PRETORIA, South Africa – Jan. 23, 2023: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (L) meets South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor (R) during his official visit in Pretoria
Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Russia and South Africa vowed this week to strengthen bilateral ties and will embark on a joint military exercise next month, coinciding with the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Pretoria as part of an African tour, his second since the invasion, which will also reportedly take him to Botswana, Angola and Eswatini.
Diplomatic analysts told CNBC that the tour primarily represented an assertion of Russia’s “non-isolation,” projecting a message that despite Western sanctions and efforts to ostracize it from the global stage, key strategic alliances remain in place.
On Feb. 24 2022, shortly after the Ukraine invasion, South Africa urged Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine. Since then, however, the tone has changed. South Africa was one of 15 African nations to abstain from the subsequent U.N. vote in March to condemn Russia’s war of aggression.
In a joint press conference alongside Lavrov on Monday, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said it would have been “simplistic and infantile” to demand Russia’s withdrawal during their meeting, and alluded to the “massive transfer of arms” that has since occurred from Western powers to support Ukraine’s military efforts.
Pandor also lauded the “growing economic bilateral relationship” between Pretoria and Moscow, along with “political, economic, social, defense and security cooperation.”
She emphasized the multilateral responsibilities of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bloc of leading emerging economies in a changing global landscape.
South Africa will host the BRICS this year, and its ruling African National Congress (ANC) has suggested Pretoria could use the chairmanship to push for the admission of new members to expand the bloc’s presence, challenging the dominance of global superpowers.
“The current global geopolitical tensions clearly signal the need to create institutional mechanisms that will have the stature form and global trust to promote and support global peace and security — BRICS should play a proactive role in emerging processes and ensure it is part of a redesigned global order,” Pandor said.
Although she called for the war to be “brought to a peaceful end through diplomacy and negotiations,” there was no direct condemnation of the invasion.
Joint naval exercise timing ‘might be deliberate’
South Africa will host a joint naval exercise with Russia and China between Feb. 17 and Feb. 27, and Pandor hit back at concerns by arguing that hosting such operations with “friends” was part of the “natural course of relations,” criticizing the notion that only certain countries are acceptable partners.
Steven Gruzd, head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, told CNBC Tuesday that the timing of the joint exercise, dubbed “Mosi” which means “Smoke” in the Tswana language, would “draw attention internationally” and voiced suspicion that it “might be deliberate.”
“One can obviously choose the timing of these things and to have chosen the timing that it would be right on the anniversary, maybe, is South Africa’s way of saying ‘look, we are a sovereign independent country and we will conduct our foreign policy the way that we see fit, and the way that enhances our interests, and we won’t be told and scalded by anybody’.”
South Africa has come under pressure from Western partners to align with opposition to the invasion of Ukraine, and has fiercely refused to be “bullied,” in Pandor’s words, into taking sides.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that “the United States has concerns about any country … exercising with Russia as Russia wages a brutal war against Ukraine.”
Central to Russia’s appeal to many African nations, analysts highlighted, is its ability to promote itself as an anti-imperialist resistor, tapping into popular resentment of the likes of the U.S., U.K. and France due to the history of Western oppression on the continent.
Eleonora Tafuro, senior research fellow at the Russia, Caucasus and Central Asia Centre at Italy’s Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), told CNBC on Tuesday that despite its small trade relationship with the African continent compared to that of the European union, Russia has been able to capitalize on “anti-imperialist sentiments” and perceived “patronizing attitudes” from the West.
Building on ‘anti-colonial’ sentiments
In her opening remarks on Monday, Pandor noted the Russian Federation’s support 30 years ago — then as part of the Soviet Union — for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa that would go on to form the base of the ANC.
“It’s ironic that this particular element is playing out to the ends of the Kremlin to justify this war of aggression against Ukraine,” Tafuro said, noting that there was a lack of empathy among African states toward Ukrainians as fellow victims of imperialism.
“I think Russia is very skillfully using information and propaganda to build this narrative, but this narrative is successful because there is already this deep culture of anti-western sentiment in countries like South Africa, and this has to do with their own history of being victims of imperialism.”
Russia’s growing influence was evident in recent weeks during protests in Burkina Faso, with demonstrators condemning France and regional bloc ECOWAS while waving Russian flags.
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso – Jan. 20, 2023: A banner of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen during a protest to support the Burkina Faso President Captain Ibrahim Traore and to demand the departure of France’s ambassador and military forces.
OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images
“There is no doubt that there is growing dissatisfaction with France in its former playgrounds and Russia thrives on chaos, and its institutions are filling the gap as France retreats,” Gruzd highlighted.
He also noted that Russian social media operations, along with promoting pro-Kremlin messaging, have also built on “existing fault lines, like anti-French sentiment or anti-gay sentiment,” and rivalries between political blocs.
“Countries like South Africa have really bought into Russia’s narrative that it is an anti-colonial power, that it supports the little man, that having one superpower and having that superpower being the U.S. is not good for the world, that there needs to be multipolarity, that there needs to be alternate sources of power and power distribution,” Gruzd explained.
“That resonates, and it resonates strongly and it resonates strongly with countries that have been marginalized by the West as well.”
African nations are not ‘a terrain for great powers to compete’
In just the past month, Lavrov, new Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have all embarked on African tours, with Yellen set to meet with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa this week.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also visited the continent last year, while U.S. President Joe Biden held a U.S.-Africa Summit in December, perceived as an effort to recoup some of the influence Washington has lost to China over the past decade or more.
Both Tafuro and Gruzd noted the flurry of diplomatic activity should not be seen as a “scramble for Africa,” as the continent’s bargaining power means it now firmly occupies a seat at the table.
“I think from an African point of view we would rather not be solely classified as a terrain for great powers to compete, but a recognition that African governments and African societies are active in their own right, so they’re not a pawn in somebody’s game, they are players sitting around the board,” Gruzd said.
GOREE ISLAND, Senegal – Jan. 21, 2023: US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (R) receives an award diploma of Goree’s Great Pilgrim from lawyer and Goree’s mayor Augustin Senghor (L) during a visit on Goree Island off the coast of the city of Dakar on January 21, 2023.
SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images
Tafuro also argued that comparisons with the Cold War or simplifying the diplomatic visits to competition for resources misses the major paradigm shift that is currently underway.
“Sometimes we just forget that these African countries have their own agency and ultimately it’s up to them to decide whether the relationship with China, Turkey or Russia is worthwhile and whether it is beneficial for them to keep, for instance, a balanced approach, like doing business with everyone who wants to do business,” she said.
“It is also up to them to shape their relationship with these external players.”