Ramaphosa demonstrates shrewd statesmanship as he performs a delicate G7 balancing act.

By: John Stremlau

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa showed shrewd statesmanship in discussing his unique role representing South Africa and Africa at the recent G7 summit in the UK.

Media reports rightly highlighted his comments on the Covid-19 pandemic and whether adequate vaccines will be available. More about that below.

Less noticed was Ramaphosa’s skilful advocacy of Africa’s potential role in helping re-balance the emerging geostrategic struggles between the wealthy democracies, represented by the G7 and European Union, and the leading authoritarian powers of China and Russia.   

This was clearly the overarching goal of US president Joe Biden. On the basis of the 13 June Carbis G7 Summit Communiqué and the Nato Brussels Summit Communiqué a day later, he largely succeeded. Europe is more focused on Russia. The US sees China as the more complex overriding global challenge. And the Americans succeeded in negotiating references to challenges China poses in both communiqués.  

Ramaphosa was pointedly asked about China’s role in Africa, and answered in a positive way, which could resonate globally, a reminder that with diplomatic skill and leadership Africa could also contribute significantly to an emerging global order. 

Among the four “guest” heads of state at the G7, Ramaphosa was unique, representing a democracy from the South, but not aligned against China. The other three — India, Australia, and South Korea — are, with the US, members of the “Quad” group seeking to counter China’s growing domination of Asia. 

Yet Biden and the other G7 nations repeatedly downplayed talk of a new global “Cold War” with either China or Russia. There are the dangers of armed conflict with Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea and Russia’s threats against Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. But Biden and G7/Nato allies say their goal is to manage geopolitical competition through peaceful means. That they want to cooperate with China and Russia whenever and wherever it advances mutual interests.

Africa represents just such an opportunity, although Ramaphosa could speak with authority only for South Africa. He deftly noted this early in his press conference by saying he had wished for greater African representation, suggesting he was unsuccessful in urging the inclusion of a representative from the African Union. After all, the G7 communiqué reiterates in its conclusion that “a central focus of our new strategic approach will be supporting sustainable growth in Africa”. 

Ramaphosa was asked whether he had concerns that announcements of major US investments in African infrastructure “is not a way to push back at China?” Anyone reading credible US media reports could conclude it is. But Ramaphosa has a different agenda, one that might actually support a broader strategy of “peaceful co-existence” among the major powers and their allies. 

“We are a continent of many countries with huge deficits regarding infrastructure” he replied, adding: “no single partner in the world can do it alone. So, we want partner-type investments. We are open for business and for investment. We welcome those who come, on good terms of course.” 

Not just the US, but the G7 and EU commitments to assisting infrastructure development, he said, “is not a threat of pushing China out”, elaborating that “we don’t see one pushing the other out. We see inclusion. That’s what we’d like to see accepted.”  

If the geostrategic rivalry, especially between China and America, is to be managed peacefully, they will need areas of demonstrable cooperation that serve the interests of all participants. 

Barack Obama and Xi Jinping recognised this in their 2010 agreement to support the “Green Climate Fund” dedicated to assisting the most seriously affected and least responsible for causing global climate change, primarily across Africa. Sino-American relations have soured since then but pursuing complementary infrastructure investments on terms acceptable to African countries, then building in a “green” climate dimension could respond to the avowed concerns of all three presumptive partners — China, the G7 and African nations. Russia is less a player but might be encouraged to engage in ways more than symbolic.

Regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, the most urgent issue of the G7 summit and for South Africa and Africa, Ramaphosa effectively spoke to several audiences in reply to the first question of the conference: vaccine inequality. The questioner noted the good news of a G7 commitment to provide a billion doses soon, but added, “is it enough, especially now that India cannot be a supplier for African countries?”

Ramaphosa adroitly linked vaccines to the broader needs of economic recovery and growth. First, he welcomed the G-7 commitment, but added it would not be enough without their support for the SA and Indian request for a World Trade Organisation exemption to enable local producers in Africa and elsewhere to override patent rights and gin up their own vaccine production. Then he appealed for G7 support for African access to their $650-billion International Monetary Fund’s “Special Drawing Rights” thereby gaining immediate substantial low-cost financing for their battered economies. 

When President Ramaphosa addressed the nation on the night of Tuesday 15 June 2021, he did not mention his statesmanship at the G7, though he did offer reassurance that the vaccine roll-out was on track. But as our democratically elected leader, he rightly focused our responsibilities for each other. With empathy and reminders of family and friends, he reiterated the basic rules of Covid safety.

But the most important of these is universal and the foundation of sustainable democracy at home or abroad: treat others as you would like others to treat you. DM John Stremlau is Honorary Professor, International Relations, at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ACSUS.