Pretoria’s shifting position reveals Kremlin’s success in stoking doubt about responsibility for Ukraine war
South Africa’s foreign minister was all smiles this week as she hosted Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Naledi Pandor said her government, nominally neutral in the conflict, was now less inclined to criticise Moscow due to the west’s supply of battle tanks to Kyiv. A repeat of the call South Africa made early in the war for a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine would be “simplistic and infantile, given the massive transfer of arms that’s occurred” since, she said at a briefing, with Lavrov beaming on.
Her comments are a warning to Kyiv’s allies that, almost a year into the full-scale invasion, Moscow is far from isolated in the court of global opinion. Pretoria’s warm relations with Moscow will be highlighted next month when it conducts naval exercises with Russia and China. Symbolically, the drills will take place during the first anniversary of the invasion on February 24.
Fears about Russian influence in Africa often centre on what the west views as the Kremlin’s attempts to destabilise fragile countries, such as Mali and Burkina Faso. But the shifting position of South Africa, the continent’s most advanced economy with strong ties to western Europe, reveals Moscow’s success in stoking doubt about responsibility for the war through a friendly government that can spread its message in its region and beyond.
“For Russia, this is another opportunity to show that they are not as isolated as the west sees or expects them to be,” said Steven Gruzd, head of the Russia-Africa project at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
William Gumede, chair of the Johannesburg-based Democracy Works Foundation, said: “Clearly this undermines whatever [South Africa] is saying about being neutral in the war.” Moscow was benefiting from Pretoria’s “influence in Africa and . . . the developing world”, he said. “It means Russia is succeeding in its global campaign to make out this war is about Russia versus the US and the west, not Russia versus Ukraine.”
Russia can tap into a rich seam of suspicion of the west in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s governing African National Congress. “Part of it is the resonance of Russian narratives of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. That “strikes a chord” with ANC factions who are nostalgic for the Soviet Union’s support in the liberation struggle, Gruzd said.
South Africa is far from alone among countries of the global south in declining to be drawn into the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Latin American nations also remain wary of taking sides. Colombia’s leftist leader Gustavo Petro told a regional summit in Buenos Aires this week that he had refused a US request to supply Ukraine with unused stocks of Russian-made weapons.
Russian narratives are not going unchallenged. US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen also visited Pretoria this week, armed with warnings about the threat the war posed to Africa’s food security — an issue on which the African Union and most of its member states have backed Russia, which blames western sanctions for supply shortages. She also stressed how the US price cap on Russian crude was cutting costs for African oil importers, including South Africa.
But there are also concerns that South Africa’s support for Russia is an example of a country progressing from rhetoric to acquiescing in the Kremlin’s campaign to overcome international sanctions.
Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said African countries were able to use Russia’s stand-off with the west to their advantage. “Many of them are welcoming Lavrov in anticipation that the west will ultimately come and outbid him. And if not, they ultimately get something from Russia,” he said.
Western diplomats were particularly alarmed in December when a US-sanctioned Russian container carrier docked at Cape Town’s naval base under the cover of darkness.
The Lady R, owned by Transmorflot, a group sanctioned by the US last year, appeared to have turned off its transponder to make the stop as tracking data from Spire, a data and analytics company, recorded no transmissions of its position during its voyage to and from the port. Turning off the transponder allowed it to avoid creating a public record of the visit.
The ship delivered a consignment for South Africa’s defence forces that was “ordered long before Covid started”, Thandi Modise, South Africa’s defence minister, said in December after the ship left port. It has never been disclosed what cargo the ship may have picked up in Cape Town.
Despite these clandestine manoeuvres, South Africa’s overall trade with Russia is minimal, at about $1bn in 2021 in combined annual imports and exports. The Ukraine war has highlighted South Africa’s economic ties to the EU, its biggest trading partner. Its coal has helped European power producers replace some of the lost Russian gas over the past year.
A munitions joint venture between state arms producer Denel and Germany’s Rheinmetall supplies ammunition to Nato countries, such as Assegai 155mm artillery rounds — although South African arms control rules would forbid their transfer to Ukraine. Yet next month’s naval exercise suggests that South Africa also wants deeper military ties with Russia.
“Contrary to the assertions by our critics, South Africa is not abandoning its neutral position on the Russian-Ukraine conflict” by holding the exercises, South Africa’s defence ministry said this week. It also pointed to operations held with the US and French navies last year.
While those exercises focused on training in maritime policing and humanitarian relief, Russia will use South African waters to display the Admiral Gorshkov, an advanced frigate armed with its latest hypersonic cruise missiles.
“It’s obvious the value for Russia [from the exercises] is to showcase its geopolitical influence in southern Africa,” said Kobus Marais, shadow defence minister in South Africa’s main opposition Democratic Alliance.
Lavrov’s African tour this week also showed the limitations of the Kremlin’s diplomacy on the continent. The Russian foreign minister also stopped off in Angola, a longtime buyer of Russian arms that nevertheless voted at the UN to condemn Russia’s annexations of Ukrainian territory. A trip to Botswana, also a critic of the annexations, was called off.
But in South Africa, the war in Ukraine remains a quandary for a post-apartheid democracy torn between a tradition of defending the sovereignty of weaker countries, and affection among ANC elites for Russia. “Our identity since Nelson Mandela has been as a moral power,” Gumede said. “That’s gone now.”