South Africa's declarations of neutrality are wearing thin around the Russia-Ukraine war, and engaging in wargames with Moscow's military while the violence in Ukraine grinds on surely sends the wrong signal, argues our expert, Steven Gruzd.
The South African government was more than happy to host the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, despite his country having launched a war against Ukraine last year.
Lavrov kicked off his four-nation southern African tour in a bilateral meeting on Monday, 23 January 2023 with Dr Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation. Both ministers beamed as they shook hands in the cavernous OR Tambo building that houses the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO). They both robustly defended planned joint naval exercises with China, slated for February. Bilateral ties are strong, and the countries share a vision of a multipolar world where the West does not call all the shots.
But is South Africa really agnostic on the war in Ukraine, as it claims?
Opinions about support for Russia are divided. Some believe that DIRCO should not be meeting with high-level Russian delegations. A tweet by broadcaster Bongani Bingwa said: “Principled or pitiful? South Africa has been praised by Moscow as Pretoria rolls out the red carpet for Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. Thousands of Ukrainians are dead. Millions are now refugees. We remain neutral. Of course.”
Others hold the polar opposite view. Activist Tshweu Moleme tweeted: “I hope South Africa’s mainstream media/political analysts will touch on this oft-ignored reality of many in SA not liking USA and loving Russia. Russia’s FM, Sergey Lavrov, just arrived in SA – a very warm welcome. No[t] so for United States’ Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen. “
Let’s rewind a year. On 24 February 2022, as the missiles began to rain on Ukraine, DIRCO said, in black-and-white: “South Africa calls on Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the United Nations Charter, which enjoins all member states to settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice are not endangered.”
However, this single instance criticising Russian aggression was an outlier. Thereafter, South Africa refused to chastise Russia again for invading a neighbouring sovereign state – one with which South Africa has diplomatic relations. Rumours flew at the time that Pandor was at odds with President Cyril Ramaphosa over the tone and substance of the above statement and that the president’s pro-Moscow stance held sway. Not long afterwards, Ramaphosa openly endorsed the Russian narrative that this war is the result of NATO enlargement and Western encroachment on Russia’s vital interests, using Ukraine as a proxy.
In the media conference following Monday’s meeting, veteran journalist Peter Fabricius asked Pandor if she had repeated the call on Russia to remove its troops from Ukraine – made back in February 2022 – in her discussions with her Russian counterpart. Pandor testily replied that it would be “infantile” to repeat this sentiment, especially given how Ukraine has been armed and supported by NATO countries in the last 11 months.
South Africa has asserted that it is non-aligned between the West and Russia in this faraway conflict and that it will not be bullied about who its friends and allies should be. Pandor said as much when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the country in August 2022, describing the diplomatic pressures exerted on Tshwane to condemn Russia and uphold Western sanctions.
India and some Latin American states have adopted a similar posture, dubbed by scholars “strategic non-alignment” or “active non-alignment”, harking back to the refusal of many “third world” countries to line up behind either the US or the USSR in the Cold War. In theory, anyway. In practice, most accepted assistance in one form or another from the Cold War camps.
But there are several signs that South Africa is less than neutral. For one, Ramaphosa phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2022, offering South Africa’s good offices as a mediator, but it took several weeks to then speak to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the end of April. The Ukrainian ambassador was continually rebuffed in seeking meetings with senior DIRCO officials and the Presidency.
For another, Defence Minister Thandi Modise travelled to Moscow for a security conference in August, provoking further consternation among South Africa’s detractors. South Africa initially permitted a Russian oligarch’s superyacht to berth in Cape Town (but in the end, it went elsewhere). Another Russian ship offloaded its cargo in the dead of night at a military facility in December. The ANC Youth League travelled to occupied Ukraine in October and endorsed the referenda on incorporating four Ukrainian areas into Russia, praising the highly suspect process. South Africa has abstained from all four UN General Assembly resolutions relating to the Ukraine war. It even put forth an alternative text to one of them that did not mention Russia, which was quickly shot down by Ukraine and the majority of UN members.
However, the illusion of neutrality will surely be shattered next month. From 17-27 February, South Africa plans to conduct joint naval exercises with Russia and China, in Exercise Mosi II, off the coast of KwaZulu-Natal. “Mosi” means “smoke” in Setswana. The three militaries first carried out similar exercises in 2019. But this was before Russia was actively embroiled in a vicious conflict, with widespread evidence of war crimes emerging.
The timing is unfortunate; Mosi II will coincide with the one-year anniversary of the start of the war. Tshwane is sure to take flak for that, including from the US and other Western countries, many of them serious trade and investment partners for South Africa.
Lavrov said at the media conference:
Our American colleagues believe that only they can conduct military exercises around the world, not only at their more than 200 military bases around the globe but anywhere in the world.
He has a point. The US and South African militaries indeed held Exercise Shared Accord in July 2022. This was the fourth exercise of its kind, following previous ones that took place in 2011, 2013 and 2017. And the US was still involved in the Iraq war in 2011.
But Mosi II will draw considerable media attention, mainly due to its timing. Maybe South Africa wants to demonstrate the independence of its foreign policy and that it will work with whom it likes when it likes, no matter what the West or many of its citizens think. The exercises are going to focus on aspects similar to 2019, including search and rescue and humanitarian operations. But one must question the wisdom of hosting such exercises with a belligerent who has also annexed (against international law) a large part of eastern Ukraine. This does not send the right message about South Africa’s commitment to the UN Charter.
The Greek storyteller Aesop wrote about 2 600 years ago that “a man is known by the company he keeps”. The steadfast refusal to condemn Russia has made many question the human rights that supposedly underpin South African foreign policy. Declarations of neutrality are wearing thin. Engaging in wargames with Moscow’s military while the violence in Ukraine grinds on surely sends the wrong signal. There may well be severe consequences for the country, in the form of diminished trade, withheld investment and diplomatic pressure – and an overall diminution of goodwill from countries that matter a great deal to South Africa’s fortunes. Only time will tell.
Research by Steven Gruzd, published by the South African Institute of International Affairs