Why has South Africa’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine been so muted and could it risk leaving the country on the wrong side of history? asks Stephen Williams.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the South African government’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) issued a statement that called for Russia to “immediately withdraw its forces”.
But, from all accounts, President Cyril Ramaphosa was less than happy with this stance. Instead, he called for mediation and insisted that this was the responsibility of the UN’s Security Council.
While Ramaphosa did not countenance Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, neither did he condemn it. That left a number of observers puzzled at South Africa’s muted response, and Ramaphosa’s suggestion that the UN’s Security Council should mediate seemed to overlook the fact that Russia, sitting on the council, held a veto over any concluding motion.
So why the obfuscation? There were two main arguments put forward by South African political observers. The first was a question of historical ties with the former Soviet Union (USSR), which supported the ANC during the struggle years of the anti-apartheid movement.
Although there is a huge difference between the USSR, and present-day Russia, it was also noted that there still remains a visceral dislike of the West within the ANC; the West that, for so long, backed the apartheid regime and permitted business links with its vile racist ideology-driven economy.
Allegiance to BRICS?
The other explanation put forward was that South Africa felt it owed an allegiance to Russia because of its membership of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) economic bloc.
However, BRICS has never been deemed to be a political alliance – rather, it is envisaged as a grouping of major developing countries attempting to build their economic strengths through a common strategy of trade policies.
It is certainly true that Russia has been attempting to build its links with its fellow BRICS members. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, made a rare overseas visit to China – ostensibly to mark the beginning of the Winter Olympics. Nobody is really sure whether he briefed his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on his intentions regarding the Ukraine invasion.
Speculation that Russia may attempt to counter financial sanctions through the Chinese banking system, as well as obtain military materiel, was discounted. The analysis was that Beijing is well aware that trade with Russia is not nearly as important as trade with the European Union, while Europe and Ukraine are too central to China’s Belt and Road initiative to risk a breach with the EU.
There were other BRICS meetings, notably the visit of Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, to Moscow, and Russian ministerial trips to Delhi.
India is a major customer of Russian armaments, but the poor performance of the Russian army’s mechanised units may give India pause to rethink its defence spending.
For South Africa, Russia is a relatively small trading partner, but there is a major consideration when it comes to energy. Cutting Russia’s energy exports has clearly had a significant effect on global energy prices that has impacted South Africa, a net hydrocarbon importer.
South Africa’s trade with Russia is also relatively modest, but there is a possibility that the country may be relying on assistance to develop nuclear energy. In 2014 it was revealed that South Africa had entered into a secret agreement with Russia’s state nuclear industry body, Rosatom, to build eight to 10 nuclear reactors to produce 9.6 gigawatts of power.
The cost of this deal, although not made public, was R76bn ($5.2 billion at current rates).
Whatever Ramaphosa’s reasoning may be, there must be a growing realisation that South Africa, despite its liberation credentials, risks finding itself on the wrong side of history.