US President Joe Biden’s invitation to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for a meeting at the White House and the latter’s acceptance are positive signs of renewed cooperation. But they do not foresee a return to the era of heady optimism of the 1990s between the two countries.
These two different democracies are currently too divided internally, amid a new escalation of global tensions affecting Africa. These downsides, however, add weight to the importance of the meeting between Biden and Ramaphosa in Washington on September 16, 2022.
There are four reasons for its political significance. Two are talking to two countries with a common agenda: both presidents are committed democrats working in a hostile environment. They also strive to build mutually beneficial relationships.
But there are two important issues that may cause disagreements, and on which the leaders of the two states may well seek clarity. This is due to the changing relationship between major powers, which is of concern to South Africa and the rest of Africa.
Two specific topics central to Biden and Ramaphosa will be the consequences for Africa of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s expanding role on the continent.
Agreements and disagreements
Biden and Ramaphosa represent the progressive democratic factions after very narrow electoral victories.
Ramaphosa won by just 167 votes to lead the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in 2017 as its presidential candidate. The ANC held power for 28 years after the end of apartheid.
In turn, Biden defeated Donald Trump in 2020, narrowly winning the necessary Electoral College votes in three swing states. Trump and his supporters continue to dominate the Republican Party in a two-party federal system in which Biden’s Democrats now hold a slim majority.
Both leaders received a large number of votes in the country. However, they both continue to struggle to preserve liberal democracy after attacks on key democratic institutions by previous regimes.
Similarities in their political challenges are not the only source of empathy. Biden was a prominent opponent of apartheid as a US senator in the 1980s. An Irish-American, he no doubt appreciates Ramaphosa’s critical role in 2000 in overseeing Ireland’s fragile peace.
The second reason to find common ground has to do with what both governments have announced as their “official” agenda.
Topics listed include: trade and investment; infrastructure; climate and energy; and health.
Practical progress in these areas is vital to gaining popular support for democracy in the two troubled countries. They, in turn, could share lessons and resources with other African countries trying to overcome poverty and internal strife.
But there are areas of tension between the two countries.
They have different views about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. National and international media usually put this issue first.
But American and South African officials played down their differences. And it is likely that they will be able to productively discuss several immediate aspects of this crisis. These include difficulties with food shortages in Africa, the economic impact of commodity inflation and supply chain disruptions that are holding back global trade.
New announcements of joint mitigation efforts will be welcomed in South Africa, as well as in the worst-affected parts of Africa.
Two more topics related to Russia could be usefully discussed. They are politically sensitive because the facts and signs are uncertain. One of them would be the real conditions of hostilities in Ukraine. South Africa has repeatedly called for an end to hostilities, but neither side of the conflict has shown a willingness to compromise. An attempt to explain the conditions in Ukraine will help the planners of both countries.
Another issue is of vital importance to the future of South Africa and American liberal democracy. Independent South African media have speculated about the political and financial interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with his oligarch allies, in funding the ruling ANC and an expensive and allegedly corrupt nuclear power deal. Ramaphosa suspended the contract after becoming president, but concerns remain about the ANC’s ties to Moscow.
This has not been as well documented as Russia’s support for Trump in his 2016 presidential campaign or the extensive US media reports of Russian financial aid to Trump’s businesses. The exchange of views on Russia’s alleged partisan efforts in both democracies deserves discussion, at least informally.
A related public topic is the “Russian Malicious Activities in Africa Act” pending in the US Senate. The law requires the secretary of state to report to Congress on issues such as the role of Russian mercenaries, military aid and the spread of politically motivated disinformation.
South Africa and other African governments oppose the legislation. The reason is that its real purpose is to punish African states that have refused to support the US position in United Nations resolutions condemning Russia.
Ramaphosa and Biden could well find a formula by which US intelligence could quietly share with African governments about Russian activities in Africa, especially those deemed harmful to democratic stability.
Another topic that will require close attention is China’s relationship with the continent.
Tensions between the US and China have risen in recent years, dashing hopes for cooperation between Africa, China and the US. However, Africa is one region where two major powers can experiment with discreet competition in line with agreed African priorities.
South Africa has an excellent relationship with both China and the Biden administration. Perhaps Ramaphosa and Biden could revisit what was once known as a win-win formula for parallel and even joint action.
Managing Sino-US competition in response to African priorities can be beneficial for peace and development.
Will these two be able to cement a sustainable, productive partnership between two different liberal democracies?
It depends on the degree of trust between them, despite the occasional foreign policy disagreement, such as how to respond to the war in Ukraine.
Tensions between sovereign nations are inevitable, whether they are allies or adversaries. The USA and South Africa are neither staunch opponents nor staunch allies. They have a complicated and sometimes troubled relationship.
A positive relationship between their leaders at a time of deep internal divisions and rapid global change can help develop and sustain democracy in both countries. If they make progress in overcoming their internal differences, it should enable them to play a more active and constructive role in Africa, a region that is most important to South Africa and increasingly important to the US.
John J. Stremlau, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.