Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni last week visited South Africa on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s invitation, ostensibly to build “strong political and economic relations”.
The two heads of state held discussions encompassing political, economic, regional, continental and international issues.
But it was clear from the outset that pan-Africanism was at the top of the agenda, in terms of the context of the visit, which featured a business forum of entrepreneurs from both states.
The visit, and the business forum, were designed to push trade relations — as well as diplomatic ties towards a more cohesive African continental trade and geo-political alignment — under the pan-Africanist rubric, the latter referenced several times by both leaders.
Trade relations between the two countries “continue to grow from strength to strength,” said the South African presidency in a statement on the visit, but which also acknowledged that “there is an imbalance in South Africa's favour”.
Uganda is South Africa’s 15th largest trading partner on the continent and second most important partner in East Africa, after Kenya.
Currently, Uganda’s exports to South Africa include cotton, gold, fish fillets, tobacco, coffee and fresh flowers.
Museveni, who referred to his ban on non-beneficiated raw commodities, spoke specifically about key commodities, including uranium and lithium, as likely exports, presumably to South Africa.
The leaders said they spoke “extensively” to ensure that conflict on the continent is addressed so that Africans in strife-riven regions could return to peaceful coexistence.
“The eastern DRC was covered, as was Ethiopia and the efforts that we all have made to bring about the cessation of hostilities. We have also looked at the peace process in other parts of our continent and continue to pledge our solidarity with Western Sahara, that are still struggling to get to a peaceful situation,” Ramaphosa said.
Inadequate African representation
The lack of adequate African representation on international fora was also raised, with Ramaphosa bemoaning the fact that there was still no permanent representation for Africa on the UN Security Council.
President Ramaphosa expressed his appreciation to the people of Uganda for their contribution to South Africa’s freedom during the struggle against colonialism and apartheid.
President Museveni played along, beginning his public remarks by saying that “neoliberalism” had failed, and talking of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, founded in 1912, as the first of the continent’s anti-colonial liberation movements, one which the Ugandan leader said he had joined in the late 1960s.
Answering a local journalist’s question, Ramaphosa said his administration and there ANC were “fiercely pan-African,” referencing South Africa’s troop and aid deployments on the continent.
“We are very proud to have a pan-Africanist like President Museveni visiting,” said Ramaphosa.
In answer to a question about human rights in Uganda, President Museveni spoke of “terrorists killing unarmed villagers,” reflecting badly on Uganda, but adding that Uganda had its own human rights protections.
Diplomatic views included observations that President Museveni’s association with pan-Africanism in general, and the ANC, in particular, as the foremost proponent of freedom for Africans.
For the South African leader, who recently also met with his Kenyan counterpart, the mission of bringing Africans into a broad coalition for improved trade and political cohesion on the global stage was, said presidential advisors, the logical extension of Ramaphosa’s wider ambitions for the continent.
World economy player
Ramaphosa has pushed policies domestically and in inter-state fora to help Africa become a major player in the world economy, with the aim of exporting finished goods and not merely raw commodities, and on the international political stage, where its ‘non-aligned’ status could be brought to bear, for the benefit of the whole continent.
Currently, Uganda's exports to South Africa include cotton, gold, fish fillets, tobacco, coffee and fresh flowers.
Museveni, who referred to his ban on non-beneficiated raw commodities, spoke specifically about key commodities including uranium and lithium, as likely exports, presumably to South Africa.
Both leaders spoke of possibilities explored such as electric vehicles and the lithium-ion batteries used in them, indicating a line of possible direct future trade development and co-operation which eliminates the need for raw material beneficiation outside of the continent, as is now the standard for most of Africa’s key commodities which are exported globally.
Total trade between the two countries in 2021 reached $114.5 million, with South Africa’s imports from Uganda amounting to $14.8 million, while South African exports to Uganda recorded about $99 million.
Museveni made it clear that he was thinking along strategic lines, referencing lithium specifically, as well as uranium, as likely commodities to be traded directly with South Africa, without “third party” involvement.
According to the World Bank’s latest statistics, the total value of exports from Uganda is annually $4.149 billion, while the country’s imports are valued at $8.251 billion.
Ramaphosa’s invitation to Museveni was seen, at the trade relations level, as a move towards rectifying that backwards step – as well as an effort to form a more cohesive African position towards the world’s major trading blocs.
The presidential get-together also had another component: dealing with global crises such as the war in Ukraine, and escalating conflicts in Africa, including in eastern Congo and the western Sahara.
South Africa is among African countries leaning towards Moscow in pushing for a “negotiated settlement” to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, something that Kyiv has ruled out “until all Russians are off all Ukrainian soil,” including annexed Crimea and other Ukrainian territories in the east of that country.
Both improved trade and more cohesive Afro-centric geopolitics found their way into the comments and prepared remarks of both leaders, before and after their face-to-face discussions, and subsequently in their addresses to business leaders.
“This state visit has reinforced the firm political and economic relations between our two countries,” said Ramaphosa in his formal remarks. “By deepening these relations, we aim to better the lives of our people and continue the struggle to overcome poverty, unemployment and inequality.”
Ramaphosa acknowledged the current challenges relating to trade and investment, including a significant trade imbalance. However, he said steady progress had been made towards resolving some of those challenges.
Several memoranda were signed, dealing with industrial development co-operation between South Africa, the Uganda Development Corporation and Uganda Development Bank Limited as well as in areas of tourism, transport, information and communication technologies, prisons, women, youth and persons with disabilities.
“We have noted significant progress in the implementation of agreements that the two countries have had in the past,” said Ramaphosa.
The various MoUs signed were a “testament to our growing relations,” he added.
Ramaphosa emphasised that he was keen on encouraging mutual investment between the two countries, with relevant mutual protections for investors, and with South Africa remaining enthusiastic about Uganda’s banking, retail and telecommunications sectors.