GP Short Notes # 696, 2 April 2023
Expanding Russia-South Africa relations
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.”
What is the background?
First, a brief note on the expansion in Russia-South Africa relations. South Africa has long-standing relations with Russia, forged since the struggle against apartheid. Since then bilateral relations grew significantly and Russia has been a significant actor in supplying military equipment to the country. Between 17 and 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.
Second, 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.
Third, 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.”
Fourth, 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.”
Fifth, 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?
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.