South African President Cyril Ramaphosa demonstrates greeting by elbow to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Courtesy of Trice Edney News Wire)
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa demonstrates greeting by elbow to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Courtesy of Trice Edney News Wire)

President Joe Biden will meet with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa this month, the White House announced Sept. 1 as the administration looks to draw African nations closer to the U.S. at a time when South Africa and many of its neighbors have staked out neutral ground on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Announcement of the Sept. 16 visit comes on the heels of U.S. 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.

South Africa abstained in a United Nations vote to condemn Russia’s action and Ramaphosa has avoided any criticism of Russia and instead has called for a mediated peace.

Biden and Ramaphosa, who spoke by phone in April, are expected to focus their talks on trade and investment, infrastructure, climate and energy, public health and South Africa’s leading role on the continent, officials said.

“The two presidents will reaffirm the importance of our enduring partnership and discuss our work together to address regional and global challenges,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement announcing the upcoming meeting.

Biden also plans to host a U.S.-Africa leaders’ summit in December.

During the Blinken visit, Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor maintained South Africa’s neutrality on the Ukraine war. In a press briefing following the meeting, Pandor accused the U.S. and other Western powers of focusing on the Ukraine conflict to the detriment of other international issues.

“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.

Blinken, for his part, underscored that Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has led to scarcities in grain, cooking oil and fertilizer – an issue that has had disproportionate impact on Africans.

“The U.S. is there for African countries in this unprecedented crisis because that’s what partners do for each other,” Blinken said. “The United States will not dictate Africa’s choices and neither should anyone else. The right to make these choices belongs to Africans and Africans alone.”

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.

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