U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wraps up a 10-day visit to Africa on Saturday that included stops in Senegal, Zambia and South Africa, where she met Friday with philanthropists on climate change.
Throughout her trip, Yellen sought to underscore the importance of the growing and youthful continent, saying “the United States’ strategy toward Africa is centered around a simple recognition: that Africa will shape the future of the global economy.”
The administration of President Joe Biden has emphasized its commitment to the region, rolling out a new policy for sub-Saharan Africa in August and hosting the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in December.
Analysts say the reengagement comes after Africa received limited attention from former president Donald Trump’s administration, and as leading trade partner China continues to dominate the region economically, while Russia is working to strengthen military and diplomatic ties.
Yellen arrived shortly after a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to South Africa, which has taken an officially neutral stance on the war in Ukraine and is planning to host controversial joint naval drills with Russia and China off the coast of the city of Durban next month.
Bob Wekesa, head of the African Center for the Study of the United States in Johannesburg, said the timing of the visits shows both Russia and the U.S. are trying to woo Africa.
“Is it a coincidence that both Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and U.S. Treasure Secretary Janet Yellen have done their Africa trip early in the year, coinciding, in fact almost meeting together?” Wekesa said. “In my view it’s not a coincidence in itself because there’s a very big geopolitical battle that has just intensified over the couple of months since first Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
Brooks Spector, associate editor at South African newspaper the Daily Maverick and a retired American diplomat, echoed that assessment.
“The competition now, on the African continent between Russia and the United States and China and the United States has become much more visible and in many ways much more significant than it was a decade or so ago,” Spector said. “With Russia of course, the challenge is geopolitical and security, whereas with China the challenge is largely economic and trade-oriented.”
Yellen has used her trip to criticize both Beijing and Moscow. Her remarks in Zambia about China being a “barrier” to the heavily indebted nation’s debt restructuring drew ire from Beijing. She has also blamed “Russia’s brutal war” for raising energy prices and causing food insecurity in Africa.
The U.S. is South Africa’s third-largest trading partner. Yellen has announced a new joint task force aimed at preventing wildlife trafficking, pledged to increase trade and investment, and praised the country for aiming to tackle its current power crisis and reliance on coal through a “just energy transition” partnership with the U.S.
But so far on her South Africa visit, Yellen — who had a closed-door meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa — has refrained publicly from talking about the upcoming naval exercises or Pretoria’s stance on Ukraine.
Spector said the topics — not usually ground covered by a treasury secretary — would likely have come up “regardless of the brief.”
“When Secretary Yellen arrived, she had an entire basket of issues to be tackled, a whole range of things, some of which transcended the more normal topics that a treasury secretary might have wanted to talk about, including, not surprisingly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
When South African Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana met with Yellen on Thursday, he noted her visit was a “momentous occasion” because no U.S. treasury secretary had visited in eight years.
Asked whether the minister’s remarks could be seen as a criticism of the U.S. for ignoring Africa, David Feldmann, the mission spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, told VOA, “We refer you to the South African finance minister for any interpretation of what he said.”
The South African treasury did not reply to a request for comment.
To underscore the importance of the continent, it’s expected that both U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and President Biden will visit this year.