Africa Political Monitor No. 31

Related Categories: Democracy and Governance; Energy Security; Resource Security; China; Russia; South Africa; United States; West Africa

South Africa's contemporary foreign policy priorities – vociferous criticism of Israel in its war with Hamas, as well as deepening support of both Russia and China – are shifting the country's international posture and reconfiguring its alliances. Recent moves by the government of President Cyril Ramaphosa, among them filing a case against Israel at the International Criminal Court, carrying out joint maritime maneuvers with the Russian and Chinese navies, and calling the Islamic Republic of Iran "a true and reliable friend," have raised worries in Washington about a potential strategic realignment in Cape Town. It is one that, according to experts, is both ideological and practical – and heavily influenced by both Russian and Chinese outreach. As Peter Doran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies notes, South Africa has fallen "hook, line and sinker" for Russian propaganda that portrays itself and China as benign benefactors to African states, and the U.S and other Western powers as evil colonists.

The Biden administration has so far not executed a major shift in its policy toward South Africa as a result, however - but that could soon change. The U.S. Congress passed the Bilateral Relations Review Act earlier this year, creating a requirement for the White House to determine whether South Africa's activities undermine U.S. interests and national security. The Act also requires the Administration to "comprehensively review the bilateral relationship between the United States and South Africa and report to the Congress on its findings within 120 days of enactment." (Fox News, April 6, 2024)

To circumvent China's dominance of the global supply of key minerals, the United States needs to increase commercial ties with Africa, a new study by a leading Washington think tank has laid out. Currently, the United States is almost entirely dependent on "foreign entities of concern" – chief among them China – for supplies of key strategic minerals, notes the new study by the U.S. Institute of Peace. "U.S. economic and national security depend on securing a reliable supply of critical minerals, including from Africa," the study counsels. In particular, the U.S. would do well to increase commercial diplomacy with the DRC, the world's top cobalt supplier, and with Zambia, the planet's second-largest copper producer. However, a number of challenges persist, among them increased competition from Middle Eastern firms and poor infrastructure for sustaining mining projects in locales such as the DRC, which has scared off investors and made investments there high risk. (Reuters, April 9, 2024)

In West Africa, a region plagued by a distinct lack of stable governance, the nation of Senegal serves as a comparative bright spot. Last month, the country's opposition presidential candidate, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, was elected head of state despite efforts by former President Macky Sall to delay elections and imprison opposition candidates. The election of Faye, only 44 years old, suggests the rise of a new generation of politics, and a "break with the past." Faye's rise to power was made possible by mostly young voters dissatisfied with national political and economic conditions, as well as with Sall's efforts to manipulate the national vote. Nevertheless, Senegal's new president faces a daunting challenge: the country's population of nearly 17 million is overwhelmingly youthful, and more than 60% of Senegalese under the age of 25 currently struggle to find jobs. (Reuters, March 26, 2024)

Relations between Russia and assorted African states are expanding to include nuclear energy. Russia's state-owned nuclear conglomerate, ROSATOM, has been on a bid to drum up commerce on the continent of late. In March, a top official with the Russian state agency urged the government of South Africa to green light its nuclear program as part of the political rethink now underway in Cape Town. The counsel was savvy; as the Financial Times reports, "a number of African countries have announced plans to build nuclear power plants in the past year — including Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya," and Moscow "has been quick to pledge its support to African countries with nuclear energy ambitions."

That approach is strategic. Plagued by unreliable electricity generation and ongoing blackouts, countries across the continent desperately need a reliable solution. The Kremlin is offering one – albeit at a high price. Experts have warned that, by signing such agreements, African countries will develop a "long-term dependence on Russia." Moscow, meanwhile, is deftly using this search for alternative energy by regional states as a means to forge new economic alliances, mitigate Western sanctions over its war in Ukraine, and position the BRICS economic bloc as a major player in global energy. (Financial Times, April 2, 2024)