WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden will meet with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa this month, the White House announced Thursday, as the administration looks to draw African nations closer to the U.S. at a time when South Africa and many of its neighbors have staked out neutral ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Announcement of the Sept. 16 visit comes on the heels of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit to South Africa last month, in which he said the Biden administration sees Africa’s 54 nations as “equal partners” in tackling global problems.
But the administration has been disappointed that South Africa and much of the continent have declined to follow the U.S. in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
South Africa abstained in a United Nations vote to condemn Russia's action, and Ramaphosa has avoided any criticism of Russia and instead has called for a mediated peace.
Biden and Ramaphosa, who spoke by phone in April, are expected to focus their talks on trade and investment, infrastructure, climate and energy, public health and South Africa’s leading role on the continent, officials said.
“The two Presidents will reaffirm the importance of our enduring partnership, and discuss our work together to address regional and global challenges,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement announcing this month's meeting.
Biden also plans to host a U.S.-Africa leaders summit in December.
During the Blinken visit, Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor maintained South Africa’s neutrality on the Ukraine war. In a press briefing following the meeting, Pandor accused the U.S. and other Western powers of focusing on the Ukraine conflict to the detriment of other international issues.
“We should be equally concerned at what is happening to the people of Palestine, as we are with what is happening to the people of Ukraine,” she said.
Blinken for his part underscored that Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has led to scarcities in grain, cooking oil and fertilizer — an issue that has had disproportionate impact on Africans.
“The U.S. is there for African countries in this unprecedented crisis, because that’s what partners do for each other,” Blinken said. “The United States will not dictate Africa’s choices, and neither should anyone else. The right to make these choices belongs to Africans, and Africans alone.”
South Africa’s neutral position is largely because of the support the Soviet Union gave during the Cold War era to Ramaphosa’s African National Congress in its fight to end apartheid, South Africa’s regime of repression against the Black majority that ended in 1994. South Africa is seen as a leader of the several African countries that will not side against Russia.
The Biden meeting will come at a critical time for Ramaphosa, who is facing criticism from opposition parties and from within his own party for a scandal over revelations that $4 million was stolen from his cattle ranch.
He has been grilled this week by members of Parliament about whether the foreign cash had been properly registered with South Africa’s financial authorities and why he did not immediately report the theft. The scandal has damaged Ramaphosa’s reputation as a leader committed to battling his nation's rampant corruption.
Ramaphosa faces significant opposition in his efforts to be reelected as the leader of his party at a conference in December. If he fails to win the party leadership he won’t be able to stand for reelection as South Africa’s president in 2024.
South Africa’s economy has been in recession since even before the COVID-19 pandemic and has unemployment of 34%, so Ramaphosa would welcome any announcement of economic support from the U.S.
During Blinken's visit to South Africa last month, he praised South Africa and Ramaphosa for achieving a multi-racial democracy after years of white minority rule. He also used the visit to formally launch a new U.S. strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa.
Meldrum reported from Cape Town, South Africa.