President Cyril Ramaphosa is meeting President Joe Biden weeks after Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid his own trip to South Africa and promised that the United States will do more to listen to Africa.
Starting his visit Friday 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.
Harris hailed the leadership of Ramaphosa -- who is under growing pressure at home over a scandal -- and said she would discuss working together on fighting climate change, a key priority for the Biden administration.
"I cannot emphasize enough how important the relationship between our countries is to the people of the United States both in terms of our security and our prosperity," she said.
Presidents Biden and Ramaphosa are also expected to discuss trade, climate and energy as Biden ramps up engagements with African countries and casts a wary eye on investments and diplomacy by rivals Russia and China on the continent.
Biden, who has led an international coalition to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for the near-seven month war in Ukraine, wants South Africa's help in efforts that include forcing Moscow to sell its oil at below-market rates.
Ramaphosa has resisted calls to directly condemn Russia for the war, instead opposing the use of force generically. In March, he blamed NATO's eastward expansion for regional instability and said the conflict should be solved through United Nations-mediated negotiations rather than Western-led sanctions that hurt "bystander countries."
South Africa was one of 17 African countries to abstain from the U.N. vote condemning Russia's assault.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has triggered a new front in the US battle for influence in Africa, where many nations have been reluctant to embrace the West in its campaign to punish and pressure Moscow.
"There are reasons for the perspectives that exist and one should never, I think, try to pretend that there aren't histories," said South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor.
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
Ramaphosa's African National Congress (ANC) party, which has governed South Africa since white minority rule ended in 1994, had strong ties to the former Soviet Union, which trained and supported anti-apartheid activists during the Cold War.
However, South Africa still enjoys a high level of diplomatic clout among Russia's rivals in the West relative to its economic size since its peaceful transition to democracy.
Last month, during his visit to South Africa, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States would not dictate Africa's choices, following an earlier pledge to "do things differently," after former U.S. President Donald Trump's insulting remarks about African countries.
The war and global inflation have put pressure on South Africa, where half of the population lived below the poverty line even before the crisis limited grain and fertilizer exports from Russia and Ukraine.
Declining natural gas and oil exports from those warring countries has also boosted South African coal, a top domestic resource, and set back decarbonization goals for one of the world's most carbon-intensive economies.
Biden is due to host more leaders from the continent in December, when ANC members will also chose whether to keep Ramaphosa as their party leader.
This report was prepared with information from Reuters and Agence France-Presse.