South Africa remains silent on Russian aggression after invading Ukraine

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa stunned many diplomats when he said shortly after a phone call with President Vladimir Putin that the country had been asked to mediate in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

He said the move was due to South Africa’s “ties with the Russian Federation” and that it is a member of the Brics group of nations alongside Brazil, Russia, India and China. “South Africa was approached to play a mediating role,” Ramaphosa said tweeted last week.

In the absence of details on how such a role would fit alongside other mediation efforts such as those of Israeland whether Ukraine itself had been told, South Africa’s main opposition said that the refusal of the continent’s most industrialized economy to condemn Ukraine’s invasion signaled their “tacit support” of the action under a “shameful guise of neutrality”.

“To the world’s astonishment, the same ANC that once relied on global solidarity to fight oppression has now openly sided with the oppressors,” Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen said in a debate on the war in South Africa Parliament on Tuesday.

The South African government surprised US and European partners days before Ramaphosa spoke with the Russian president by quietly dropping an early call for Moscow to withdraw its forces and then joining India and China in voting on a vote in the US government UN Security Council to abstain from condemning the invasion.

She wasn’t the only one in Africa who refused to condemn Russian aggression. Another 16 African countries abstained and eight were absent from the vote, making Africa the continent with the most implicit support for Russia’s position. Eritrea, ruled by an isolated autocratic regime, voted against the UN resolution.

This reflects Russia’s growing presence across the continent through resource companies, arms sales and the supply of mercenaries to countries including the US Central African Republic and Mali, both of whom abstained.

“South Africa has always demonstrated its allegiance to international law, whatever the circumstances. . . Russia is an aggressor and South Africa, however diplomatic it wanted to be, should align with that true North,” said Mzukisi Qobo, head of the Wits School of Governance at the Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg. “It goes against what South Africa believes in.”

Nostalgia for Soviet support for the anti-apartheid struggle, an inward-looking and divided ANC, and a limited ability to conduct foreign policy after years of decay in the post-apartheid state have all played a role in South Africa’s position, analysts said .

South Africa prides itself on being a voice of compromise in conflict, drawing on its own history of negotiating to end apartheid. But Ramaphosa’s failure to revitalize foreign policy after years of decline under his predecessor Jacob Zuma has left South African diplomacy, even in its own region, with diminished influence, said Piers Pigou, adviser to the International Crisis Group in southern Africa. He cited a lack of input into the recent crises in Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ambassador of Ukraine to the United Nations, addressed the UN General Assembly in New York on March 2
Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ambassador of Ukraine to the United Nations, addresses the UN General Assembly in New York on March 2 © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

South Africa has few direct economic or military interests at stake in its relations with Russia that might have required a realpolitik approach. Unlike India or other African countries, which rely on Russian parts to maintain their armed forces, South Africa relies on its own or Western suppliers.

In 2020, Russia accounted for about 1 percent of South Africa’s imports and 0.5 percent of South Africa’s exports. That compares to 20 percent of South Africa’s exports going to the EU, the country’s largest trading partner, according to Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies, a think tank.

South Africa’s sluggish economy will struggle with higher oil and fertilizer prices if a prolonged war disrupts Russia’s role as a major producer of both commodities.

Ideology has shaped the ANC’s views on the conflict more than these tenuous links to the real world. Although Ukraine was part of the USSR, the party only seems to have projected fond memories of Soviet aid in the fight against apartheid onto Putin’s Russia.

Revitalizing Soviet ties to liberation struggles like the ANC’s anti-apartheid struggle is one of the ways in which Putin has built a “useful past” out of what he otherwise sees as the catastrophe of the Soviet collapse, said Hilary Lynd, a Historian of links between the USSR and South Africa.

“These omissions and gaps are the result of a very active process of shaping a historical narrative a certain way,” Lynd said. “The Putin government did that on purpose.”

Among the African countries that abstained from the UN vote earlier this month were countries with close ideological or military ties to Russia, such as Algeria, Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, wrote Mahama Tawat, research associate at the University of Montpellier. Others, including Namibia and South Africa, recalled Soviet support for the liberation movements.

For these countries, Lynd said, “it seems very natural to equate Putin’s Russia with the Soviet Union.”

Additional reporting by David Pilling South Africa remains silent on Russian aggression after invading Ukraine

Adam Bradshaw

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