Building capacity to help Africa trade better

When Russia, the US and the European Union are in town during the same week


When Russia, the US and the European Union are in town during the same week

When Russia, the US and the European Union are in town during the same week

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, visited South Africa during the week of 23 January 2023. These visits took place against the backdrop of the escalating war in Ukraine, a recent visit by a Russian naval vessel to Simonstown (South Africa’s main naval base) and an announcement that South Africa will conduct joint naval exercises with Russia and China in February.

What has been requested, discussed, and decided during these visits? Important foreign policy issues are at stake, including international trade and investment. What objectives guide Pretoria’s foreign policy and where does it stand in respect of the war in Ukraine in particular? How will Pretoria’s policy choices serve the country’s long-term interests?

The answers to these questions matter. The Ukraine crisis has developed into a situation where far-reaching decisions about the nature of the international order have to be made; about defending democracy, security, and prosperity, while avoiding a new Cold War in a multipolar era.

Does Pretoria share this matrix in respect of its relationship with Moscow? Apparently not. When the United Nations General Assembly denounced the Russian invasion as an act of aggression and a violation of the UN Charter in a vote in February 2022, South Africa abstained. One hundred and forty-one states voted for that resolution, thirty-five abstained, and five voted against. Only Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria supported Moscow. China, Cuba, Nicaragua, and South Africa were among the abstainers.

What did the visitors want? An internationally isolated Russia wanted moral support (and perhaps more) and got it. Mr Lavrov hailed Pretoria’s “independent and balanced” stance on the war in Ukraine.[1] The EU wanted a firm stand against Russia but was turned down. It tried again: “The EU isn’t asking South Africa to choose sides, just asking countries across the world to stand with the UN Charter,” Mr Borrell said. The EU considers South Africa an important partner in the rules-based international order, he added.

In the case of the US there is a new broom sweeping. Washington is selling a new African policy after the tumult of the Trump administration and the neglect of Africa. Ms Yellen’s African tour (which also included stopovers in Senegal and Zambia) took place a few months after the US announced a new strategy to reverse years of neglect of Africa. President Biden hosted a summit of African leaders in Washington in December 2022 where he announced more than $15 billion in two-way trade and investment commitments, deals, and partnerships.[2] That includes funding high-quality infrastructure investments through the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment, preventing and preparing for future pandemics through the new Pandemic Fund, partnering to strengthen democracies and institutions against corruption, and helping African countries address debt vulnerabilities. The US-Africa Strategic Partnership on Food Security and green energy projects will be pursued, it is said.

What’s in it for South Africa? Global trade relationships and investment must top the list, but don’t. One commentator has noted that SA’s imports from Russia in 2020 amounted to about $530 million, while its exports amounted to $382 million. “But, in the larger scheme of things, it’s negligible, because the total trade is trivial; it’s about half of SA’s trade with Eswatini. SA’s trade with the US is, by contrast, flying. Total trade in 2020 was about $11 billion, heavily weighted in SA’s favour; exports were about $7-billion and imports were about $4 billion.”[3] The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) has to be renewed in 2025. On the other hand, there were no public announcements about new SA-Russia trade deals about products urgently needed on both sides, diesel and oil for South Africa, and weapons and ammunition for Russia.

Last week’s visits to Pretoria saw indications of what Pretoria will not do. At the end of the 15th South Africa-European Union ministerial meeting Mr Borrell made a public appeal on behalf of the EU to his counterpart, Naledi Pandor, to use South Africa’s influence over Russia to persuade it to end its war against Ukraine. He made an important point: “This is not only a European war. It’s happening on European soil but it affects the whole world. The consequences are felt around the whole world and the energy and the food crisis are the most evident direct result.”  However, as reported in the local media, South Africa refused to condemn Russia’s invasion at all and this week, after meeting Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in Pretoria, Pandor said she had not even repeated to him the call her department made on Russia the day the invasion began to “withdraw immediately” from Ukraine and to respect that country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.[4]

Important foreign policy issues are at stake, including international trade and investment.

They will remain on the agenda and may become more urgent as the war in Ukraine intensifies and South Africa’s domestic problems become more acute. First among these is an imploding Eskom and power cuts costing the local economy billions. A general election takes place in 2024, amidst tensions in the ANC, the ruling party. Opposition parties will make sure the implications of visits by foreign dignitaries will remain on the radar.

[1] Pandor’s pipe dream of ‘peaceful end’ to Russia’s war through diplomacy Bizommunity, 24 Jan 2023

[2] Ibid.

[3] After the Bell: SA’s decision to back Russia over Ukraine is objectively bonkers Daily Maverick, 25 Jan 2023

[4] Pandor declines appeal from European Union to persuade Russia to stop war against Ukraine Daily Maverick, 27 Jan 2023

About the Author(s)

Gerhard Erasmus

Gerhard Erasmus is a founder of tralac and Professor Emeritus (Law Faculty), University of Stellenbosch. He holds degrees from the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein (B.Iuris, LL.B), Leiden in the Netherlands (LLD) and a Master’s from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He has consulted for governments, the private sector and regional organisations in southern Africa. He has also been involved in the drafting of the South African and Namibian constitutions. He grew up in Namibia.

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