South Africa

South Africa snubs biggest trade partner

South Africa has spent more than a year frustrating its biggest trade partner and largest foreign investor, the European Union, by failing to respond to requests for a high-level summit, according to people familiar with the situation.

The EU made several requests to South Africa to schedule the so-called EU-South Africa Summit over the past 12 months, but hasn’t received a response setting or suggesting a date, said the people who asked not to be identified because a public statement hasn’t been made.

The summits are meant to reflect the EU’s strategic partnership with South Africa, the only nation on the continent with which it has such a relationship.

The delay is fueling concern among Western powers that South Africa is turning increasingly toward Russia and China and neglecting relations with the US and European nations, the people said.

South Africa last year held exercises with the Russian and Chinese navies, declined to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and was accused by the US ambassador of shipping arms to Russia — an allegation Pretoria denied.

“It was unfortunately not possible to schedule a summit in 2023, but discussions continue with a view to determining the most suitable date,” an EU spokesperson said in a response to queries.

With South Africa due to hold national elections on May 29, a summit will now only be possible later in the year, the people said.

South Africa’s presidency and Department of International Relations & Cooperation didn’t respond to requests for comment.

More than a thousand American, European and British companies have invested in the country, and Western nations account for the bulk of South Africa’s trade.

While China is South Africa’s single biggest trade partner, with two-way flows of $56.3 billion in 2022, the EU collectively accounted for $56.4 billion worth of commerce with South Africa that year.

And while China has few investments in South Africa, more than 1,000 companies from the EU accounted for 51% of all foreign direct investment stock in 2021, or R1.41 trillion, and employed 350,000 people, according to the EU Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Southern Africa.

More than 600 US companies operate in South Africa, employing 134,600 people, according to South Africa’s government.

The delays to the summit are sending a negative signal about future relations between the EU and South Africa, three of the people said.

The Trade, Development and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and South Africa came into force in 2004, covering preferential trade arrangements and “establishing a regular political dialog.”

The summits were held annually between 2009 and 2013 and the last one that was held in 2018 was the seventh. Plans for the next summit were initially set back by the Covid-19 pandemic.

South Africa has insisted that it still values its relations with the EU and the US. President Cyril Ramaphosa and International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor have met with US officials in a bid to shore up relations in recent months and have expressed dismay about a bipartisan bill tabled in the US Congress calling for a review of bilateral relations between the countries.


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