1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
PoliticsSouth Africa

South Africa denies supporting Russia's war in Ukraine

Isaac Mugabi
May 15, 2023

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Monday that the country's nonaligned position did not favor Russia over other states. He reiterated a call for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Ukraine.

Smoke rises from a fire caused by missile debris falling in the courtyard of a residential building in Kyiv's Sviatoshynskyi district
South Africa has refused to condemn the conflict in Ukraine, which has largely isolated Moscow on the international stageImage: Ruslan Kaniuka/Ukrinform/IMAGO

South Africa deepened its military ties with Russia at the beginning of this year and offered to mediate in the Ukraine war.

However, the opposition Democratic Alliance has claimed that President Cyril Ramaphosa has "lied" to his nation — and the world — over its involvement in the conflict.

"More worryingly, it signals that under the ANC, South Africa has regressed into a nation that has abandoned the principles of freedom, fairness, and equality," the Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen said in a recent statement.

South Africa 'will not be drawn into a contest between global powers'

South Africa — which has abstained from voting on UN resolutions on Russia's war in Ukraine — has said it's impartial, but Western countries consider it to be one of Moscow's closest allies on the African continent.

"We do not accept that our nonaligned position favors Russia above other countries. Nor do we accept that it should imperil our relations with other countries," said Ramaphosa on Monday. "South Africa has not been, and will not be, drawn into a contest between global powers."

Ramaphosa added that his country would continue to honor international agreements and treaties to which it is a signatory, and said South Africa had not approved any arms shipment to Russia.

The president's comments in a weekly newsletter came after US allegations that South Africa had loaded weapons onto a Russian ship at in Cape Town late last year, which sparked a diplomatic row.

What did the US envoy allege? 

At a recent press conference, the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, alleged that South Africa had loaded ammunition onto the Russian-flagged Lady R cargo ship at one of its naval bases late in December 2022.

According to Brigety, the ship docked at the Simon's Town Naval Base near Cape Town and then transported the arms to Russia.

"We are confident that weapons were loaded into that vessel, and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion," Brigety said.

South African officials have rejected the claims, and the US ambassador was summoned on Friday to meet South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor. 

"I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with Foreign Minister Pandor [...] and correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks," Brigety later said in a tweet.

South Africa's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the US ambassador had "apologized unreservedly" for the remarks, and Pandor also discussed the issue with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Several ministers — including the one responsible for arms control, a Foreign Ministry spokesman and the communications minister — have said South Africa did not approve any arms shipment to Russia in December.

South African Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana said his country had resolved its row with the US and was unlikely to face any repercussions, according to South African media outlet News24.

'Americans are not likely to respond with any anger'

The US first raised their concerns about the matter two months ago, Godongwana said in an interview in Cape Town on Sunday.

As a result, Ramaphosa asked his security adviser and an independent judge to investigate, and dispatched a delegation to the US to ease tensions, he said.

"A number of actions were taken in order to ensure that our relationship with the US remains and that relationship should be normal and cordial," the minister said, adding that "the Americans are not likely to respond with any anger."

RSA arms loaded onto Russian ship? DW's Privilege Musvanhiri

The president's office has said no concrete evidence has been provided to support the claims made by the ambassador, but that an inquiry led by a retired judge will look into them.

Ramaphosa expressed "disappointment" with Brigety's "undiplomatic" handling of the matter. The presidency said the remarks had undermined "the spirit of cooperation and partnership that characterized the recent engagements between the US government and South Africa.

Opposition, experts speak out

Opposition leader Steenhuisen said Brigety's declaration that war materials and ammunition were loaded onto sanctioned Russian ship was chilling, and a deeply troubling confirmation that Ramaphosa and his government are actively involved in the Russia's war on Ukraine.

"This development proves not only that South Africa is not nonaligned in Russia's war on Ukraine but that President Ramaphosa and his government have already lied to South Africa and the world about our country's involvement in this devastating conflict," he said.

"With our economy on its knees and rampant unemployment, the ANC is now forsaking South Africa's last chance at economic renewal based solely on greed and personal interest."

South Africa wary of upsetting 'historical relationships'

Political economist Patrick Bond told DW that South Africa could not afford to irritate the US at a time when the country's economy is at its lowest.

He said the main economic issue was "exclusion from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which mainly involved minerals, metals, petrochemicals and some of our intensive industries. That has implications for foreign currency exchange and for some jobs."

International relations expert Malte Brosig said certain members of the African National Congress administration thought they would be judged harshly if they showed any disrespect to Russia, pointing out the "historical relationships during the apartheid and the support of the Soviet Union to the ANC."

"There is a bit of history there," Brosig told DW.

However, Steenhuisen said the ANC had "sacrificed everything we fought to achieve in 1994 for the whims of President Vladimir Putin."

"The ANC is siding with Russia for one reason: the Russian Federation is funding the ANC, thus infiltrating and destabilizing South African democracy," he said.

Thuso Khumalo in Johannesburg contributed to this report

Edited by: Keith Walker

Skip next section Explore more