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Ramaphosa tells Biden he’ll help international peace efforts in Ukraine

Daily Maverick logo Daily Maverick 2022/09/19 Peter Fabricius

US President Joe Biden suggests to Cyril Ramaphosa that South Africa use its ‘strong moral voice’ to help end Russia’s war on Ukraine. On climate change, Ramaphosa told the US President that South Africa was going to need an additional $38-billion over and above the $8.5-billion in financing already pledged by the US, European Union, UK, France and Germany.

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Russia’s war against Ukraine was one of many issues that President Cyril Ramaphosa and US President Joe Biden discussed at their meeting at the White House on Friday, 16 September. 

Ramaphosa had arrived with a long list of requests for US assistance on a wide range of issues. He emerged from the meeting, declaring: “Most of the issues we raised were warmly received. It has been a really productive visit and we think we have deepened and further matured the relations between South Africa and the United States.”

Biden announced the creation of a South Africa-US Investment Advisory Task Force and a planned $45-million investment in the Just Energy Transition Partnership. This is on top of the $1-billion the US already pledged towards the $8.5-billion partnership with Western nations to help South Africa transition from coal-fired power to renewables. 

Russia-Ukraine conflict

The White House said in a statement that the two leaders had committed to addressing several of the world’s most urgent challenges, including the Russia-Ukraine conflict and its “negative consequences for food security” in Africa.

“The meeting reaffirmed the value of our longstanding partnership, and underscored South Africa’s influential voice in global affairs,” the White House said.

Ramaphosa told journalists after his meeting with Biden that South Africa’s position on Ukraine was “respected, known and recognised. And we, of course, both expressed a view that we would like this conflict to come to an end as quickly as possible”.

“President Biden did say that South Africa has a very important moral voice in the world and we should not take that lightly. We should find ways in which any form of assistance can be given in helping to bring this conflict to an end. And we agreed with that,” he said.

UN role

Ramaphosa said South Africa strongly believed that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres was the best-placed person to initiate peace negotiations in Ukraine. He could be assisted by a group of “elders or wise men and women”.

South Africa “can play a supportive role”, the President said. “We do have communication channels open to both sides and we have been able to speak to both sides. And each time we have stressed the issue of negotiations. 

“And following a very strong view that was expressed by President Biden, we will see what role can be played. But I still store a lot of confidence in the role of [Guterres].”

Ramaphosa seemingly declined to follow the example of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who, on Friday, rebuked Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand in Uzbekistan.

 “We know that today’s era is not of war,” Modi told Putin, according to a CNN report, which quotes a readout of the meeting by India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

Asked at a media briefing in Washington if he shared the sentiments of Modi — a partner in the BRICS bloc — Ramaphosa said he had already told Putin that the war should end and that peace should be negotiated. 

Sanctions objection

Ramaphosa made clear to Biden his strong objections to legislation now before the US Congress that would authorise US sanctions against Russian companies and other entities that do business in Africa. It would also authorise sanctions against the African entities the Russians do business with. 

The Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Bill was passed by the House of Representatives by an overwhelming vote of 415-9 in April, but it seems to have stalled in the Senate. (South African officials told Daily Maverick that they have successfully lobbied against the bill and they believed it will either not pass the Senate or, if it does, Biden would veto it.)

When Ramaphosa was asked if Biden had confirmed that he would veto the bill, the South African President said he could not speak for Biden. He had, however, expressed South Africa’s “discomfort and … opposition” to the bill. 

If passed, he said, the bill would punish African countries merely for having an economic relationship with Russia, such as trade or investment partnerships.

“Most African countries are non-aligned and we expressed a view that it would be unfair to punish African countries for just merely associating with Russia on an economic basis or a business basis.

“So I think it will harm Africa. It will marginalise our continent, which is trying to recover from the after-effects of Covid-19. It’s a misplaced type of legislation that would also touch on the sovereignty of African countries,” Ramaphosa said.

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“As African countries, we really take great pride in our own sovereignty, and should not be told by anyone who we [may] associate with. And we should never be put in a position where we have to choose who our friends are. We should, of our own volition, choose who our friends are and should not be subjected to a form of having to choose. So we refuse to do that.”

Ramaphosa added that if the bill became law, it would undo Biden’s efforts to engage and cooperate with African leaders at his summit with them in Washington in November. “So it is counterproductive.”

Ramaphosa met later on Friday with the legislators who had authored the bill. His spokesperson Vincent Magwenya confirmed to Daily Maverick that Ramaphosa had raised his concerns with the bill’s authors and with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

South Africa felt the ramifications of the bill were now well understood. “However, we will have to see how the process plays out,” Magwenya said. 

US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby earlier insisted: “There’s no punishment here intended for anybody… The core of the issue at stake in Ukraine, aside from the lives and livelihoods of millions of Ukrainians, is the issue of sovereignty: a nation’s right to decide for itself what bilateral relationships it has and how it conducts those bilateral relationships.

The United States isn’t making anybody choose between us and somebody else… We respect sovereignty.”

Long list of issues

Ramaphosa said he had raised almost 20 issues with Biden.

On climate change, he had told the US President that South Africa had realised it was going to need an additional $38-billion over and above the $8.5-billion in financing already pledged by the US, European Union, UK, France and Germany, South Africa’s partners in the Just Energy Transition Partnership “to achieve a truly just energy transition”.

Biden said he would raise this request with other G7 partners.

On the Islamic State-affiliated jihadist insurgency in Mozambique, Ramaphosa noted the US was already supporting efforts to fight the insurgents, but said he had asked Biden for further US support — financial as well as other resources and skills training — for the forces fighting the insurgency. He noted that South Africa was forming the bulk of the regional force engaging the insurgents and there was a danger it could become a target too. 

“We need to ensure those insurgents are completely driven out of Mozambique,” Ramaphosa said, adding that Biden had received this request well and there would be further discussions.

Covid-19 and healthcare

On Covid-19, Ramaphosa said he had thanked Biden for the support South Africa had already received, including vaccines, but requested further support in vaccine manufacturing. 

Ramaphosa added that South Africa fully appreciated US support for the World Trade Organization’s recent waiver on the patent rights of Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers to allow others to make them too. But he told Biden that the deal would now need to be widened to cover Covid-19 therapeutics and diagnostics. 

As the African Union’s Covid champion, South Africa would need help in improving health systems across the continent. Ramaphosa also expressed appreciation for the US’s “enormous support” in healthcare, especially fighting HIV and Aids. 

Ramaphosa said he had also asked Biden to lift the “unfair” increased import tariffs on South African steel and aluminium products that former president Donald Trump introduced, but which remain in place. 

On increased food prices and insecurity aggravated by the war in Ukraine, Ramaphosa said he had discussed South Africa’s view that Africa needed to make its own fertiliser to ensure greater food security. 

He said Biden had told him that the US would be holding discussions on this. South Africa would also work with the European Union on this goal. 

Zimbabwe

Ramaphosa said he had raised the issue of US sanctions against Zimbabwe as these were causing “collateral damage” in South Africa and other neighbouring countries. They were weakening the Zimbabwean economy, “resulting in Zimbabweans leaving Zimbabwe in droves, going to neighbouring countries, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.” This was imposing a burden on the services in these countries.

He also told Biden South Africa felt strongly that the AU should become a member of the G20 group of significant economies. South Africa is now the only African country in the G20 but “we need to spread the responsibility for representing African views”, Ramaphosa said. He told Biden that Africa should also get permanent representation on the UN Security Council. 

Women’s empowerment

He said he had also asked Biden for US support in developing the skills of key women South African public servants by sending them to institutions such as the Kennedy School of Government or the Thunderbird School of Global Management. 

Ramaphosa said he and US Vice President Kamala Harris had also proposed at their earlier meeting on Friday that there should be a special session devoted to women’s empowerment at the US-Africa summit in December. He noted, however, that he would not be able to attend the summit himself because of the ANC’s elective conference.

“So we had a whole list of issues to raise and most of the issues we raised were warmly received,” Ramaphosa said. The visit had been “really productive … and we think we have deepened and further matured the relations between South Africa and the United States”.

He noted that the US was an important trade partner and there had also recently been a huge increase in the number of American tourists to South Africa. 

In a statement, Ramaphosa’s office said he and Biden had agreed “on the need to create a more attractive environment for American companies to invest in South Africa, where an estimated 600 US companies are already doing business in a range of sectors”.

At his media conference, however, Ramaphosa said no one had raised concerns about the investment environment in South Africa at the meeting. “The US officials who were with President Biden were pretty positive and gung ho about the investment opportunities in South Africa.” DM

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