Relations between the Russian Federation and the Republic of South Africa, which have always been cordial, are now being put to the test. This is due to the start of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. Many countries around the world are engaged in a public debate about Russia’s actions. South Africa, considered one of the leading nations on the African continent and a member of the BRICS, could not help but voice its position on the special military operation.
Soon after the fighting began, much of the South African media became critical of Russian policy, and representatives of the Ukrainian embassy in South Africa made many high-profile statements on the special military operation during televised appearances. This turn of events is largely due to the fact that a large part of South Africa’s news agencies are controlled by Western, including US, companies and therefore cannot objectively portray reality and show the true public sentiment. Representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry who attempt to dispel the lies are not given the proper amount of screen time. However, the official position of the South African leadership differs from the rhetoric of the media.
Based on the UN General Assembly votes on the two anti-Russian resolutions related to the events in Ukraine, most of the African states were neutral towards Russia, with many countries choosing to abstain from voting. South Africa in particular refused to condemn Russia’s actions in both surveys. Moreover, South African representatives have proposed an alternative version of the resolution on Ukraine that makes no reference to Russian aggression against that state and the wording is more restrained. South African diplomats thus called on the international community to be more objective about what is happening.
On March 10, 2022, the Presidents of South Africa and Russia had a telephone conversation. During the conversation between the two leaders, the two countries touched on the expansion of bilateral dialogue, and the reasons and objectives of the special military operation were discussed. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arguments proved compelling, and so South African President Cyril Ramaphosa concluded that this military conflict was the fault of NATO, which continued to expand eastwards, disregarding the growing instability in Europe. The South African leader was one of the few who was able to speak out openly against NATO. Such rhetoric shows that South Africa is able to conduct an independent foreign policy despite a difficult foreign policy environment.
It is interesting to note that this is not the first independent foreign policy move by South Africa, which in February 2020 was the only member state of the UN Security Council to endorse the Russian actions and criticize the British draft resolution that sought to approve the outcome of the Berlin conference to resolve the conflict in Libya.
Of course, in South Africa, as in any pluralist democracy, there are political forces that condemn the Kremlin’s policy on Ukraine. It is important to bear in mind that the Western-controlled South African media exaggerates the number of Russia’s opponents in the country: in reality, their numbers are small compared to those who agree with Russia’s actions.
The special military operation is mainly favored by South Africa’s left-wing parties, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the South African Communist Party. According to the communists, NATO itself provoked the conflict by sponsoring Ukrainian nationalists and sowing discord in Ukraine. Many opposition politicians point out that the US is not taking into account the treaties it has signed and is acting solely in its own interests. Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, endorsed the policy of the Russian Federation and said that the Soviet Union had contributed very much to the struggle of the people of South Africa against the apartheid regime. Malema is convinced that the current world order is outdated and that the global community is tired of Washington’s dominance.
Former South African President Jacob Zuma also voiced his position on the special military operation in Ukraine. He is convinced that the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia is part of the global confrontation between Russia and the West. The former president believes that Russia and China are defending their geopolitical interests and trying to pursue independent economic policies. Jacob Zuma’s daughter Dudu Zuma-Sambudla has launched the hashtag #IStandWithRussia on social media to show support for Russia’s policies. Western media attempted to discredit the former president’s daughter by accusing her of co-operating with Russian media holdings, but their efforts were in vain – this was a personal initiative of Dudu Zuma-Sambudla. It should be noted that, in general, pro-Russian sentiments in African countries are quite strong.
There are many reasons why Russia’s position is popular among South African politicians and public figures. First, South Africa’s population of 60 million is well aware of the double standard of the US and its allies. The US military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and many other countries are presented by the Washington-controlled media as wars of liberation against tyranny, but condemn Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. Second, South Africa is very grateful to the USSR for its many years of assistance in combating the apartheid system. South African politicians remember the actions of the Soviet Union well and are therefore careful not to make harsh statements against Moscow. It is interesting to note that on February 23, the day before the start of the Russian special military operation in Ukraine, the South African minister of defense visited the Russian embassy, where Defender of the Fatherland Day celebrations were taking place. South Africa, aware of Russia’s military might, has for years been strengthening its military and political ties with Russia.
Still, we should not expect the South African leadership to openly defend Russia in the international arena. The country is very economically linked to Western countries. Public support for a special operation could lead to serious economic sanctions, a severe economic crisis and international isolation. It is more likely that if Russia fulfils all of its objectives and thus becomes geopolitically stronger, South Africa will revise its foreign policy more substantially.
Nor will the South African authorities openly condemn Russia’s actions to please Washington. Such a move would not be appreciated by many political forces in the country, and in turn the public would not react favorably to this rhetoric. It is also worth considering that by doing so, South Africa risks damaging relations with Russia and the countries that support it.
South Africa is in a difficult position. Public support for Russia would be painful for the economy and international relations, while condemnation of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine could also lead to extremely negative consequences. In the current situation, the South African leadership has taken the best position for itself: neutrality. By maintaining neutrality, the country maintains normal relations with both sides of the conflict without harming its economy or provoking a negative public reaction.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.