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PoliticsSouth Africa

Russia targets Africa with propaganda machine

Martina Schwikowski
November 29, 2022

RT, the Kremlin-backed international broadcaster, is opening a media center in South Africa and seeking partners on the continent. Russia's disinformation campaign aims for more power in Africa.

Journalists working in a TV studio
Banned in Europe, RT is now seeking to expand in AfricaImage: Misha Friedman/Getty Images

Bethlehem Endale is a dentist and also a refugee, having fled from Kharkiv to Germany after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. She now lives in Stuttgart with her three sisters. From there, she often tries to talk to the part of her family that fled to their native Ethiopia about Putin's influence. "Russian propaganda is very much present in Africa," Endale told DW.

"Especially in Ethiopia, where I have a family, I found out that there are a lot of misconceptions, and that is really disturbing."

It is only a matter of time before more Russian propaganda is broadcast from Johannesburg, South Africa's business capital.

RT, formerly known as Russian state broadcaster Russia Today, plans to establish its first English-language headquarters on the continent in South Africa. Europe, Britain, and Canada have all banned RT from broadcasting since Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine.

President Putin's view of international affairs is being heard in Africa, where many countries have remained silent on his war of aggression.

South Africa's entertainment giant MultiChoice, which boasts a massive satellite television service in sub-Saharan Africa, distanced itself from Russia's foreign broadcaster a week after the war began, following Western sanctions against Russia.

Nonetheless,  Putin is expanding his influence in African countries through media content, including in South Africa, with which Moscow has ties going back to the Soviet Union.

The logo of RT from the screen of a smartphone seen alongside a military tank
Many Africans are divided over the cause of the war in Ukraine due to disinformationImage: Muhammed Ibrahim Ali/IMAGESLIVE via ZUMA Press Wire/picture alliance

Looking at both sides of the Ukraine war

"We lived through a time when the apartheid government did not tolerate journalists who they thought were too critical or reported on things they did not want, and expelled a number of them. We don't want to see anything like that happen again," Anton Harber, a journalism professor at the Witwatersrand University of Johannesburg, said in a commentary published by South Africa's daily Business Day.

He added that one should rely on more than just a Washington-London-Brussels perspective of the war. At the same time, Harber warned that propaganda could be dangerous when people didn't care about the facts and didn't take a critical loook at the issues.

How is the Kremlin disinformation campaign playing out on the continent, and how is the media responding? "Some are rather indifferent, others are very explicit in their criticism of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine," Christoph Plate, head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation media program for sub-Saharan Africa in Johannesburg, told DW.

Differing views

Plate concluded that the debates differed from country to country. For example, people in Kenya and Nigeria were much more enlightened about the causes of the war.

Their resistance to disinformation was a result of a critical civil society that was also very active in social networks, he said.

In other countries, like Zambia and Zimbabwe, the war was largely ignored.

Plate said that ordinary people are not very interested in the war, which seemed far away to them. "But among journalists, diplomats and government officials, this war is heavily discussed."

Numerous Russian embassies on the continent were also very active in publishing false information or placing opinion pieces in newspapers, he said.

Employees of the Council of Europe remove the Russian flag from the Council of Europe building
Russia has become isolated in Europe after its invasion of UkraineImage: Jean-Francois Badias/AP/picture alliance

Russia using colonial history to woo Africa

The Russian narrative disseminated in the media stresses the fact that Russia has never been a colonial power and has never had imperialist ambitions.

"That catches on with some people, but it's more out of a sense that here's someone offering a challenge to Western dominance," Plate said.

According to Guido Lanfranchi, co-author of the study "Russia's Growing Presence in Africa and its Impact on European Policy," by the Dutch Institute for International Relations, Clingendael, Moscow's media campaign is part of Putin's strategy to gain more power on the continent.

Russian fertilizers drive up prices in Uganda

Is the Kremlin's media offensive paying off?

"This media charm offensive in Africa is tied to Russia's broader efforts to re-expand its presence on the continent," Lanfranchi said.

However, because of a lack of concrete studies, it was unclear to what extent Russia's media presence has affected the perceptions of the African population.

Anecdotal evidence suggested that many African people have access to this media and that this positively influenced their perception of Russia.

"There is this huge broadcasting channel RT, and it gets to Ethiopia, and many people are watching it and getting a lot of propaganda out of it," Endale, a former student in Ukraine's Kharkiv University, said.

On the diplomatic level, Russia has been inviting more and more African heads of state to Moscow in recent years.Russia built on contacts with African eliteswho studied in the USSR during the Cold War, thanks to Soviet scholarships.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks to Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Demeke Mekonnen
Russia relies on old USSR-Africa relations to influence the continentImage: Office of foreign minister

Influence growing fast

Many of those who ended up in African leadership positions, such as in South Africa, Angola, and the Central African Republic, maintained the partnership, above all because the USSR supported African freedom movements when they fought against colonialism. "There was a huge mass of students doing exchange programs during the USSR, like my uncle," Endale said, adding that her parents ended up going to the Ukraine too.

"These people are highly intelligent and educated, and they are back in Ethiopia where they meet in Russian cultural centers and get information." She said that, as an Ethiopian Ukrainian Jewish girl, this was very difficult for her.

"They [Endale's family] don't understand that Ukraine has a right to exist outside Russia. I struggle to explain this to them, because they are highly brainwashed, as most Russian people are," Endale added.

When considering Russia's involvement in Africa, Lanfranchi stressed that it is essential to put things into perspective. At present, he said, Russia's influence is only significant in security cooperation.

According to Lanfranchi, Russia is the largest arms exporter in Africa. In other areas, particularly the economy, relations remained very limited.

But he noted that Russia's presence in Africa was growing rapidly in all areas. Moreover, the breakdown of relations between Moscow and the West could accelerate this trend, as Russia looked for new allies internationally.

"Many Russian companies are exploring opportunities in the dynamic African market, which is becoming more important to Russian companies as they lose access to Western markets due to the economic sanctions imposed on Russia," he said.

This article was originally written in German

Edited by: Cristina Krippahl