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PoliticsSouth Africa

South Africa, Russia deepen military ties

Mikhail Bushuev | Abu-Bakarr Jalloh | Cristina Krippahl
January 23, 2023

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in Pretoria on Monday for talks with one of Moscow's most important allies in Africa. The visit comes as South Africa prepares for joint naval drills with Russia and China next month.

Lavrov and Pandor shaking hands and smiling
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, met up with his South African counterpart Naledi Pandor on MondayImage: Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP

The South African military will host a joint military exercise with Russia and China on its east coast from February 17 to 27. The naval drills will coincide with the first anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

While South Africa has little trade with Moscow, it supports the position Russia and China have assumed in limiting perceived US-hegemony on the global stage.

For the past three decades, South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) has also carried itself as beholden to the Kremlin out of gratitude for the moral and military support in South Africa's fight against apartheid.

At the same time, South Africa's professed neutrality has disappointed its Western partners, who consider the country crucial to their plans to strengthen relationships with Africa. On Monday, South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor responded to criticism of the planned joint military drills, saying that hosting such exercises with "friends" was the "natural course of relations."

South Africa's 'foreign policy must support human rights'

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has offered to mediate in the Ukraine conflict, insists that his government is impartial. The political opposition and many civil society representatives beg to differ.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that the South African government is openly siding with Russia," said Darren Bergman, a member of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party.

"South Africa's position is a bad situation of totally sitting on the fence," William Gumede, executive chairperson of the Johannesburg-based Democracy Works Foundation, told DW. "It's a really unconstitutional position to take, because our constitution is very clear that our foreign policy must support human rights," said the researcher and lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Women holding up an image of the Russian president as a Hitler-lookalike with the words "Stop Putin" on it
Some South Africans have protested against their government's stance in the Ukraine warImage: Alet Pretorius/REUTERS

This is Lavrov's second African visit in six months. It comes ahead of the Russia-Africa summit, which last year was postponed to July 2023 due to the war on Ukraine.

A South African official, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak, said Lavrov would also be visiting Eswatini, Botswana and Angola on his trip.

Ukraine's plea for support in Africa

The Ukrainian Embassy in Pretoria has asked the South African government to help endorse the 10-point peace plan that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy proposed to the G20 last November.

Zelenskyy has repeatedly tried to strengthen Ukraine's ties with Africa, with little success so far. Most African nations have been hesitant to take sides, as was made clear at the UN General Assembly vote to suspend Russia's membership in the Human Rights Council last April, when only 10 out of 54 African nations voted in favor. Nine opposed the resolution and 35 abstained or were absent.

A month earlier, only 28 African countries had supported a UN resolution that called for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.

Russia is currently the largest exporter of weapons to the African continent. According to the annual review by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, arms exports to Africa accounted for 18% of all Russian arms exports between 2016 and 2020.

In January 2022, hundreds of Russian military advisers were deployed to Mali. According to the Malian army, contractors from the controversial Russian paramilitary organizationWagner Group were invited to "help Mali train its security forces."

Mali's southern neighbor Burkina Faso witnessed a coup last January, followed by a second coup in September. Like its counterparts in Mali, the Burkinabe military has defied calls to hand over power to a civilian government. It, too, has oriented itself toward Moscow.

Warships and navy personnel from China and South Africa in Cape Town in 2019
​​​​The last joint military exercise with Russia and China took place in Cape Town in 2019Image: Chen Cheng/Photoshot/picture alliance

Russia aims to act as 'defender of Africa' 

Sudan, Chad, Guinea and Guinea Bissau have also experienced coups in recent years. Most of the soldiers behind each of these coups had received military training sponsored by Russia.

According to Irina Filatova from the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia aims to gain a foothold on the continent as a security broker in order to "confront the collective West" and project the image of a "defender of Africa."

Following the end of World War II and well into the 1970s, the Kremlin backed liberation movements across the continent. At the time, Russia's main export was light-to-medium-range arms and ammunition.

Many welcomed Moscow's growing influence on the continent. "Without the firm stand of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and the heyday of the anti-colonial struggle, many of our countries would never have seen the light of independence," Obadiah Mailafia, a former deputy governor of Nigeria's central bank, told DW in 2019.

This support waned following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. But over the past two decades, Russia's leaders have tried to revive those independence-era connections.

Vladimir Putin and Cyril Ramaphosa speak privately
President Vladimir Putin, left, and his South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa, met up in 2019 at the first-ever Russia-Africa summit in SochiImage: SERGEI CHIRIKOV/AFP

Russia has officially remained silent on its politics with Africa. But, as Filatova sees it, Moscow is relying on private military companies like the Wagner Group to act as "door openers."

"Officially, [the military groups] are not incorporated in the strategy at all. But what we see is that they always come first when there's some instability, and then they help secure those in power who have built relationships with Russia," she told DW.

African countries sought Russia's help

The first arms deal to be made public was the sale of a Russian-made assault vessel to an unnamed country in sub-Saharan Africa. The supplier, Rosoboronexport — Russia's only state-owned arms supplier — confirmed the deal in April 2020.

A few months earlier, in 2019, the first-ever Russia-Africa Economic Forum was held in Sochi, with many big names from African politics in attendance. Russia used the occasion to tout its track record in Africa. By then it had made a name for itself as an ally of multiple nations as they battled prolonged insurgencies.

In 2018, Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania appealed to Moscow for help combating the so-called "Islamic State" and al-Qaeda.

Beyond military services, Moscow has also carved out a niche selling nuclear technology to developing nations. Zambia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Egypt and Nigeria are among those in the market for Russian-built nuclear power plants.

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Edited by: Benita van Eyssen