President Joe Biden praised South Africa as a vital voice on the global stage as he hosted President Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday at the White House for talks that touched on the two nations’ differences on Russia’s war in Ukraine and more.
In a brief appearance before the media at the start of their meeting, Biden made no direct mention that Ramaphosa is among African leaders who have maintained a neutral stance in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. South Africa abstained from a United Nations vote condemning Russia’s actions and calling for a mediated settlement.
But the president seemed to offer a subtle recognition that the two countries have their differences.
“We really need to make sure we fully understand one another,” said Biden, who heaped praise on Ramaphosa for his country’s leadership on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of climate change and other issues.
Following the meeting, Ramaphosa told reporters that South Africa’s position on the conflict is “respected” and that both he and Biden agreed they “would like this conflict to come to an end as soon as possible.”
Ahead of the meeting, South Africa’s international relations minister, Naledi Pandor, said finding an endgame to the Ukraine war will be South Africa’s focus when it participates in the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly next week.
“We would want a process of diplomacy to be initiated between the two parties and we believe the U.N. must lead, the U.N secretary-general in particular,” Pandor said.
The White House meeting came on the heels of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to South Africa last month, in which he said the Biden administration sees Africa’s 54 nations as “equal partners” in tackling global problems.
But the administration has been disappointed that South Africa and much of the continent have declined to follow the U.S. in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
During the Blinken visit, Pandor accused the U.S. and other Western powers of focusing on the Ukraine conflict to the detriment of crises around the globe.
“We should be equally concerned at what is happening to the people of Palestine, as we are with what is happening to the people of Ukraine,” she said.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, has sought to underscore that Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has led to scarcities in grain, cooking oil and fertilizer — resulting in disproportionate impact on Africans. The White House said in a statement following the meeting that the leaders discussed the “negative consequences” the war has had on food security in Africa.
South Africa’s neutral position is largely because of the support the Soviet Union gave during the Cold War era to Ramaphosa’s African National Congress in its fight to end apartheid, South Africa’s regime of repression against the Black majority that ended in 1994. South Africa is seen as a leader of the several African countries that will not side against Russia.
Despite the differences on the war in Ukraine, the Biden administration recognizes the importance of strengthening relations in Africa as China has spent decades entrenching itself in the continent’s natural resources markets. Improving relations with South Africa — one of the continent’s biggest economies — is central to the U.S. effort.
John Stremlau, an international relations expert at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the talks underscore that the U.S. sees South Africa as having the “potential to lead Africa in a constructive way” on trade and other issues.
Earlier on Friday, Ramaphosa met with Vice President Kamala Harris for wide-ranging talks. The vice president’s office said in a statement that Harris and Ramaphosa discussed global health security, space cooperation, climate change, women’s empowerment and other matters, as they met over breakfast at the vice president’s residence.
In a brief exchange with reporters before his meeting with Harris, Ramaphosa said he would like to see the relationship between the two countries strengthened.
South Africa’s ambitious efforts to transition from coal to cleaner energy were also discussed during the leaders’ talks. The U.S., Britain, France and Germany announced a plan last year to provid e $8.5 billion in loans and grants over five years to help South Africa phase out coal.