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SA’s tough balancing act amid soaring global tensions

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA) – In terms of the personalities of those occupying the White House, Donald Trump and Joe Biden are polar opposites. While Trump was unguarded in his speech and his attitude towards Africa was openly contemptuous, Joe Biden, with a much longer political experience and a better reading of international affairs, have been more measured the writer says.

By David Monyae

A little over a month ago, the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, landed in South Africa where he unveiled the US Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa. He would go on to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda before wrapping up his African tour.

His trip came amid a global order in a state of flux marked by a global pandemic, a war that has divided the international community, a faltering global economy, and global power shifts.

As such, Blinken’s visit served to recalibrate and clarify the US position towards Africa whose, global influence stems from its significant voting power on global platforms such as the United Nations (UN) and its possession of abundant natural resources that anchor critical global value chains.

The State Department announced that Blinken would use his visit to Africa to “launch the U.S. Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa, which reinforces the U.S. view that African countries are geostrategic players and critical partners on the most pressing issues of our day, from promoting an open and stable international system to tackling the effects of climate change, food insecurity and global pandemics, to shaping our technological and economic futures.”

During his speech at the University of Pretoria, Blinken reiterated that the United States acknowledged Africa’s primacy in deciding the continent’s well-being and future. Indeed, Blinken’s strategy did acknowledge Africa’s immense strategic value in terms of its resources, youthful population, and political influence in multilateral bodies.

The strategy also regurgitated some of the old lines of America’s global democracy and free market crusade even as anti-democratic and economic nationalist tendencies have gained significant ground in its backyard.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the US Strategy is also couched in America’s ongoing geopolitical competition with other major powers such as China and Russia who have also gained significant influence in Africa. The strategy made references to China’s cooperation with Africa in multiple instances.

Comparing the US and China’s approach to Africa Blinken pointed out that “the People’s Republic of China, by contrast, sees the region as an important arena to challenge the rules-based global order, advance its narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness and weaken US relations with African peoples and governments.”

He further vowed to counter “harmful activities by the PRC and Russia and other foreign actors” while committing the US Department of Defense to engage “African partners to expose and highlight the risks of negative PRC and Russian activities in Africa.”

Moreover, Blinken took the opportunity to sell his country’s Partnership for Global Investment in Infrastructure (PGII) which is widely perceived as a rival to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which has seen 49 African states including the African Union Commission (AUC) participating.

However, the Strategy reeks of the instrumentalism with which America treated Africa during the Cold War. In blunt language, Africa is only as good as it ranges on America’s side against its competitors or enemies.

Africa, a continent that is struggling with its own issues of terrorism is an important player, in so far as America’s security priorities are concerned.

This, as it happened during the Cold War, might actually supplant the zeal with which America promotes democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa. African have become weary of western powers’ habit of using Africa as a proxy to fight wars with their global rivals.

As South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa meets US President Joe Biden in Washington today before addressing the UN General Assembly in New York, it is clear that Washington will be keen to recruit South Africa to its side given its influence in Africa in particular and the global south in general.

Indeed, Biden’s invitation of Ramaphosa to the White House in the aftermath of the unveiling of the US Strategy towards Africa seems to be a calculated move to advance the strategy.

However, despite their longstanding relations, South Africa and the US have been on the opposite sides of the global ideological divide of late. On the Russia-Ukraine crisis, South Africa has chosen to maintain a neutral stance rather than side with the US-led campaign for Russian isolation.

South Africa has strongly disagreed with the imposition of sanctions against Russia arguing that sanctions will only lead to the escalation of conflict. Moreover, South Africa is also a key member of the BRICS group, which is founded on a deep dissatisfaction with the US-dominated global order.

The group has consistently called for a reform of key multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the UN Security Council (UNSC) which have become little more than conduits for US global influence.

Hence, President Ramaphosa is walking on a tightrope in his foreign policy vis-à-vis the US and Russia and China’s rivalry. On the one hand, China is South Africa’s biggest economic partner while Russia is an old friend that remains strategically important for South Africa. On the other hand, the US still retains significant economic influence in South Africa.

One of the US levers of influence is the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which grants African exporters from selected countries (including South Africa) duty-free access to the US market.

South Africa exports around US$2.7 billion worth of goods to the US under AGOA and will be keen to have it extended beyond 2025 when it is due to expire.

History shows that it is not beneath the US to use economic leverage to get other countries to fall in line with its interests. However, President Ramaphosa cannot afford to sacrifice South Africa’s principled foreign policy on the altar of American economic largesse. Doing so would lead to short-term gains while causing irreparable damage to South Africa’s reputation.

Ramaphosa should stand his ground and insist on South Africa’s foreign policy independence both on the reform of global institutions and the approach to the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

In any case, the US cannot be a trusted partner as it showed at the height of the Covid-19 crisis when it hoarded vaccines and cut critical supply chains leaving the developing countries at the mercy of the pandemic.

Monyae is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Sciences and Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.