Biden-Ramaphosa meeting heralds a significant shift in US policy towards Africa

Biden-Ramaphosa meeting heralds a significant shift in US policy towards Africa
Published date:
Wednesday, 07 September 2022
Tony Carroll

President Cyril Ramaphosa is the first African leader invited to the Oval Office since the release of the Biden administration’s “US Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa”. That he is meeting president Biden so soon after seeing Secretary of State Anthony Blinken attests to the importance Biden attaches to the US-SA relationship.

Biden is not going to repeat the mistake of calling Ramaphosa “my point man in Africa”, as George W Bush said of Thabo Mbeki. Unspoken, however, is the administration’s conviction that without South Africa’s understanding and cooperation, the US will find it much harder to achieve its objectives, and those of its allies, not just in Africa but globally.

At the heart of the Biden Africa doctrine is the recognition that the major challenges the world now faces, some potentially existential, cannot be addressed without Africa at the table making substantial, sovereign contributions under leaders beholden to their own people rather than the self-serving agendas of outside powers.

To this president, Africa is not a “shithole” as his predecessor instinctively believed, but 54 nations with agency whose views, actions and fortunes matter to the entire planet.  

The specifics of the “US Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa” are less important than the core message and the stepped-up diplomacy one can expect to follow from it. In preparing the document, the White House National Security Council consulted widely. Seventeen government agencies had input as did academics, NGOs and African embassies.

If the process was time-consuming, it was the administration’s way of reminding everyone that the confusing Trump interregnum was over and letting Washington’s various Africa-oriented constituencies feel they were being heard again.

The resulting document covers familiar bases. The themes of free speech, open societies, anti-corruption, and economic freedom have been sounded by every administration since Ronald Reagan. But it would be wrong to characterise the policy as “new wine in old bottles” as some have, or to interpret it as a prettified return to Cold War era thinking, with Africa treated as a cockpit for superpower conflict.

Sure, China’s commercial and public diplomacy engagement with the continent has been perplexing the US for nearly 20 years. Moscow’s renewed interest in Africa is seen as malign and corrupting, with Vladimir Putin’s Russia having little to offer beyond arms, mercenaries, bribes and trouble.

But the Biden administration is not predicating its engagement with Africa on a perceived need to contain or evict China and Russia. Its strategy does not treat Africa as a collection of pawns in a game of superpowers, but as respected partners in pursuit of a safer and more prosperous region, more responsive multilateral institutions and a planet consequently less threatened by climate change, pandemics, global terrorism and mass migrations. 

It’s notable that the strategy gives more space for African agency in the design, implementation and metrics of US development assistance and defence cooperation programmes. The Biden administration appears to be willing to put its money where its mouth is if its generous budget increases in the Global Fund and Pepfar are any indication. 

There is also a commitment to support the arsenal of initiatives developed under previous, mostly Republican, administrations such as Power Africa, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the US Development Finance Corporation, Feed the Future, the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, and Pepfar. 

So, what’s missing?  Four things, in my view. 

First, no mention is made of reforming the development assistance architecture designed in the 1960s and which continues to underperform at almost all levels. 

Second, too little shrift is given to private sector engagement, including, specifically, engagement between often diaspora-led US businesses and counterparts in Africa. US-Africa trade and investment has flatlined over the past 14 years. The US is still the home of creative capital and there are risk-mitigating tools that could be explored to mobilise a great deal more of it for Africa. South Africa’s private sector should be front and centre of our commercial engagement with Africa whether as a partner in the processing of critical minerals or in fully realising the vision of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement. 

Third, I wish that there had been a great focus on engagement with US universities and research institutes. According to the Times Higher Education rankings, 19 of the top 30 research universities in the world are located in the US.  For example, the University of North Carolina has collaborated with Wits in the development of rapid diagnostic tests for malaria. Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital are working with the University of Cape Town’s teaching hospital, the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in training paediatric oncologists.

Fourth, there is no overt commitment in the strategy to ramping up our engagement with Africa at the consular or commercial diplomacy level. Waiting 18 months for a business visa interview is a barrier to doing business.

All that aside, whatever its shortcomings, the Biden strategy does represent a genuine effort to reframe US relations with Africa and take them to a new and more productive level.

I hope that it will, at the very least, provide a context in which disagreements when they occur can be respectful and not get in the way of achieving shared goals. Biden’s meeting with Ramaphosa will be an early indication.

Anthony Carroll is a Washington-based lawyer, trade and investment consultant, academic and philanthropist with 45 years of experience in southern Africa.

View related news articles

Ramaphosa vows to improve investment environment for US companies after talks with Biden

There was agreement on the need to create a more attractive environment for American companies to invest in South Africa. These are just some of the sentiments echoed by President Cyril Ramaphosa as he concluded his official working visit to the United States at the invitation of US President Joe Biden. Ramaphosa landed on Thursday in Washington DC, in the United States of America.  The two leaders deliberated on a range of critical...

18 September 2022

'The renewal of AGOA is vital' - SA President Ramaphosa

Address by President Cyril Ramaphosa during the meeting with the congressional black caucus and anti-apartheid veterans during his visit to the United States: Minister of International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa, Dr Naledi Pandor South Africa’s Ambassador to the United States, Ms Nomaindia Mfeketo Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Ms Joyce Beatty Spokesperson of the Rainbow Push Coalition, Prof Jonathan Jackson...

16 September 2022

South Africa puts trade on top of agenda for Ramaphosa’s meeting with Biden

Winning the US president’s support for a further extension of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which gives South African exports duty-free and quota-free access to the lucrative US market, will be a high priority for Pretoria. Trade, rather than the war in Ukraine, is likely to top the agenda of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s meeting with US President Joe Biden at the White House on Friday. That, at least, is how Pretoria sees it....

15 September 2022

Biden’s Africa strategy seeks to revitalize ties with the continent

President Biden is delivering on his commitment to make Africa a priority for the United States. Most notable is his administration’s sharp uptick in U.S. diplomacy toward the region. With visits to Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal last November, Morocco and Algeria in March, and South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has visited the continent three times in just 10...

25 August 2022

US revamps Africa strategy as it sounds alarm on China, Russia

The US unveiled a new strategy to forge closer relations with Sub-Saharan Africa, while contending that China and Russia were motivated by narrow self-interests in their attempts to strengthen ties with the region. With one of the world’s fastest-growing populations, largest free-trade areas by geographical area and most diverse set of ecosystems, Africa has a critical role to play in addressing the world’s defining challenges, the White...

10 August 2022

Trade and customs issues included in new Sub-Saharan Africa strategy

Trade and customs issues are included in, but do not constitute a major component of, a new U.S. strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa announced this week by the Biden administration. However, a recent report raises the possibility that the U.S. could yet pursue trade preference program changes, trade liberalization initiatives, and other efforts to further increase trade with Africa. The strategy states that the U.S. will “build on existing...

09 August 2022

US President Biden announces US-Africa summit for mid-December 2022

President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that the United States will bring together leaders from across the African continent for a major summit in December in Washington to discuss pressing challenges from food security to climate change. "The summit will demonstrate the United States’ enduring commitment to Africa, and will underscore the importance of U.S.-Africa relations and increased cooperation on shared global priorities," Biden...

21 July 2022

'South Africa sticks to protectionist policy while AGOA slips through our fingers'

South Africa is set to lose its preferential access to the US under the African Growth and Opportunities Act (Agoa) — a piece of American legislation allowing preferential access to the US market for African countries — when it expires in December 2025. It isn’t likely that this can be avoided. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We were never meant to benefit from AGOA, and if not for Nelson Mandela chatting with Bill Clinton in the...

15 May 2022

South African lemon juice producers may be slapped with anti-dumping duties, if a petition in the US succeeds

Makers of lemon juice in South Africa may be slapped with anti-dumping duties by the US, if a petition against them succeeds next month. On 30 December, a US citrus juice maker, Ventura Coastal, filed a petition with the United States International Trade Commission, requesting that the US government impose anti-dumping duties on lemon juice from South Africa and Brazil. It alleges that lemon juice from South Africa and Brazil is sold at less...

10 January 2022

Will Biden deliver on his commitment to Africa in 2022?

When he was running to win the White House, President Joe Biden’s campaign committed to implement a “bold strategy” toward Africa, and one that would be based on a “mutually respectful engagement” and a reinvigorated diplomacy, if elected. Indeed, the campaign was the first ever to outline how it would promote the interests of the African diaspora in the United States. On his 16th day in office, President Biden sent...

10 January 2022