Vice President Harris hosts South African president, plays key role in US-Africa strategy

Vice President Kamala Harris, a Black woman, could be an asset to the Biden administration’s efforts to both restore and build relationships in Africa.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday met with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in two separate meetings as part of the United States’ concerted effort to strengthen its relationship with Africa.

Biden and Ramaphosa met inside the Oval Office on Friday afternoon to discuss trade, investment, infrastructure and regional and global matters such as COVID-19, food insecurity and “reversing the tide of democratic backsliding,” said a senior Biden official.

Harris hosted a lengthy bilateral breakfast meeting at her private residence in the U.S. Naval Observatory during which she and the South African president discussed several common interests, including technology and women’s rights. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, right, welcomes South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to her residence on Sept. 16, 2022 at the US Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Harris hosted the breakfast meeting after both leaders briefly addressed the media from the porch of her home to convey the significance of Ramaphosa’s visit. 

“The relationship between the United States and South Africa is a very important one for many reasons, including the leadership, that together, we have provided on issues like global health, our nations’ security and, of course, the challenges that we face with the climate crisis,” said Harris, who thanked Ramaphosa for his leadership in South Africa and throughout the continent.

Ramaphosa noted the importance of “strengthening” the relationship between the two nations and said he looked forward to discussing human rights and women’s empowerment — to the delight of Harris who smiled. 

The country’s initiative to strengthen its relationship with Africa follows diminished engagement between the U.S. and the continent during the term of former President Donald Trump, who infamously called African nations “s–hole” countries. It also comes months after the White House released its U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, outlining its agenda to rebuild its relationship with the continent and Biden’s announcement to host African leaders for a December summit.

The ongoing war in Ukraine was also discussed between South Africa and the United States, according to a senior Biden official. The South African leader has abstained from criticizing Russia — as have other African leaders — and remained neutral. Evidenced by its Africa strategy, the United States has made the diplomatic choice to listen rather than dictate what African leaders should do regarding the Russia-Ukraine war and other world matters. 

Bishop Joseph Tolton, founder and president of Interconnected Justice — one of the few Pan-African advocacy groups that engage leaders on Africa policy — talked to theGrio about the European conflict. He said while it’s unlikely that South Africa and other African nations would side with the West on the Ukraine war, he doesn’t think that position would hinder vital discussions such as trade, health and climate. 

President Joe Biden, right, listens as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, left, speaks on Oct. 14, 2021 during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. The Biden administration is working to improve the country’s relationship with African countries after it deteriorated during the term of former President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Tolton said hosting bilateral meetings like Friday’s signals that the United States is ready to honor “African agency.” 

“[They’re] beginning to move from more of a paternal relationship between the U.S. and Africa to more of a fraternal relationship,” said Tolton. “I’m kind of surprised that the administration has had that level of almost kind of like geopolitical emotional sensitivity to the ways in which we engage with Africa.”

He added that two Black women — Harris and U.S. Ambassador to the United States, Linda Thomas-Greenfield — are valuable players from the administration in implementing the U.S.-Africa strategy. Tolton said Harris can be an asset in restoring and building the country’s relationships in Africa.

“I think … we should celebrate and not kind of be squeamish about presenting the first African American vice president as a primary player in engaging African presidents,” said Tolton. “That’s not tokenism. It’s smart.”

However, he said the White House needs to also “follow it up with the substance of really leveraging the diaspora and acknowledging the special role that Black Americans can have in U.S.-Africa relationships.” 

As for Thomas-Greenfield, “The ambassador has a tremendous and deep history in working with African presidents,” he said. “They know her very well.” 

The White House’s afternoon readout provided specifics about the Harris-Ramaphosa meeting, revealing that the two discussed a range of topics particularly of interest to Harris, including space and women’s rights. The two leaders maintained the need to deepen bilateral cooperation on space engagement, to which Harris thanked Ramaphosa for South Africa’s leadership on science and technology. They also discussed expanding joint efforts to combat gender-based violence and online harassment and abuse.

South African President Cyril Ramaphos and Vice President Kamala Harris discussed several common interests, including technology and women’s rights on Sept. 16, 2022 during a breakfast meeting at her residence at the US Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

The White House said it is “very proud” of its relationship with South Africa, noting that there are about 600 U.S. companies in the country and the “number one destination for U.S. foreign direct investment on the continent, reaching $21 billion in 2021.”

During a White House background call about Friday’s meeting, the administration declined to signal whether the president or vice president planned to visit Africa, but said it will end the year on a “high note” related to engagement with the continent. 

A senior Biden official emphasized Biden’s “long history” with South Africa, including traveling there as a senator, holding hearings on apartheid South Africa and returning as vice president.  

“He’s very committed to and inspired by South Africa’s long struggle for freedom, racial equality and justice,” said the official.

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is the Managing Editor of Politics and Washington Correspondent at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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