Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in South Africa Monday to “extend already good relations”, while US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who is on a three-country African tour, will be in Pretoria midweek.
Both trips are part of what is seen in diplomatic circles as competitive drives to increase leverage in Africa through alignments with key states on the continent.
Lavrov arrived in South Africa on a working visit early Monday, landing at Waterkloof air force base in Pretoria and shortly thereafter sharing a platform with his South African counterpart Naledi Pandor where they addressed journalists.
The ministers said they will discuss, among other matters, preparations for the second Russia-African summit and conference that are slated for July 26-29 in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Increased bilateral co-operation, as well as in multi-lateral fora such as the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) grouping, were the main objectives of the working visit.
War in Ukraine
Minister Pandor mentioned the conflict in Ukraine, which has seen Russia being isolated by the international community, though less so in Africa, saying only that it was hoped that it would be brought to a peaceful resolution as soon as possible.
South Africa has been a leading voice in Africa on the need for a negotiated settlement between Ukraine and Russia.
Lavrov indicated that Russia sees Ukraine’s position —that there will be no negotiations, short of Russia’s full withdrawal, including in Crimea and from other Ukrainian territories seized last year and previously in 2014 — as the reason that the warring parties were not already in negotiations.
With South Africa holding the BRICS presidency this year, engagement on other international platforms, bilateral issues and key international events were all on the table for discussions.
Focus on Africa
Both Russia and the USA under President Joe Biden have increasingly pivoted towards Africa in the last two years, putting the two global players on a competitive footing on the continent, something not seen since the 1980s at the height of the Cold War.
Both countries have made announcements and moves to bring them into closer ties with key countries in East Africa, Southern Africa, West Africa and the Sahel region.
Russia has been keen to re-establish itself on the continent, where once it backed proxy wars with America in several liberation struggles.
In part, Russia’s recent efforts in Africa have been through the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian private military company close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Wagner mercenaries have been active in conflicts in Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Libya.
Their operational method is to form alliances with leaders and militia commanders who can pay for their services in cash, or with lucrative mining concessions for precious minerals like gold, diamonds and uranium.
The Wagner Group has repeatedly been accused of torture, civilian killings and other abuses, both in Africa and currently in its efforts to bolster the poor performance of the Russian military in Ukraine.
The governments of the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali are alleged to have used Wagner fighters in attacks against civilians, according to new research by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (Acled).
On her part, Yellen is in Africa to drive economic relations with targeted African states, a major turn-around from the approach of the previous regime under Donald Trump, which all but completely ignored Africa, aside from making racist comments about the continent.
The US Treasury Secretary’s Africa tour includes Senegal, Zambia and South Africa, with trade expansion, investment and the US commitment to support African economies all at the top of the agenda.
Her visit follows the promise by President Joe Biden at the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit last month that he and members of his Cabinet would visit Africa in 2023.
The US Treasury said Yellen’s trip was to exchange ideas with African government officials, private sector leaders, entrepreneurs and youth, and to deepen economic ties between the US and Africa, charting new opportunities for trade and investment.
In South Africa, she will meet with Foreign Minister Pandor and the reserve bank governor.
Yellen’s Africa tour coincides with a visit by IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva to Zambia next week and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s recently-completed five-nation Africa tour of Ethiopia, Angola, Benin, Gabon and Egypt.