ANALYSIS | Why US, EU and Russian envoys are flocking to southern Africa

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Willy Kurniawan/Pool Photo via AP
  • The Russian foreign minister will make a stop in Eritrea, the only African country to openly support its war in Ukraine.
  • It was also the only country to vote against a UN human rights investigation in Ukraine.
  • South Africa is a gateway to sub-Saharan Africa for the US and EU, while for Russia, its chairmanship of BRICS is important.

It's been a busy week for United States (US) and European Union (EU) envoys in Africa, making trips to Africa after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov landed on the continent a few days before many of them.

South Africa featured in most of their diaries.

Lavrov also made a trip to Eritrea, a country which the West does not have diplomatic ties with. Eritrea is the only African country that backed Russia's invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in March 2022.

It was also the only country to vote against a UN human rights investigation in Ukraine. Hence, it is a no-go area for the US and EU.

News24 talked to Marisa Lourenço, a political and economic risk analyst on southern African affairs.

South Africa as a country of interest

Lourenço: South Africa – whatever challenges it is facing in terms of sluggish economic growth and the ongoing power crisis, among other issues – is still the gateway to sub-Saharan Africa, making it an important early stop for all foreign delegations on their tours of the region.

South Africa is also presiding over BRICS this year, meaning that Russia wants to make sure they are on good terms, and the US and EU want to make sure they are not losing influence in Africa's most advanced economy.

Southern Africa's position in a divided world scenario

Lourenço: Looking at the rest of southern Africa, it's the commodities that they hold that have drawn the interest of these foreign powers.

Mozambique and Angola have gas, and the EU still needs that to reduce its reliance on gas supplies from Russia.

Zambia has copper, essential for the energy transition. It's a subregion that doesn't get much attention typically, but one where the geopolitical focus is currently strong.

This pivot from international powers is helped, of course, by the subregion's broad political and social stability.

South Africa's stubborn refusal to condemn Russia's war

Lourenço: South Africa's refusal to condemn Russia's actions has certainly raised the most eyebrows, and at this point, it's clear that the government is playing to both sides, potentially because of its role in presiding over BRICS this year, but also because there are little repercussions for not choosing a side.

Angola eventually took sides

Lourenço: Angola, however, is just one of a handful of African states to condemn Russia's actions, apparently owing to pressure from the EU, which plays an important role in funding development programmes in the country.

Angola's attitude is, of course, part of a broader ongoing effort to pivot towards the West to drive private foreign investment into the market and receive help to transform its business environment. Still, it is in stark contrast to most of its peers.

History not repeating itself

Lourenço: Many comparisons have been made this week to the Cold War era, where Russia – then the Soviet Union – and the West would compete for African governments' loyalties.

But we no longer live in a bipolar world, where governments had to pick a side for their own sake.

We now live in a multipolar world, and there is less of a need for African governments to take sides.

READ | Russia-Ukraine war: Lavrov slams West for pressuring African nations to join sanctions over invasion

Mozambique is a good example of how governments are aware of this. Both the US and Russia provide aid to victims of terrorism in the north of the country, the EU provides counterterrorism training, and the government negotiated with Russia to buy fuel directly from it to keep fuel costs from rising sharply.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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