President Biden praises South Africa as a vital voice on global stage as he hosts President Ramaphosa for talks that are expected to touch on the two nations' differences on Russia's aggression in Ukraine.
The leaders of South Africa and the United States have called for close cooperation on health, security and climate crisis, as President Joe Biden puts a new focus on African powers after their reluctance to take on Russia.
President Cyril Ramaphosa enjoyed unusually warm treatment from Biden, who walked him back to his motorcade at the White House on Friday, weeks after Secretary of State Antony Blinken travelled to South Africa and promised that the United States will listen more to Africans.
"We really need to make sure we fully understand one another," Biden said as he welcomed Ramaphosa in the Oval Office. "Our partnership is essential."
Ramaphosa said he sought to work together on security, including in South Africa's troubled neighbour Mozambique, as well as on climate crisis, a key priority for the Biden administration.
Ramaphosa said he explained that Africans should not be "punished" for their historic non-aligned position among major powers.
"I think it will harm Africa and marginalise the continent," Ramaphosa told reporters after his meetings.
"We should not be told by anyone who we can associate with."
Starting his visit over breakfast with Vice President Kamala Harris, Ramaphosa voiced gratitude to the United States for its "considerable support" on the Covid pandemic as the Biden administration donates 1.1 billion vaccine doses around the world.
"The visit really is about strengthening the relationship between South Africa and the United States," Ramaphosa said, adding that Washington had a "key role" to play on security issues across Africa.
Like other developing nations, South Africa –– whose eastern Mpumalanga province has one of the world's largest concentrations of coal –– argues that industrialised nations should bear the brunt of efforts to cut emissions due to their historic responsibility for the climate crisis.
Wealthy nations at last year's Glasgow climate conference promised $8.5 billion of financing to South Africa to transition away from coal.
Later on Friday, the US announced a South African-US investment advisory task force and $45 million of funding towards the energy transition away from coal.
'Histories' behind Russia stance
Successive US administrations have focused much of their energy in Africa on countering the growing influence of China, which has become the continent's dominant trading partner.
But Russia's assault on Ukraine has triggered a new front in the battle for influence in Africa, where many nations have been reluctant to embrace the West in its campaign to punish and pressure Moscow.
South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor denied being neutral but said "there are reasons for the perspectives that exist and one should never, I think, try to pretend that there aren't histories."
She pointed to the former Soviet Union's championing of anti-apartheid forces compared with periods of Western cooperation with South Africa's former white supremacist regime.
"I think we've been fairly clear, in our view, that war doesn't assist anyone and that we believe the inhumane actions we have seen against the people of Ukraine can't be defended by anybody," she said this week at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
"But what we have said is that a lot of the public statements that are made by leading politicians are not assisting in ameliorating the situation, because the first prize must be to achieve peace."
Relating 'very well' with Democrats
The United States has sought to highlight the role of Russian aggression in soaring food prices, as Ukraine was one of Africa's largest suppliers of grain.
Russia has sought to blame food scarcities on Western sanctions, an argument dismissed by the United States, which says it is not restricting agricultural or humanitarian shipments.
South Africa's top diplomat broke with the usual polite bipartisanship of foreign dignitaries visiting Washington, not mincing words on Biden's Republican predecessor Donald Trump, who notoriously referred to nations in the developing world with an epithet.
"We relate very well, I think probably better, with the Democrats than the Republicans," she said. "You will recall how president Trump described Africa and no one has apologised for that as yet."
Trump was the first US president in decades not to visit sub-Saharan Africa. Biden has not yet visited but has pledged a renewed interest, including with a summit of African leaders planned in Washington this December.