South Africa

South Africa

Analysis: Russia and South Africa, together for decades

Analysis: Russia and South Africa, together for decades

The massive nuclear deal signed with Rosatom is not just about energy. At stake too is the future of South Africa’s foreign policy, and its place in global geopolitics – which, in case you were wondering, is firmly under the wings of a resurgent Russia. By SIMON ALLISON.

Finally, this week, the governments involved confirmed what South Africa’s better journalists have been telling us for quite some time: that a Russian company has been given the multi-billion dollar contract to build the new nuclear power stations on which, for better or for Chernobyl, South Africa is staking its energy future.

We’ve all got plenty of questions. How safe is nuclear power? Why is it so expensive? Will it bankrupt our fragile economy? Is Rosatom really the best company for the job? How corrupt was the deal?

Another to add to this growing list: what does it mean for South Africa’s foreign policy? For a country that’s supposed to stand for democracy, human rights and all the other progressive values enshrined in our world-famous Constitution, this question is among the most concerning.

The thing is, buying a nuclear power station is more than just a commercial transaction. It’s a diplomatic statement of intent, a de facto alliance between two countries that must necessarily last for long after the reactors are built. Russia will build it, Russia will service it, and only Russia has the necessary spare parts. By allowing Russia’s state-owned energy company to construct and then maintain our major energy source, South Africa is effectively guaranteeing good relations with Russia for the next few decades.

Of course, the same would be true of any other company. These, however, would have put South Africa into very different geopolitical orbits. The other frontrunner was French-owned Areva, which would have placed South Africa firmly within the European Union’s sphere of influence; while another contender, the United States-based Westinghouse, would surely have seen South Africa forced to align more closely with the American government.

This decision comes as South Africa reconsiders its place in the global hierarchy. No longer content to be a cheerleader for the west, nor even a spokesperson for the developing world, South Africa is placing more and more emphasis on its position within BRICS. This is obvious in the time and money that President Jacob Zuma has put into the organisation (the BRICS summit hosted in Durban in 2013, for example, and the recent establishment of the BRICS Bank), as well the effort expended in nurturing relationships with China and Russia in particular.

So what does this mean for South Africa’s foreign policy? Patrick Bond, senior professor for development studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, put it best in written comments to the Daily Maverick:

“Repression of activists (of whom Pussy Riot are only a surface example), plus Chernobyl’s nuclear legacy, plus Russia’s departure from the Kyoto Protocol, plus Moscow’s territorial expansionism, plus the kinds of fossil-centric resource imbalances that also plague the South African economy, plus centralised political power in just four hands, plus long traditions of supporting dictators under the guise of common anti-westernism, plus homophobia, plus white-elephantist mega-events (such as Olympics and World Cup) are all the kinds of adverse trends that we see in the BRICS.

“On the other hand, if cozying to Russia helps Edward Snowden extend his life expectancy, if anti-Washington/Brussels/London sentiments rise from Moscow for healthy reasons, and if a Putin-Zuma combination helps prevent the next illegal bombing by Barack Obama (as happened a year ago at the G20 meeting in St Petersburg when Washington’s itchy finger was aimed at Syria), then there may be cautious applause from reasonable people.”

From the Russian perspective, the nuclear deal with South Africa should be understood in the context of a concerted effort to regain influence and relevance on the African continent. Of course, Russia – in its Soviet Union guise – played a vital role last century in supporting sympathetic African liberation movements and governments, with a long history of opposing the apartheid government. The ANC itself owes a huge debt of gratitude to Moscow, with thousands of cadres educated there at some stage or another, including President Zuma.

But the end of the Cold War brought a drastic realignment of Russian foreign policy, and African engagement was discarded as too much cost and effort for too little return. This, Russia acknowledges, was a mistake, one which the country is now desperately trying to rectify. Like other major powers, it recognises the value of Africa’s natural resources and its potential as a destination for Russian exports.

“Frankly, we were almost too late,” said then-President Dimitri Medvedev during a four-nation visit to Africa in 2009. “We should have begun working with our African partners earlier, more so, because our ties with many of them have not been interrupted, they are based on decades of developing friendly relations.”

Earlier this month, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was in Addis Ababa playing catch up, and he certainly made all the right noises. “Africans themselves are best equipped to sort out how to promote national dialogue in Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and other countries where crisis situations still exist…I would like to add that the European Union should get used to the fact that Africa has its own voice,” he said in an address to the African Union. If he was trying to ingratiate himself with the continental body – well, that’s exactly the way to go about it. Lavrov followed this up with a trip to Zimbabwe where he signed a $3 billion deal to develop a platinum mine, simultaneously earning Robert Mugabe’s effusive praise and bypassing western sanctions designed to cripple the Zimbabwean President’s regime.

Then came the announcement of the South African nuclear agreement, another multi-billion (some estimates put it at $1 trillion) deal in Africa. Russia may have been slow to recognise the significance of Africa in this century, but it has wasted no time in making up for this. By locking South Africa – still Africa’s most influential economy – into such a sensitive, long-term project, Russia has once again become a major player in Africa. This time, however, the South African state will be playing on the same side. DM

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, 28 August 2014. EPA/SERGEI KARPUKHIN / POOL

Read more:

  • Russia’s Africa policy from SAIIA

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