US President Joe Biden praised South Africa as a “vital voice” as he met with the country’s President Cyril Ramaphosa at the White House for talks that will touch on efforts to tackle the climate crisis, as well as ending the war in Ukraine.
“Our partnership is essential in addressing many of the world’s pressing challenges … and South Africa is a vital voice on the global stage,” Biden told Ramaphosa in the Oval Office before the talks began on Friday afternoon.
“We have a lot to talk about. A lot is happening around the world,” Biden said.
A senior Biden administration official told reporters earlier in the day that the United States president wanted to discuss the war in Ukraine with Ramaphosa, and hear the South African leader’s “thoughts on the best way forward”.
Biden, who has led an international coalition in applying a slew of economic sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin over the war, wants South Africa’s help in those efforts.
But the South African government has resisted calls to directly condemn Russia for the invasion.
The country, which has close historical ties to Moscow due to the Soviet Union’s support for the anti-apartheid struggle, abstained from a United Nations vote denouncing the invasion of Ukraine.
In late May, Ramaphosa said “bystander countries” were paying the price of Western sanctions on Russia. “Even those countries that are either bystanders or not part of the conflict are also going to suffer from the sanctions that have been imposed against Russia,” he said at that time.
In advance of the White House meeting on Friday, South Africa’s international relations minister, Naledi Pandor, said Ramaphosa would emphasise the need for dialogue to find an end to the war.
Pandor added that the issue will be South Africa’s focus when it participates in the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly next week.
“We would want a process of diplomacy to be initiated between the two parties and we believe the UN must lead, the UN secretary-general, in particular,” Pandor said.
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby earlier dismissed suggestions that the US is trying to pressure South Africa to distance itself from Russia.
“The United States isn’t making anybody choose between us and somebody else – either whether it comes to Ukraine or in the Indo-Pacific region. We respect sovereignty,” Kirby told reporters during a news conference.
Ramaphosa’s visit to Washington comes just weeks after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his own trip to South Africa and promised that the administration will do more to listen to Africa.
Starting his trip over breakfast with Vice President Kamala Harris, Ramaphosa voiced gratitude to the US for its “considerable support” on the COVID-19 pandemic and said Washington had a “key role” to play on security issues across Africa, as well.
“The visit really is about strengthening the relationship between South Africa and the United States,” the South African president said.
— Cyril Ramaphosa 🇿🇦 (@CyrilRamaphosa) September 16, 2022
That was echoed by Harris, who said the talks were “a sign of the strong partnership” between the two nations.
The leaders discussed strategies to respond to the climate crisis and efforts each country has taken on global health, the US vice president said in a statement. “They also agreed to cooperate closely on matters of peace and security affecting the continent.”
Before his talks with Biden, Ramaphosa said he was eager to discuss “a whole host of issues” with his US counterpart, including trade.
“The United States is an important partner to South Africa from a trade and investment point of view,” Ramaphosa said. “We really welcome the opportunity to be here so that we can … get more companies to invest in South Africa to create jobs.”
He also said he hoped to discuss the global energy transition, “as many of our people are a bit fearful of what a just transition could mean”.
Like other developing nations, South Africa – whose eastern Mpumalanga province has one of the world’s largest concentrations of coal – has argued that industrialised nations should bear the brunt of efforts to cut emissions due to their historic responsibility for climate change.
Wealthy nations at last year’s Glasgow climate conference promised $8.5bn of financing to South Africa to transition away from coal.