South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will meet U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House Friday, with trade, energy, and security all on the agenda. What’s not officially on the program, but will likely be discussed, analysts say, are the two democracies’ differences over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ramaphosa’s first visit to the White House comes as the Biden administration seeks to re-engage with Africa in the wake of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to the continent, during which he launched Washington’s new Africa strategy.
During the trip in August, Blinken stressed that the U.S. sees Africa as an equal partner.
However, at their meeting in Pretoria, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor accused Western nations of “bullying” Africa in trying to get countries to condemn the invasion of Ukraine.
Bob Wekesa, director of the African Center for the Study of the United States at South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand, said the differences between the two countries were evident at the two top diplomats’ talks.
“At that meeting it was very clear that South Africa and the U.S. were on different paths and trajectories as regards many issues,” he said.
Wekesa said Ukraine will likely come up again when Biden and Ramaphosa meet Friday and predicted the two leaders will have a “difficult” discussion on the issue.
“The U.S., having taken a very clear position on supporting Ukraine, to kind of eject Russian forces from Ukraine, will be lobbying South Africa quite hard to kind of change [its] tune,” he said.
South Africa abstained from a U.N. vote earlier this year to condemn Russia’s invasion. Afterward, Biden phoned Ramaphosa. A White House statement after the call said Biden had “emphasized the need for a clear, unified international response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.”
Steven Gruzd, head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Program at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said Ramaphosa and Biden will discuss other issues as well, but added that the Ukraine topic cannot be avoided.
“On the agenda will be trade and investment, issues like climate change and food security, energy, peace and security in Africa, and of course what’s not officially on the agenda but will certainly be talked about is the war in Ukraine and the differing positions of South Africa and the U.S. on that particular conflict,” he said.
Gruzd said he thought the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, which passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and is now being considered by the Senate, would also come up in the two leaders’ conversation.
African countries see the act, which would sanction nations that trade with Russia, as an attempt to punish them for not voting with the U.S. on Ukraine.
In December, Biden is set to host the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington.