WHITE HOUSE TALKS
Biden eager to hear Ramaphosa’s views on how to end Ukraine war, says US official
As US President Joe Biden and President Cyril Ramaphosa prepare to meet at the White House on Friday, a US official has said consultation with African leaders on global issues – including the Ukraine war – is integral to the new US Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa.
US President Joe Biden is eager to hear President Cyril Ramaphosa’s views on Russia’s war against Ukraine and how to end it, when they meet at the White House later on Friday.
Biden could hear Ramaphosa propose the formation of a panel of “eminent persons” to get Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky around the same table to negotiate peace.
“As the world faces growing divisions we believe it’s essential to engage with South Africa and have the benefit of the government’s perspective,” a senior US administration official, who requested anonymity, told journalists on Thursday.
“We can’t make progress on our shared global priorities without South African leadership and contributions.” The official added that it was integral to the new US Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa that the US should consult African leaders on global issues such as the Ukraine war.
Though it’s not clear what Ramaphosa’s proposals might be, his International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor told the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on Wednesday that the United Nations had been totally marginalised from the Ukraine conflict and greater diplomatic effort was needed.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “SA puts trade on top of agenda for Ramaphosa’s meeting with Biden”
She proposed that the international community should do what it did during the apartheid years and appoint a group of eminent persons – such as former presidents – who enjoy international respect, to get Putin and Zelensky to negotiate.
How Biden might receive this proposal is uncertain since the US is increasing its supply of heavy artillery to Ukraine as it begins to recover some of its territory from Russia.
The US and other Western powers have been critical of South Africa’s non-aligned, uncritical stance on Russia’s war against Ukraine, but Pandor insisted this week that South Africa had not been neutral and that “the inhumane actions we have seen against the people of Ukraine can’t be defended by anybody.” However she added that “whether I should make a secretary of state happy or like me, that is less important than the trade issues”.
Pandor said South Africa was hoping that the US would extend the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act when it expires in 2025. The act gives South African and other African exports duty- and quota-free access to the US market without having to reciprocate.
The senior US administration official confirmed that trade, investment and infrastructure would be on the agenda on Friday, along with other shared priorities such as countering climate change, addressing South Africa’s energy problems, ending the Covid-19 pandemic, responding to global food insecurity, reversing the tide of democratic backsliding and shaping the rules of the world. They would discuss these either in Ramaphosa’s meeting with Biden in the Oval Office, or at a meeting he would have earlier in the day over breakfast with Vice-President Kamala Harris at her residence.
“We’re very proud of our relationship with South Africa,” the official said. “There are some 600 US companies based in South Africa and it is the number-one destination for US foreign direct investment on the continent, reaching 21 billion in 2021.
“Our health cooperation is a cornerstone of this relationship. We’ve provided over $8-billion in HIV/Aids assistance since 2004. President Ramaposa has been a leader in the Covid-19 response, recognised by the African Union as a Covid-19 champion… President Biden is looking forward to consulting with President Ramaposa on all these topics.”
He added that Biden had a long history with South Africa, travelling there and holding hearings on apartheid as a senator and returning as vice-president.
“He’s very committed to and inspired by South Africans’ long struggle for freedom, racial equality and justice. The call in April between the two leaders was warm and productive. And we have every expectation that tomorrow’s meeting will meet that same standard.”
The official declined to comment on the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, which passed the US House of Representatives in April but seems stalled in the Senate. It would authorise the US government to impose sanctions on Russian companies and other entities doing business in Africa, and also on the African entities they do business with.
South Africa has objected strongly to the bill which it regards as US punishment for Africa not always voting with the West on UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. SA officials have told Daily Maverick they believe they have succeeded in killing it but Ramaphosa might seek Biden’s assurance that he will not sign the bill if it is passed.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “US bill to counter ‘malign’ Russian activities in Africa could see continent caught in crossfire”
The official also declined to say whether Ramaphosa and Biden might discuss nuclear non-proliferation and perhaps cooperation in peaceful nuclear energy production. The recent conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty collapsed, largely because other countries, including South Africa, believed the nuclear weapons states, like the US, were not moving fast enough to fulfil their treaty commitments to disarm their weapons. And recently the US-South Africa agreement for cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy was renewed.
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A journalist asked the senior official if this meant Biden might offer Ramaphosa something to help address South Africa’s energy crisis. The official said she would have to wait until after the meeting for any deliverables.
However the official did note that the US was already contributing $1-billion of the $8.5-billion which Western countries have committed to the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) with South Africa. It will help finance South Africa’s transition from its heavy dependence on coal to renewables, while helping coal communities to adapt.
On Wednesday, Pandor had expressed concern that too much of the $8.5-billion would come as loans rather than grants and this would increase South Africa’s already large debt.
The official responded by saying that the US had already extensively discussed the JETP, including the mix of loans and grants, and Biden and Ramaphosa “will certainly advance that conversation and we’ll be ready to talk about how we support them above and beyond the commitments that we’ve already made”.
The matter of China
The official was also asked to respond to Pandor’s expression of concern this week about growing tensions between the US and China and her call on the two powers to work together for the sake of global stability.
The official said Biden would welcome a conversation with Ramaphosa about China, particularly since South Africa was a prominent voice in the Global South, the only African member of the G20, an important member of the G77 group of developing countries, and would next chair the BRICS bloc, comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
“I think his insights and perspectives are going to be really consequential as we continue to develop our policies and to engage globally,” the official said. DM