiciary “the capacity to act with complete independence”.

Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum insisted that his election in April was the first democratic transition in the country’s history, as he took over after his predecessor left office after his constitutionally mandated two terms in office. 

He also laid out steps his government was taking to strengthen democracy, human rights and the rule of law and to fight corruption. 

Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema was a less controversial invitee. He said much of the summit was about global trends: the rise of authoritarianism and the decline of democracy and human rights. 

But he described instead “a democracy not in decline but in ascent,” recounting how the Zambian people in August this year had voted for him to replace the “violent and authoritarian regime” of Edgar Lungu, which he said had been “empowered by the belief that the eyes of the international community were elsewhere”. DM

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All Comments 12

  • our President needed to be back home as covid was a huge concern – simple. pity he has not addressed the Nation particularly the taxpayers!

  • To say the least, a c..p article. Zero fact, assumptions. Who the hell knows why Ramaphosa declined? As a reporter, who gives you the right to make assumptions, and then publish it in what is suppose to be the best quality online medium in the country? Is there anmy editorial control? All you have done is plant thoughts in readers minds. However, that being said, I would have declined as well IF I was the president. Simply because of the travel ban due to the new Covid variant.
    One thing I do know, South Africa has become the last outpost of the British (now American) Empire

      • Not at all.
        Very pertinent question why CR and government dissed the event.
        It’s geopolitical.
        Is USA the epitome of democracy. Probably a 83/100.
        Germany.92/100. China? 0/100
        And you guys are p*sd off that Peter has queried this decision?
        Well, how would we know why CR dissed it?! He refuses to have a daily or weekly press interview so these questions can be put to him.
        Which democracy in the world would tolerate no, zilch, zero press interviews?
        That’s something to be upset about.

        • Jerre, more speeches? Fall asleep everytime he gives onew of his “My fellow South African’s” Covid speeches. And then thanking the press for their hard work, and Adriaan Basson in particular. Nope, you can have it. Not me. Listening to Donald Trump 3 or 4 times a week was sickening enough. Don’t want to be sick listening to CR. Hearing him in parliament is boring enough

  • China is right in one respect. The US system is hardly democratic: the Electoral College ; 2 seats per state in the Senate and the fillibuster; Republican gerrymandering ; the influence of interest groups defining legislation ; the blatantly political Supreme Court.

  • Ramaphosa still has to establish a task team to explore the concept of democracy and then take it to the ANC NEC so see if they will allow him to comment on how he intends, if he does, to take steps, (only small ones), to implement the latest version of – what? Where was I again? Democracy? He’s got much more to worry about. Like remaining president………..

  • The United States is far from spotlessly clean when it comes to defending democracy around the world, but it is absolutely ridiculous that despotic states like China and Russia can criticise them. Their human rights records are appalling.

    • Thanks for the article, if an article provokes discussion, it is good. Some comments suggest we should take Chinese opinion about democracy into account. Seriously China should just keep quiet about this topic.
      Ramaphosa suffers from the trade-union attitude of obstructiveness, rather than constructiveness. Complaining about the west is part of his soul.

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