Putin shakes hands with Cyril Ramaphosa at 2018 BRICS Summit. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The day after the launch of Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor urged that Ukraine’s sovereignty be respected. Even that less-than-assertive declaration, constructed in the passive voice, was quickly superseded. The country’s presidency and African National Congress (ANC) leadership dropped any reference to violation of sovereignty, calling instead for Ukraine and Russia to negotiate differences. Neither statement explicitly condemned the invasion. Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele – President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson – told cabinet that “it is the stance of this country that we will always prefer peaceful solutions. We will always be opposed to any conflict that leads to loss of life. We are not prepared to say anything beyond that.”

The contradiction between the governing ANC’s past engagement in armed struggle and this purported international pacifism has been common over the years. The ANC likes to stress the success of its nonviolent, final-stage negotiations to end the old apartheid regime and establish the democratic Rainbow Nation. It extends that emphasis to regional conflicts. No matter what the uprising or confrontation in recent years – Zimbabwe, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Libya being prominent examples – South Africa has invariably called for talks, not enforcement by sanctions or military intervention.

The evening after issuing their statements on Ukraine, South African officials continued diplomatic business as usual. Defence Minister Thandi Modisi attended a reception at the residence of Russian Ambassador Ilya Rogachev to commemorate Russia’s “Defender of the Fatherland Day,” an occasion honouring Russia’s military veterans.¹ (Weeks later, the irony is that there are now more veterans, and also many more dead ones.)

South Africa kept to its accommodating stance when, on March 2, it abstained on the United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion. The resolution passed by an overwhelming vote of 141 to 5. South Africa was joined in its abstention by some fellow members of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), including Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Eswatini and Madagascar. (SADC members Congo, Botswana, Zambia, Lesotho and Mauritius supported the resolution. The only African country overtly backing Russia was the grindingly oppressive and self-isolating regime of Eritrea.)

South Africa continued to curry favour on March 24 when its UN delegation offered a resolution on humanitarian aid to Ukraine that made no mention of Russia as the instigator of the crisis. It failed to win the needed support to be put to a vote. On April 7, doubling down on its kid-gloves approach, South Africa abstained from voting to expel Russia from the UN’s Human Rights Council.

Where should one look to find the basis for South Africa’s tolerance of Russia’s military aggression? How is it possible that a country so successfully founded on exemplary acts of moral leadership, epitomized in the many conciliatory acts of the revered Nelson Mandela, could condone Russia’s brutality?

Modest economic ties

There is no doubt that South Africa has been diligent in fostering good relations with Moscow for many years, most prominently through the forum of the BRICS. South Africa joined the BRICS association of emerging economies in 2010 – the acronym stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, its member states,. The term BRIC was originally coined in 2001 by then-Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management Jim O’Neill to identify the emerging markets that in his estimation would be future investment destinations of exceptional growth.

It is ironic that a gleam in a market manager’s eye would become an aspiring geopolitical organization.

For South Africa, which pleaded to be admitted to the club, the BRICS was seen as a platform for international dialogue and economic cooperation. Pretoria puts considerable energy into the BRICS process. Most prominently, that entails hosting one summit of BRICS heads of state every five years, most recently in Johannesburg in 2018.

The highest-profile BRICS initiative to date has been the establishment of the New Development Bank (NDB), conceived as an agency to finance projects for its members and other developing economies. Since the bank’s inception, South Africa has been the beneficiary of at least 10 proposed financing deals, but many of these became mired in the network of corruption associated with regime of President Jacob Zuma (2009–18). The corruption was spectacularly exposed by the investigative commission set up by President Ramaphosa under South African judge Ray Zondo, who has since been appointed the country’s chief justice.

The largest NDB loans, totalling about $1.2 billion, were to the state electricity company Eskom and transportation company Transnet. Although part of the Eskom loan was to finance sustainable energy projects in a system dominated by coal-fired plants, Zuma intended to use some funds to support a $100 billion project to upgrade and expand South Africa’s nuclear power plants using Russian technology. To concoct the deal, Zuma evaded a range of regulatory and fiduciary safeguards. The deal is now defunct after a public controversy that contributed to Zuma’s removal from office.

Still active though are Transnet’s efforts to expand the port of Durban to accommodate greater oil imports. The establishment of liquefied natural gas import facilities is also being considered by the special economic zone Coega in the Eastern Cape province and at Richards Bay in KwaZulu Natal. Although these developments would be long-term and remain uncertain, Russia is frequently mentioned as a supplier to such facilities.

The BRICS relationship notwithstanding, South Africa’s trade with Russia is modest in comparison to that with other world economies. South Africa exported $515 million in goods to Russia in 2021, importing $772 million in return. That is only slightly larger than South Africa’s trade with Canada, a country with one quarter Russia’s population, and is dwarfed by its trade with its three largest trading partners, the European Union, China and the United States, each of which runs into the tens of billions of dollars.²

Russia has been sharpening its geopolitical influence in Africa. Putin declared that Africa was a foreign policy priority at a 2019 Russia-Africa summit of business and political leaders at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Russian state-backed companies have been involved in mineral developments, including in South Africa’s neighbour Namibia. Various news reports say that Russia is seeking to build a facility at Sudan’s main seaport, a logistics centre in Eritrea and a military base in the Central African Republic. It has also been increasing arms exports to Africa, although its largest clients are the Mediterranean states of Algeria and Egypt. Among SADC states, only Angola is a large importer of Russian arms, buying about $500 million (USD) in equipment in 2021.³

Russia’s most visible activity has been that of armed mercenaries of the Wagner Group. This private military company is owned by Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, sometimes referred to as Putin’s “chef” since his association with the Russian president arose from contracts to provide food and catering services to many Russian government events.

In a series of armed conflicts during the past decade and more, the Wagner Group has sent mercenaries to Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, the Central African Republic and Mali. In Madagascar, political operatives of the Wagner Group were involved in efforts to influence the 2018 presidential election. Wagner’s efforts to stem an Islamist rebellion in Mozambique failed. Pretoria, alarmed that the uprising would cut off natural gas fields, intervened with Rwanda and eight other African countries to drive the Islamists out of populated centres. With the exception of Libya, where the Wagner Group had intervened to support rebels, UN delegations from all the countries just mentioned abstained from the UN vote condemning Russia’s invasion.

Perspectives from the cocktail circuit

Do the BRICS alliance, a modest trade relationship and Russian military ambitions sufficiently explain South Africa’s enduring fealty to Moscow? On the much-maligned cocktail circuit during a four-year diplomatic assignment to the Canadian high commission in South Africa, I was offered some interesting perspectives.

In 2012, I attended a reception commemorating Angola’s armed forces day. In a stern atmosphere in the otherwise plush Sheraton Hotel, green-uniformed military attachés exchanged greetings before displays of the Angolan flag bearing the cogwheel and machete emblem reminiscent of the hammer and sickle. The Angolan ambassador spoke with pride of the 1987–88 Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, where the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), with its Cuban, Russian and Vietnamese allies, confronted the opposing UNITA guerrilla army and apartheid-era South African forces. The fiercely fought battle was a key event leading to the independence of Namibia and a milestone on the road to the end of South African apartheid.

For diplomats from the so-called five-eyes countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – and the countries of the European Union, this narrative was an arresting reminder of recent history seen through a quite different lens. According to this telling, the transition of South Africa into the vaunted Rainbow Nation was not in the much-acclaimed peaceful handover but in the success of a decades-long armed struggle. That struggle swept up most of the nations that now make up the SADC, especially Angola, Namibia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Within the boundaries of South Africa itself, freedom was achieved by a “people’s war” that brought violence to South African communities. Attacks on local leaders were to make the country “ungovernable” – much of this fomented by Nelson Mandela’s Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the ANC.

Evocations of past revolutionary glory are not uncommon in South Africa. Receptions honouring Cuba’s independence day on October 10 generally attract one of the largest contingents of leading politicians and officials. Cuba’s military expeditions to Angola starting in 1975 and deploying 35,000 troops equipped with Soviet weaponry, including the Grad and Uragan multiple rocket launchers, are cherished in valiant memory.

Sometimes the story of international solidarity makes for odd dissonances. During events hosted by the embassy of the Czech Republic, South African politicians pay tribute to the military training and materiel provided by Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime. Today’s Czech representatives are the successors of those who struggled to overthrow their Communist masters, but both sides gently elide that reality in their mutual diplomatic fur-grooming.

ANC conferences are often punctuated by on-floor demonstrations in song and dance, most often in Zulu or Xhosa. S’thembiso Msomi, former editor of the Sowetan and now editor of Johannesburg’s Sunday Times, recently commented on the several occasions that he has heard ANC veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle waxing nostalgic about their training in exile: Soviet people / Lovely people / Here we are far from home / We will miss you / We shall love you / For the things you’ve done for us.

Among ANC members, personal links with Russia are common. For example, South Africa’s Deputy Vice-President David Mabuza visited Russia for six weeks in 2021, purportedly to receive medical treatment. While Premier of Mpumulanga province, he was allegedly poisoned during a period of political conflict that included a spate of assassinations within ANC ranks. (Levels of violence within South African politics are rarely reported outside the country and even within are somehow sidebarred as aberrant, but incidents are frequent and shocking.)

The South African official opposition wonders why Mabuza could not obtain necessary treatment in South Africa, which has renowned – if poorly distributed – medical services. The opposition does not believe his sojourn in Moscow has ever been adequately explained.

No BRICS annual summit ends without a photo of Cyril Ramaphosa in smiling dialogue with Vladimir Putin. And of course, there is the institutional history of the ANC itself and its formal – and continuing – alliance with the South African Communist Party. Following Mandela’s death in 2014, it was revealed that he had been a member of the party’s central committee, his evasions on that score during his life notwithstanding.

Struggle nostalgia

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the supreme organizing principle of civilization is humans’ ability to construct unifying myths. People will cooperate around a multiplicity of tasks when they share a common motivating vision. In analyzing the behaviour of states on the international stage, we look for explanations based on national self-interest, but we are mistaken in believing that the national self-interest is always obvious even to the government concerned. It is also true that myths outlive their usefulness, and dogmatic attachment to them can be terribly damaging.

Such is the case with South Africa. Critics of the ANC government’s foreign policy say it is weighed down by struggle nostalgia. The ANC’s leadership seems to be unable to set aside the allegiances of its historic past, to adjust its sights and to notice that Putin’s Russia is not the bastion of international solidarity and liberation the Soviet Union was once perceived to be.

How delusional is it that a country whose greatest commercial and economic ties are with the West should be so eager to cultivate Russia and be so solicitous toward Russia’s leadership? Has South Africa made the decision simply to follow the lead of China, the dominant BRICS partner, in shrugging off Russia’s war? South Africa’s relations with China are at least substantial, although still dwarfed by its ties with the EU, the U.K. and the United States, not to mention Australia and New Zealand, where in addition to economic ties, sports (rugby and cricket) and cultural links are strong. No, given the variety of instruments in South Africa’s international orchestra, it’s odd in the extreme that it turns so insistently to a single, dull Russian string.

South Africa is a country from which moral leadership could be expected, and respected. Official declarations do not usually result in immediate or significant or tangible actions. But South African condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine would certainly sting Russia, and even more so if other holdout SADC members joined in. And participation in sanctions would further reduce Russia’s opportunities to find alternative markets for its products – arms, energy, grains – and investments. But the Ramaphosa government is so dug into its pro-Russia stance that an about-face at this stage is almost unimaginable.


¹ Peter Fabricius, Pretoria Scrambles to Repair Relations with Russia after Calling for Invasion Forces to Leave Ukraine, Daily Maverick (Cape Town and Johannesburg), February 27, 2022.

² South Africa exported goods valued at $429 million to Canada and imported $275 million from Canada in 2021. The EU exports to South Africa $24.06 billion and imports $22.4 billion. China’s exports to South Africa were $14.7 billion and imports from South Africa were $12 billion. The United States exported $10.05 billion to South Africa, which imported $12.3 billion from the United States.

³ Which Countries Buy the Most Russian Weapons, Al Jazeera Infographic, March 29, 2022.