Analysis | South Africa’s Indulgence of Putin Is Unsustainable
That attitude may go some way to explaining South Africa’s position on the war in Ukraine. The ANC stalwarts who now run the country, grateful for Moscow’s unstinting backing during the Cold War, are unable to openly criticize the Kremlin’s current occupant. Instead, the government of President Cyril Ramaphosa has affected a posture of neutrality, abstaining from United Nation votes condemning Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and periodically issuing anodyne statements calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Like others in the Global South, the South Africans have been able to deflect Western criticism of their posture and pressure to get off the fence by invoking narratives about the colonial past: Those who were for so long silent on the wrongs done to us cannot presume now to lecture us about what is right.
There are other reasons, too, less to do with history than with current geopolitical calculations. Like many nations, South Africa is navigating a complex, multipolar world order, and the government reckons its interests are best served by maintaining equidistance from all the major powers. “By rejecting pressure to condemn Russia, South Africa is trying to signal an independent, assertive foreign policy,” says Rashid Abdi, a geopolitics analyst and fellow at the Rift Valley Institute.
There’s also the matter of BRICS, a platform through which it can project some geopolitical power of its own. It is South Africa’s turn to chair the bloc this year, and it wants no friction with fellow member Russia. After all, it’s not as if the others — China, India and Brazil — are sticking their necks out.
Until now, the South African leadership has for the most part been able to evade close scrutiny of its posture. But that is about to change as it welcomes Russian warships to a joint exercise in the Indian Ocean, Feb. 17-26, dubbed Mosi or “smoke.” The Chinese navy will also participate, but the star of the show will be the Admiral Gorshkov, a frigate dispatched by Putin himself and armed with Russia’s latest hypersonic missiles.
The timing of the exercise could hardly be more inopportune: Putin is about to launch a major offensive in Ukraine. It is one thing for Ramaphosa to look the other way as Russian missile and artillery barrages batter civilian targets, but quite another for the South African navy to collaborate concurrently with the Russian war machine.
The official South African explanation, that Operation Mosi is simply a reprise of a similar exercise in 2019, is unconvincing. There was plenty of time to cancel or indefinitely postpone the drill. The country’s biggest opposition party questioned the wisdom of going ahead with it. “This gives the impression of not being neutral but being biased to one side,” said Kobus Marais, the shadow defense minister for the Democratic Alliance. “This is in the best interests of Russia.”
The impending joint exercise has also drawn fresh attention to a secretive late-December visit to a naval base near Cape Town by a cargo ship, the Lady R, owned by a Russian company accused by the US of transporting arms. The Wall Street Journal reported that the ship turned off its location-tracking transponder upon docking at the Simon’s Town base. This often indicates a vessel is carrying sanctioned cargo.
The government has said the ship was simply delivering a cargo of ammunition ordered long before the war began, but US officials are concerned about what it took away. “There is no publicly available information on the source of the containers that were loaded onto the Lady R,” a US official told the WSJ.
As its position on the war in Ukraine comes under the microscope, at home and abroad, the government may find itself out of step with the national mood — and economic reality. Aside from the generation that experienced the struggle against apartheid, South Africans tend to favor the West over Russia. Trade and business ties with the West dwarf those with Russia. South Africa’s military depends heavily on Western weaponry; the naval fleet is made up mostly of German vessels.
Anton Harber, executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression, points out that most media coverage of the conflict has been much more sympathetic of Ukraine than of Russian justifications for the war. “Young people have no warm feelings about Russia, and they scoff at the older generation of leaders who do,” he says.
There’s also what Harber calls the “corruption factor.” The ANC old guard, Ramaphosa included, has been hobbled by a stream of graft scandals. Inevitably, questions will surface about the party’s ties to Russian businessman Viktor Vekselberg, a Putin acolyte sanctioned by the US. Vekselberg is an investor in a manganese operation alongside an ANC investment company. “The party is in a deep financial crisis, and foreign funding is critical,” Harber says.
Nelson Mandela may have embraced tyrants in his time, but the world — and his country — have since moved on. Ramaphosa and the ANC leadership, having long since lost any aura of saintliness, may find excusing Putin harder to get away with.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion
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