U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in South Africa on Sunday, in what analysts say is an attempt to counter Chinese and Russian influence in the region.
Relations between the U.S. and South Africa became strained during President Donald Trump’s time in office. President Joe Biden has taken pains to repair them, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has proved contentious.
The secretary of state’s second trip to Africa, and his first to South Africa — the continent’s most developed economy and a key democratic ally — comes after a flurry of visits to the region by top Chinese and Russian officials.
Analysts say that after disregarding Africa for some time, the U.S. is now playing catch-up and trying to counter the growing influence of Beijing and Moscow in the region, in what some say has elements of a new “Cold War.”
Washington also wants to build support for Ukraine, as many African governments have been loath to condemn Russia’s invasion, in part due to the Soviet Union’s support for African liberation movements during the years when the continent threw off European colonial rule.
Steven Gruzd, head of the African governance and diplomacy program at the South African Institute for International Affairs, said he doubted South Africa would be pushed into criticizing Russia, its partner, along with China, in the BRICS group of countries.
“I think Secretary Blinken is not going to find a receptive audience for his message that South Africa must come down on the side of the West, and the U.S. in particular, on the Ukraine-Russian conflict,” Gruzd said.
Meanwhile, Bob Wekesa, director of the African Center for the Study of the United States at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, noted that China’s influence in Africa has grown considerably, and many African leaders look to Beijing for no-strings-attached infrastructure investments. Russia, too, to a far lesser extent, has made investments in the continent, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a four-country visit to Africa last month.
“It’s actually true that there’s some form of Cold War, even if it’s not the kind of Cold War we saw from the end of the World War II, but it’s a form of geopolitical competition and the U.S. must, therefore, be prepared to be seen to be competing with other powers for influence in Africa,” Wekesa said.
Nontobeko Hlela, a researcher at the South African office of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, said negative comments about African and other developing countries by former U.S. president Donald Trump did nothing to improve relations.
“The U.S. will have to work hard to walk back some policy decisions and statements made by the former occupant of the White House,” Hlela said.
While in South Africa, Blinken will visit Johannesburg’s famous Soweto township, once home to liberation icon and first democratic president Nelson Mandela, as well as take part in South Africa’s Women’s Day celebrations.
On Monday, he will meet South African counterpart Naledi Pandor and launch the new U.S. Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa. Climate change, trade, health and food insecurity will all be topics of discussion.
America’s top diplomat then heads to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, which are in the middle of a conflict.