Ramaphosa Rules Out South Africa Abandoning Neutral Stance on War in Ukraine

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(Bloomberg) -- South Africa’s president insisted his country won’t be drawn into taking sides in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, even as it faces pressure from some of its main trading partners to change course.

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“Some countries, including our own, are being threatened with penalties for pursuing an independent foreign policy and for adopting a position of non-alignment,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a speech on the outskirts of Johannesburg on Thursday. “We will maintain our position on the peaceful resolution of conflict wherever those conflicts occur.”

Read More: South Africa Is Non-Aligned and Irrelevant: Charles Onyango-Obbo

Ramaphosa’s comments come weeks after US Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety accused Pretoria of contradicting its neutral stance by supplying weapons to Russia, an allegation Ramaphosa has denied. Brigety implied that South Africa may lose its duty-free access to American markets, a prospect that sent the rand to a record low against the dollar before the two governments sought to smooth over the diplomatic row.

The US is South Africa’s second-biggest trading partner, with total trade between the two nations estimated at $23.3 billion last year. That compares with the $850 million of exports and imports between South Africa and Russia last year, according to International Monetary Fund data.

South Africa has duty-free access to the world’s biggest economy under the American Growth and Opportunity Act and the so-called Generalized System of Preferences — last year it exported $2.7 billion of goods under the programs. AGOA expires in 2025 and US officials have previously said the qualifying criteria for beneficiaries could be revised or the program replaced.

Read More: South Africa Opposition Pleads for Market Access as US Ties Fray

Brigety’s allegations added to US anger about South Africa’s abstention from United Nations resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression and hosting its warships for naval exercises.

South Africa’s hosting of an August summit of leaders from the BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — may reignite tensions: Russian President Vladimir Putin has been invited to attend and South Africa has yet to decide how it will handle an International Criminal Court warrant for his arrest if he does.

“There is going to be a lot of uncertainty in the lead up to the BRICS summit,” said EY Africa Chief Economist Angelika Goliger. “Our key trading partners, the US and EU, and the world, will be watching how the government engages with Russia preceding and during the summit.”

Ramaphosa said South Africa refuses to be drawn into any contest between global powers.

“As African countries, we have painful memories of a time when proxy wars were waged on the soils of Africa by foreign superpowers,” he said. “We have not forgotten the terrible, brutal legacy of first having our continent carved up and colonized by European countries, only to find ourselves once more pawns on a chessboard during the Cold War. We are not going back to that period in history.”

(Updates with analyst comment in eighth paragraph)

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