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Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rise of China as an economic superpower have unleashed a new scramble for Africa as the US vies to keep its traditional foot in the door even as trade with Beijing rises exponentially.

The challenge for SA and the continent is to put this attention to good use by attracting job-creating investment and matching newfound prosperity with diplomatic clout in world forums.

SA was conspicuous by its absence as the leaders of the industrialised nations gathered for the annual Group of Seven (G7) summit in Hiroshima, Japan, this past weekend, though Africa was represented by Comoros president Azali Assoumani in his capacity as AU chair.

It Is arguable whether SA’s inept diplomacy over the Ukraine war was behind President Cyril Ramaphosa not being invited to the summit, though SA is clearly considered to be surreptitiously backing Russia, to the extent of selling arms to Moscow. Whatever the case, the controversy seems to have jolted Ramaphosa out of his sleepwalk, with the government now leading an African mediation effort. 

Africa’s low-key profile at the G7 should not obscure the importance with which the continent is regarded by the competing powers, especially in the context of a rapidly changing world. 

In the weeks before the G7 summit Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited Egypt, Ghana, Mozambique and Kenya in what was widely interpreted as an attempt to curb Chinese influence. This coincided with a visit to Kenya by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who promised to help Africa gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In March US vice-president Kamala Harris visited Tanzania.

Yet even as the West rolls out the big guns in Africa, China is moving ahead relentlessly. It is building the world’s second-biggest liquefied gas project in Mozambique and in April offered to restructure Ghana’s national debt. According to media reports, China’s trade with Africa reached a record $282bn in 2022, an 11% increase on the year before. This dwarfs Africa-US trade of $72.6bn, though the latter consists of more manufactured and value-added products.

While breaking with the West is seen by some as the new key to economic freedom, Africa’s raw materials trade with China mimics earlier trade patterns with its old colonial powers. Even so, AU trade commissioner Albert Muchanga insisted ahead of the G7 summit: “We are not going to continue as the historical sources of raw materials. It will not work because of a growing population, which wants opportunities for decent jobs, and that can only come from the processes of manufacturing and agro-processing.’’ 

The G7’s backing of Ukraine may have put off some African leaders, but the war in that country is being seen as an existential standoff and will not lightly be abandoned by the West. African countries will have to walk the tightrope between the superpowers for many years to come.

As SA has discovered, strict neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war is a difficult game to play even when that is your genuine intention, and SA has been less adept at it than India, for example. We will have to step up and add substance to our neutrality to survive in a world that could be polarised for decades.

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