South Africa warns Blinken over US policies aimed at boxing out Russia and China

A recent congressional push against Russian influence in Africa threw a bit of a wrench into Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s plans to improve US ties with one of the continent’s leading states.

He arrived in South Africa in part to unveil a new US strategy for sub-Saharan Africa, which is in the midst of a population growth surge that could propel African societies to economic and political heights. “By 2050, 1 in 4 people on this planet will be African,” he said. “So this is the future, quite literally. And what we’re investing in is that future.”

Blinken touted that investment while attempting to surmount the impediments left by the history of Western imperialism in Africa, a legacy that China and Russia routinely invoke while advancing their strategic interests in the region. South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, acknowledged that Blinken “confirmed that America is not asking us to choose” sides in a new geopolitical struggle, but she didn’t hide her displeasure for a House-passed bill that would require the State Department to assess and “to hold accountable the Russian Federation and African governments and their officials who are complicit in aiding such malign influence and activities,” as the legislation put it.

“In terms of our interaction with some of our partners in Europe and elsewhere, there has been a sense of patronizing bullying towards ‘you choose this or else,’ and the recent legislation passed in the United States of America by the House of Representatives we found a most unfortunate bill that we had hoped the media would say more about,” Pandor said. “Because when we believe in freedom — as I’m saying, it’s freedom for everybody — you can’t say because Africa is doing this, you will then be punished by the United States.”


That complaint implied that the bill reflected the “antiquated and patriarchal views” that House Foreign Affairs Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-NY), the author of the legislation, has warned the State Department to avoid.

“When the United States is not at the table to support our African partners, we often leave them no other choice but to seek partners of last resort. I’ve heard this from our African counterparts time and time again,” he said during a recent roundtable. “We are seeing the effects of these decisions ripple across the continent, including through the increased presence of corrupt and unaccountable Russian and other foreign mercenaries and the growing influence of foreign adversaries, who are actively undermining the rules-based order and democratic systems to which most Africans aspire.”

Blinken took up Meeks’s argument while sidestepping the criticism of his bill. “What we’re seeing Russia mostly export to the most challenged places on the continent is its proxy, the Wagner Group, which is resulting in increased death and destruction in far too many countries,” Blinken said. “But part of the reason that the Wagner Group has some traction is that in the absence of an alternative to building security, countries may sign on and sign up. … What we’re focused on is a much more holistic approach that gets at some of the root causes that lead to state failure, that lead to people having deep frustration and seeing no hope for the future, and changing that trajectory.”

Doing the press conference and a subsequent speech, Blinken touted a 2019 law sponsored by Meeks’s predecessor in the committee chair rather than the pending Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act that Pandor criticized as the basis for the US strategy in Africa.

“We won’t treat democracy as an area where Africa has problems and the United States has solutions,” Blinken told an audience at the University of Pretoria. “We recognize that our democracies face common challenges, which we need to tackle together as equals alongside other governments, civil society, and citizens.”

That message, delivered after his press conference with Pandor, might as well have been drafted with her unmistakable warning in mind.

“If your tactic is to approach African countries and say … ‘Listen, you must be democratic either and use our model. It works,’ I think it’s bound to lead to some failure,” she said during the press conference. “To come in and seek to teach a country that we know how democracy functions and we’ve come to tell you, ‘You do it, it’ll work for you,’ I think it leads to defeat, so we need to think in different ways.”

Yet Blinken’s pledge during his speech to “work with partners to tackle 21st-century threats to democracy like misinformation, digital surveillance, weaponized corruption” pointed to the tension that US policymakers face between partnering with African officials and blocking the inroads that Russia and China pave with bribes and support for human rights abusers.

“After all, we’ve seen the consequences when international infrastructure deals are corrupt and coercive, when they’re poorly built or environmentally destructive, when they import or abuse workers or burden countries with crushing debts,” he said at the university. That’s why it’s so important for countries to have choices, to be able to weigh them transparently with the input of local communities without pressure or coercion.”

Pandor agreed on the need for “broader discussions about governance and democracy” but implied that these conversations would not align African states with Washington against Beijing.


“African countries that wish to relate to China, let them do so, whatever the particular form of relationships would be,” she said. “We can’t be made party to conflict between China and the United States of America, and I may say it does cause instability for all of us because it affects the global economic system. We really hope that the United States and China will arrive at a point of rapprochement where all of us can look to economic development and growth for all our countries because that’s extremely important for all of us.”


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