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PoliticsSouth Africa

South Africa: Russia-China drills strain ties with West

Cristina Krippahl
February 16, 2023

Pretoria's Western allies are unhappy about South Africa hosting upcoming joint naval exercises with Russia and China. Historical ties between Moscow and the ruling ANC may explain President Ramaphosa's stance.

A frigate at a dock in Cape Town
The West is keeping a close eye on the joint Russian-Chinese-South African military drillsImage: Chen Cheng/Photoshot/picture alliance

On Monday, the Russian military frigate "Admiral Gorshkov" docked in Cape Town harbor ahead of naval exercises hosted by South Africa between the 17 and 27 of February. It is the second such operation involving the naval forces of Russia, South Africa and China, and the first since 2019.

"Exercise Mosi II", named after the Tswana word for "smoke", coincides with the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, and has disconcerted South Africa's Western allies. The European Union's top diplomat Josep Borrell said in a joint press conference with his South African counterpart Naledi Pandor, that the planned naval exercises were "not the best thing."

While the South African government has not commented on the schedule, "the fact that it happens on the anniversary of the Ukraine war is just extremely awkward," said Pauline Bax, deputy program director for Africa of the International Crisis Group.

Observers agree that Moscow landed a significant propaganda coup in a country that has refused to condemn Moscow's aggression, insisting it wants to stay neutral.

The Russian military frigate 'Admiral Gorshkov'
The Russian military frigate 'Admiral Gorshkov' in Cape Town on the way to DurbanImage: AFP/Getty Images

Propaganda coup for Russia

Many Western diplomats perceive the joint military drill as contradicting South Africa's professed non-alignment. "They feel really concerned and they want to know where South Africa stands," Bax told DW.

Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor at first condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But President Cyril Ramaphosa forced her to retract her statement and receive her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov with all honors at the end of January.

After returning from the week-long tour of Africa, Lavrov said: "We can affirm that the West's plans to isolate Russia by surrounding us with a sanitary cordon have been a fiasco."

The perception that the West is losing out to Russia in Africa has reached the German parliament, where most members do not usually see the continent as a priority. The opposition CDU/CSU parliamentary group introduced a motion on a "German strategy for dealing with Russia's growing influence in Africa." Voting is set for March 1, and conservative parties see "a problem for German and European interests on the ground."

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with his South African counterpart Naledi Pandor
​​​​After meeting his South African counterpart Pandor (right), Russia's Foreign Minister Lavrov said the West had failed to isolate his countryImage: Siphiwe Sibeko/REUTERS

Switching points of view

Solving the problem might depend on understanding why South Africa, and especially the long-ruling African National Congress (ANC), is not willing to take sides between Russia and the West.

The reasons go beyond old ties resulting from Moscow's support for the ANC during the struggle against apartheid. Both governments share the view that the international order does not reflect present reality, "and that there should be a more equitable distribution of power," said Jo-Ansie van Wyk, professor of International Politics at the University of South Africa (UNISA) in Pretoria.

South Africa is also interested in strengthening ties with Russia and China as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, where the African continent has long called for more of a voice. South Africa is part of the BRICS group with Russia, India, China and Brazil. Originally started as a forum for trade ties among rising economic powers, BRICS has become increasingly used as a platform to challenge the dominance of global superpowers.

Pauline Bax said that the Western point of view often failed to take other realities into account. "The amount of anxiety and fear [the war] has created, sometimes makes EU diplomats a little myopic."

She added that the war in Europe does not threaten African security and African countries do not want to be coerced into choosing sides.

South Africans holding aloft signs demanding that Putin be stopped
Protests against the naval drill are expected in Durban ad Cape Town this weekendImage: Alet Pretorius/REUTERS

Criticism in South Africa

The analyst proposed a more constructive approach by the West, which should start by accepting that "African governments and African nations can make their own decisions," so that they do not feel they must "toe the line with whoever wants to bring funds in."

President Ramaphosa's critics point to some resistance inside South Africa to policies considered too Moscow-friendly. Protests against the naval exercise are scheduled for this weekend in Durban and Cape Town.

Opposition politician Herman Mashaba expressed "concern that the ANC government could contribute to an escalation of the war."

However, UNISA's van Wyk says "parliament is not strong enough to call government to order." 

The Ukraine war has had some negative impact in Africa, including pushing up fuel and food prices. There could be worse to come.

JA mural of Nelson Mandela
For Nelson Mandela, South Africa's foreign policy was human rights policyImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Joe

A 'moral compass' no more

"I foresee that donor aid to South Africa will eventually be less because of the backyard politics in Europe," researcher van Wyk told DW, adding that Ramaphosa would be well advised the tread carefully at a time when the country is going through economic difficulties and hoping for more help from the World Bank, where the US is the main shareholder.

Several recent conferences with non-Western partners have failed to result in an increase of investments. "South Africa is already feeling the pinch," she said.

According to van Wyk, President Ramaphosa's handling of the Russian situation might be a mistake, and mark a departure from previous South African foreign policy. In a 1993 article, President Nelson Mandela wrote that South Africa's foreign policy would be a human rights foreign policy, the expert recalled.

The votes and resolutions adopted by the UN concerning Ukraine supported the international legal order on invasion against the threat to international peace and to state sovereignty. By not adding its voice, "South Africa has lost an opportunity to be the moral compass that it once was."

Edited by: Cai Nebe

South Africa, Russia deepen ties