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Expanding Russia-South Africa relations

  NIAS Africa Team

Africa Weekly #57&58, Vol. 2, No.13&14

4 April 2023


Russia and South Africa: Bilateral relations are expanding. Four reasons why
Expanding Russia-South Africa relations seems to be a scramble for influence from both sides. For South Africa, Russia has become an evident partner in terms of military and economy. For Russia, despite western sanctions, key strategic alliances remain in place.

by Anu Maria Joseph

On 30 March, South Africa hosted the 17th South Africa-Russia Joint Inter-Governmental Committee on Trade and Economic Cooperation in the capital, Pretoria. South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said that the government has no plan to break ties with Russia at the demand of other countries. She said: “There are some who don’t wish us to have relations with old historical friends; We have made it clear that Russia is a friend. We have had a cooperative partnership for many years. While we are friends with many all over the world, we cannot become sudden enemies at the demand of others.”

Russia’s Natural Resources and Environment Minister Alexander Kozlov stated: “Undoubtedly, the unprecedented sanctions against Russia have a negative impact on opportunities for trade growth. Under these conditions, it is necessary to come up with new forms of cooperation in the financial sector… We are willing to consider creating an ambulance service in South Africa equipped with Mi-8/Mi-17 helicopters as a pilot project. RUSAL is interested in supplying aluminium foil produced in Russia, which has a low carbon footprint. We know that in South Africa there is a high demand for this product in many industries.”

South Africa has long-standing relations with Russia, forged since the struggle against apartheid. Since then, bilateral relations have grown significantly, and Russia has been a significant actor in supplying military equipment to the country. During 17-27 February, South Africa conducted joint military drills with Russia and China. According to the Russian Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, bilateral trade between the countries increased by 16.4 per cent in 2022 reaching USD 1.3 billion.

Russian energy company, Unigreen Energy, has initiated a solar farm project with a capacity of 115 MW which is scheduled to begin production in 2024. South Africa-Russia shipping exports have also restarted after 30 years. Besides, Russian supermarkets are filled with South African alternatives as Russian imports collapsed amid the war.

1. South Africa’s pro-Russian stance on the Ukraine war
Along with 34 other countries it abstained from voting at the UN, condemning Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. It insisted on not taking sides and criticized the West for selective condemnation of Russia, ignoring other acts of aggression including the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory. They conveyed that the only path to peace is through dialogue and diplomacy and commitment to the principles of the UN charter to end international disputes by peaceful means.

2. Despite the divided public opinion within South Africa
Public response to the country's stance on Russia is divided. The majority of supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) agree with the government's choice. The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, has been critical of the government's neutral stance and has been calling to side with Ukraine. John Steinnhuisen, leader of the party said: “We are already involved in this war; our government can't be seen to be supporting Russia’s aggression; let’s put the country before party politics and think what this war will mean to us and what will be its impact on our economy.” South Africa’s Nobel prize winner Desmond Tutu criticized the naval exercises as “disgraceful” saying: “Tantamount to a declaration that SA is joining the war against Ukraine.”

3. International criticism
In February, the US condemned the decision to hold the joint military drills saying that it would appear as a compromise to South Africa’s neutrality towards war in Ukraine. The US has warned South Africa against assisting Russia to evade sanctions. It has threatened the country of rolling back aid funding or trade privileges to impose sanctions. The EU raised its concern about SA “moving further away from a nonalignment position.”

4. Rising Russian presence in the African continent
Russia’s growing influence in the continent was evident after France-West Africa relations deteriorated. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Africa for the second time ever since the beginning of the war. Russia has taken the opportunity to fill the void that France has left in Mali and Burkina Faso. Russia is successfully trying to build the narrative as an anti-colonial power. In 2023, Burkina Faso Prime Minister Paul Thieba described Russia as a “reasonable choice.” However, the west has raised allegations against Russia’s Wagner Group for committing human rights atrocities in Africa.

What does it mean? and what is next?
First, expanding Russia-South Africa relations seems to be a scramble for influence from both sides. For South Africa, Russia has become an evident partner in terms of military and economy. For Russia, despite western sanctions, key strategic alliances remain in place.

Second, though South Africa’s stance is often criticized for drifting towards pro-Russia, it has maintained relations with other western actors including the US. However, the cynical public response will be a significant challenge for the ANC government which is preparing for general elections in 2024. Besides, threats from the west will pose a significant challenge to the economy which is already struggling with a rampant power crisis and youth unemployment.

Third, increasing Russian presence in the continent is no more a speculation but a fact. Though international actors claim Russia is committing human rights atrocities in the continent, the extent and nature of the Russian footprints need close contemplation. In fact, 15 out of 34 countries which abstained from voting against Russia at the UN were African countries. Increasing competition for footprints in Africa has raised the strategic and geopolitical significance of the continent.

Note: Part of this commentary has been previously published as part of The World This Week.

By Anu Maria Joseph

US says IMF deal critical
On 22 March, the US said that it is significant for Tunisia to reach a deal with the IMF amid a worsening economic crisis. US Secretary of State Antony Bliken said: “The most critical thing they can do on the economic side is actually get an IMF agreement.” He added: “We would strongly encourage them to do that because the economy risks falling off the deep end.” The IMF guaranteed a USD two billion loan for Tunisia upon the demand for political reforms in the country. (“Tunisia IMF deal 'critical' US says - AFP,” BBC, 22 March 2023)

Begins talks to merge army factions 
On 27 March, military and civilian political leaders began talks to bring the government-backed militia, the RSF, under the authority of the army. The talks were part of the agreement signed in December agreeing for a return of civilian democratic rule. Military leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who seized power through a coup said that he wanted to end the armed forces supporting dictatorial governments in Sudan. (“Sudan begins talks to bring army factions together,” BBC, 27 March 2023)

One protester killed in clashes with security forces
On 27 March, one of the protesters was shot dead in Kenya’s western city of Kisumu after the protests turned violent. Clashes were also reported between the protesters and the police in informal settlements in Nairobi. Deployment of security forces to quell the protests has inflamed the tensions. The protests have been going on under the leadership of Raila Odinga against the rising cost of living and what the opposition mention as ‘illegal presidency’. (“One shot dead during Kenyan protests,” BBC, 27 March 2023)

AU calls for calm after the protests turned violent 
On 28 March, the African Union appealed for calm and called for dialogue in Kenya after the two-week long protests turned violent and left three people dead. AU Chairperson Maoussa Faki urged: "Stakeholders to exercise calm and engage in dialogue to address any differences.” He stated: "The Chairperson reiterates the total solidarity with and support to the government and the people of Kenya's efforts working towards national unity, peace and stability in the country.” The protests have been led by the opposition leader Raila Odinga against rising cost of living and what the opposition describe as “illegitimate presidency”. (“African Union appeals for calm after Kenya protests,” BBC, 28 March 2023)

US urges to refrain from violence during the protests
On 29 March, the US urged all political sides and security forces in Kenya to refrain from violence during the protests. Deputy spokesperson for the US Department of State Vendant Patel said: “We encourage political leaders, protesters and all parties to refrain from violence and rhetoric that could incite violence; We call on government security forces to act with restraint while protecting public safety and property." The protests led by opposition leader Raila Odinga against rising cost of living, turned violent leading to the death of at least three people across the country. (“US urges restraint over Kenya protests,” BBC, 29 March 2023)

Igad praises Ruto and Odinga agreeing to hold talks
On  3 April, East African bloc, Igad, praised Kenyan President Willam Ruto and opposition leader Raila Odinga for agreeing to hold talks to end the protests which have been going on for the past two weeks. Igad Executive Secretary Workneh Gebeyehu stated that the decision would help “resolve differences on national issues through peaceful means and preserve Kenya’s unity and constitutional order.” The protests were going on against rising cost of living and electoral reforms. On 2 April, Odinga called off the protests after Ruto agreed to hold talks. (“Protests: Kenyan leaders commended for agreeing to talks,” BBC, 3 April 2023)

Aiming to launch its first earth observation satellite
On 4 April, BBC reported on Kenya preparing to launch its first earth observation satellite, which it described as a landmark achievement in the country’s space sector. Nation-1 or Taifa-1 in Swahili, is scheduled to be launched next week from the Vandenberg Space Force in California. The Kenyan Space Agency and the Defence Ministry in a joint statement said that the satellite is designed to provide data for use in agriculture, food security and environmental management. The statement added that it was “fully designed and developed” by Kenyan engineers in partnership with a Bulgarian aerospace manufacturer. (“Kenya to launch its first earth observation satellite,” BBC, 4 April 2023)

TPLF removed from the terror list
On22 March, the Ethiopian Parliament voted to remove Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) from the country's terror blacklist. The decision comes four months after the group signed a ceasefire agreement with the federal government ending the two years of conflict. (“Ethiopia removes ‘terrorist’ tag from Tigray regional party,” Al Jazeera, 22 March 2023)

EU call for a successful implementation of ceasefire in Tigray to normalise ties
On 4 April, the European Union said that the Ethiopian government will have to carry out successful efforts for the implementation of the ceasefire agreement signed in Tigray to normalise its relations with the country. The EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrel said that the progress in Tigray is a rare example of good news in the world today. The EU had suspended budgetary support to Ethiopia citing human rights abuses after the conflict broke out in November 2020. Earlier this year, EU officials demanded accountability for the widespread abuses committed by the warring parties during the conflict. (“Tigray success vital to restore Ethiopia-Europe ties - EU,” BBC, 4 April 2023)

Prosecutors to drop charges against the TPLF leaders
On 30 March, prosecutors in Ethiopia said that they are dropping criminal charges against senior civil and military leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The same day, the Ministry of Justice stated that conflict-related cases would be seen “in the context of transitional justice.'' This is the latest development after the federal government signed a peace agreement in Tigray in November 2022, ending the two-year conflict. (“Ethiopia prosecutors drop charges against TPLF leaders,” BBC, 30 March 2023)

Peace deal in Tigray a “positive step”, says prime minister
On 28 March, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called the peace deal signed between the Tigray rebels and the government as “a positive step” and said that his government would also sit with other armed groups to resolve tensions. He was addressing the members of the parliament after a number of them raised concerns about growing tensions in other parts of the country. Abiy responded that “a lot more” is to be done to achieve complete peace in the country’s north. “It takes time to heal; Peace, much like war, needs bravery.” (“Abiy hails peace deal, to talk to other armed groups,” BBC, 28 March 2023)

PM appoints TPLF spokesperson as interim president in Tigray
On 23 March, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appointed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) spokesperson Getachew Reda as the president of the newly established interim administration in Tigray. The decision is a significant part of the implementation of the peace deal signed between TPLF and the federal government. The interim regional administration will be in place until elections are held under the supervision of the electoral commission. (“Ethiopia PM appoints TPLF spokesman as Tigray president,” BBC, 23 March 2023)

Water crisis “far from over,” says Unicef
On  22 March, Unicef told BBC’s Newsday radio programme that Somalia’s water crisis is “far from over” and more than thousand people are in dire condition due to the severe drought. A recent joint report by the Somali government and the UN found that nearly 43,000 people in the country died from the drought in 2022, among which half were children under the age of five. The report said that from January to June this year a further 25,000 people could die. (“Somalia water crisis 'far from over' - Unicef, BBC, 22 March 2023)

US and EU raise concern on the bill against homosexuals
On 23 March, the US warned Uganda of possible economic “repercussions” over the new bill to crack down on homosexual activities. US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said: “We would have to take a look at whether or not there might be repercussions that we would have to take, perhaps in an economic way, should this law actually get passed and enacted.” The European Union has also raised concern about the bill. It said: “The European Union will continue engaging with the Ugandan authorities and civil society to ensure that all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity, are treated equally, with dignity and respect.” (“US should respect Ugandan sovereignty over anti-gay bill,” BBC, 23 March 2023)

Anti-gay bill modified, says president
On 28 March, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo said that the anti-gay bill has been “modified” following his government’s intervention. He was speaking at a joint news conference with the visiting US Vice-President Kamala Harris. He said: “My understanding … is that substantial elements of the bill have already been modified as a result of the intervention of the attorney general.” Harris commented that she had addressed the issue with President Akufo-Addo and that the US considers the issue as a matter of human rights. (“Ghana's anti-gay bill modified, president says,” BBC, 28 March 2023)

Government to discuss arrest warrant on Putin ahead of BRICS conference
On 23 March, South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said that the government will have to discuss the arrest warrant on Russian President Vladimir Putin issued by the International Criminal court (ICC) before considering any action. Putin is scheduled to travel to South Africa in August as part of the BRICS meeting. Pandor stated: “South Africa will have to look at existing provisions of our legislation. We also will have to have a discussion as cabinet, as well as with our colleagues in Russia, and really determine the way forward.” (“SA to consult Russia over Putin's arrest warrant,” BBC, 23 March 2023)

Government workers accept 7.5 per cent pay rise
On 31 March, civil servants in South Africa accepted the government’s decision for a 7.5 per cent pay rise. The pay rise will be implemented from 1 April. The decision comes after public servants went on strike demanding a 10 per cent pay rise. The acting deputy general manager of the Public Servants Association (PSA) said: “Although it's not all that we wanted but we believe that the 7.5 per cent will make much better economic sense to our members given the hardships they find themselves in.” (“South Africa civil servants accept new pay deal,” BBC, 31 March 2023)

Opposition vows to protect Putin from ICC arrest
On 24 March, South Africa’s opposition minority party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is welcome to visit Pretoria despite the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court. EFF leader Julius Malema said that Putin will not be arrested while in South Africa, a country where Russia “played a huge role to support the struggle for freedom.” He stated: “Putin is welcomed here. No one is going to arrest Putin. If need be, we will go and fetch Putin from the airport to his meetings. He will address, finish all his meetings, and we will take him back to the airport.” He added: “we know our friends. We know the people who liberated us. We know the people who supported us.” (“SA opposition vows to 'protect' Putin from ICC arrest,” BBC, 24 March 2023)

John Steenhuisen re-elected as the leader of the Democratic Alliance
On 3 April, John Steenhuisen was re-elected as the leader of South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. He secured 83 per cent of the votes against his opponent Mpho Phalatse who obtained 17 per cent of votes. Steenhuisen will be leading the party for the next three years. In his acceptance speech, he said that his party will work with other “like minded parties” ahead of the 2024 elections. (“Steenhuisen re-elected SA's main opposition leader,” BBC, 3 April 2023)

MPs to debate on reclaiming parts of South Africa
On 29 March, Lesotho’s parliament is expected to discuss the motion to reclaim parts of South Africa. According to parliament’s order paper, an opposition MP wants the law makers to “declare the whole of the Free State, parts of the Northern Cape, parts of the Eastern Cape, parts of Mpumalanga and parts of KwaZulu-Natal as part of Lesotho's territory." (“Lesotho MPs to debate territorial claim to parts of SA,” BBC, 29 March 2023)

US Vice-President announces USD 560 million to boost trade
On 31 March, US Vice-President Kamala Harris, during her visit to Tanzania, lauded the country’s reforms aimed at strengthening democracy. Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan described the visit as a milestone for the country. Harris began her visit to Africa in Ghana and will conclude in Zambia. She announced USD 560 million to Tanzania, supporting boosting trade and strengthening democracy. She described the visit as a meaningful step that helped to expand the partnership between the two countries. (“US vice-president lauds Tanzania democracy reforms,” BBC, 31 March 2023)

At least 14 people killed in jihadist attack
On 24 March, security officials in Burkina Faso said that jihadist insurgents killed nearly 14 people, including four soldiers, near the northern city of Kaya. The attack happened on the same day interim leader Captain Ibrahim Traore visited the region. The jihadists targeted a unit of soldiers and defence volunteers who were tasked with repairing the water supply in the town of Zorkoum. (“Burkinabe militants kill 14 in attack in north,” BBC, 24 March 2023)

17 people executed by the Codeco militia
On 27 March, at least 17 people who were captured by the Codeco militia group were executed in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. UN-sponsored Radio Okapi reported that the victims were travellers heading to Mungwalu, in Ituri province. They were abducted after three members of the militia group were killed in a clash with a rival group. The authorities have not yet commented on the attack. (“Militia execute 17 hostages in DR Congo hotspot,” BBC, 27 March 2023)

Need for urgent humanitarian assistance in North Kivu, says Doctors without borders
On 4 April, the Doctors Without Borders stated that urgent humanitarian assistance is needed in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It said that about a million people had been forced to flee their homes in North Kivu province the previous year following the M23 rebel violence.  It added that the majority of the people are living in dire conditions and the aid workers are overwhelmed with increasing cases of measles and cholera. (“More aid urgently needed in eastern DR Congo - MSF,” BBC, 4 April 2023)

Opposition leader found guilty of libel
On 30 March, leading Senegal’s opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, was found guilty of Libel charges and was sentenced to jail for two months. He was accused of Libel after charging the country's Tourism Minister Mame Mbaye Niang of embezzlement. Sonko’s supporters fear that the sentence would prevent him from running for the presidential elections next year. Protests were marked across the capital, Dakar, ahead of the trial. (“Senegal opposition leader found guilty of libel,” BBC, 30 March 2023)

UN human rights office "extremly worried" about UK's Rwanda asylum plan
On  3 April, the UN human rights office said that it is “extremely worried about the impact” of the UK government’s Rwanda asylum plan. A spokesperson from the UN's human rights office said that the assessments of the refugee agency showed that the asylum plan in Rwanda was “not robust enough.” She added: "There are also concerns about respect for the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression in Rwanda. Those concerns do remain today; We have a lot of evidence of how these plans [off-shore asylum facilities] go wrong.” Meanwhile, UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman said that the policy would have a “significant deterrent effect” enough for people to stop crossing the dangerous channel to the UK. (“UN 'extremely worried' about Rwanda asylum plan,” BBC, 3 April 2023)

About the author
Anu  Maria Joseph is a Research Assistant at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.

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