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Pretoria scrambles to repair relations with Russia after calling for invasion forces to leave Ukraine

Pretoria scrambles to repair relations with Russia after calling for invasion forces to leave Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) at the first plenary session as part of the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia, 24 October 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE/SERGEI CHIRIKOV / POOL)

South Africa issued a surprisingly strong endorsement of Ukraine’s sovereignty last week. Now it’s scrambling to patch up relations with the Kremlin. Defence Minister Thandi Modise reportedly celebrated Russia’s Defender of the Fatherland Day at a reception at Russian ambassador's residence in Pretoria on Thursday night, just hours after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine and Russian missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities.

South Africa has scrambled to patch up relations with Russia after International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor issued an unusually strong statement calling on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa was reported by the Sunday Times to be unhappy with the statement because he felt it contradicted South Africa’s policy.

A day after the statement from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) — apparently cleared by Pandor — which called for Russia to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,  Ramaphosa seemed instead to blame US President Joe Biden for the invasion. He suggested that if Biden had agreed to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin unconditionally days before Moscow’s attack on Ukraine, it would have been averted.

He was apparently referring to Biden’s statement of 21 February that he would only meet Putin if the Russian president agreed in advance not to invade Ukraine. 

The Sunday Times quoted unnamed sources in the Union Buildings as saying that Ramaphosa understood the history of the conflict. This seemed to suggest that Ramaphosa shared the view that Putin had been provoked to invade by broken Western promises in the 1990s not to extend membership of Nato up to Russia’s frontiers. In the runup to the invasion, Putin demanded that Nato guarantee that it would never allow Ukraine to join the intergovernmental military alliance, but Nato would not provide that guarantee.

South Africa and Russia are both members of the BRICS bloc, which also includes Brazil, India and China, and which regards itself as a counter to what it sees as Western dominance of the world security order. The other BRICS members have refrained from criticising Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

On Sunday, Ramaphosa indirectly intervened to reassure Russia that South Africa was on its side. Ramaphosa’s acting spokesperson, Tyrone Seale, told Daily Maverick that Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele had resolved the issue when he was asked about it at a briefing of the Cabinet security cluster on Sunday. 

Gungubele said the government’s stance was that it was for the parties in the conflict to mediate and negotiate.

“Over and above that, it is the stance of this country that we will always prefer peaceful solutions,” Gungubele said.

“We will always be opposed to any conflict that leads to a loss of life. We are not prepared to say anything beyond that,” he added, apparently trying to delete Pandor’s remarks retrospectively.

The ANC took a similar position, saying the conflict should be resolved in negotiations by the two warring parties. Beyond that, Luthuli House’s statement was rather confusing, not really clarifying where it stood on the conflict, though appearing to lean towards Russia.

Defence Minister Thandi Modise was presumably acting more in line with Ramaphosa’s view when she reportedly celebrated Russia’s Defender of the Fatherland Day at a reception at Russian ambassador Ilya Rogachev’s residence in Pretoria on Thursday night, just hours after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine and Russian missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities.

Diplomats have circulated a picture of Modise standing with Rogachev at the event, which specifically honours the Russian military. Western diplomatic sources and a Russian source confirmed the event took place on Thursday night.

ramaphosa russia south africa pandor

Defence minister Thandi Modise (second from left) with Russia’s ambassador to South Africa Ilya Rogachev (far left) at his residence on Thursday evening, 24 February 2022. (Photo: Supplied)

However, the SA National Defence Force did not confirm or deny this, despite several attempts by Daily Maverick for comment. Western governments are annoyed by what they regard as this insensitive gesture on the day of the invasion. They are also irritated by Ramaphosa blaming the invasion on the US instead of on Russia. 

“Some of us were very disappointed when the meeting between President Biden and President Putin did not happen,” Ramaphosa told journalists outside an event on Friday. “Because if that meeting had gone ahead without any conditions I’m sure we would have avoided the calamitous situation that is unfolding now.”

The Defender of the Fatherland Day, which Modise was reportedly celebrating with Rogachev on Thursday, dates back to the Bolshevik revolution and honours Russia’s military veterans.

Defender of the Fatherland Day is actually on 23 February, but because that is a public holiday in Russia, the day is usually celebrated on 24 February. 

Russian sources noted that the reception at ambassador Rogachev’s residence was arranged before the invasion of Ukraine.

Modise could have declined to attend the reception after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine earlier in the day, but evidently chose not to. DM


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  • Caroline Hart says:

    Can the new SA really already be siding with an aggresive Russian totalitarian State? When your current pres starts sounding like the ex pres’ twittering daughter, one really has to wonder exactly what special medical treatments the deputy pres. of SA was actually getting in Russia, during the planned invasion of KZN?

  • Karsten Döpke says:

    Is there anything these idiots actually get right?
    How embarrassing.
    Ramaphosa cannot seriously be that naïve?

    • Craig B says:

      It’s intentional they not stupid ,….. Putin and his so called government steal the people’s money like genocidal maniacs which is not far from the South African government .,…. Marikana ……. July riots etc they foment this stuff to steal

    • Peter Oosthuizen says:

      As always
      He’s not – he’s a Russki at heart an oligarch surrounded by kleptocrats

    • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

      cr is not naive. He knows exactly what he is doing. The anc is obviously as bad as putin.

  • Craig B says:

    The South African government just wants shit with the west ……. they won’t get it. What they will get are politeness and smiles. Nothing more nothing less.

  • Charles Parr says:

    So weak Cyril really is weak. Just no guts at all. Thandi Modise doesn’t matter at all, she’s a plain idiot managing a broken organisation.

    • Hiram C Potts says:

      Aside from being weak & totally spineless, Cyril & his band of imbeciles share the same “values” & empathise with Putin’s kleptocracy, which is not much different to how the ANC operates.

  • Ludovici DIVES says:

    Russia has Oligarchs South Africa has cadres. Both are gangster organisations.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    Today I am really ashamed to a South African. Ramaphosa is a disgrace. Not just that, he appears to be unbelievably stupid or unforgivingly naive for giving credibility to the Putin narrative that Ukraine is to blame for the invasion. But at least we now know exactly where Ramaphosa stands – if there was any doubt before: definitely not on the side of democracy. Let’s take that fact to heart and view every decision he and his appalling government makes through that lense.

  • Luan Sml says:

    How shameful… we are being put on the wrong side of history here!
    It seems likely that the Deputy prez could also suffer a relapse and soon have to return to Russia for follow up “treatment”?

  • Geoff Krige says:

    More confirmation of the ANC dictum “If you are our friend you can do what you like with no consequences”. Zuma has benefitted. Magashule has benefitted. Now Russia has benefitted. Would it be acceptable for South Africa to invade Zimbabwe because we didn’t like Mnangagwa? No. Would it be acceptable for USA to invade South Africa because they dislike our membership of BRICS? No. So on what basis is it acceptable for Russia to invade another sovereign country? Naledi Pandor has shown the strength of character and integrity to do what is right. Come on, Ramaphosa, you can also show some backbone and do the right thing, rather than copying the lame and foolish claim that by some contorted reasoning this is Biden’s fault.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    Yet again Ramaphosa shows he is not worthy of being called president, and the ANC shows us that come war and pestilence, they will always side with where the money is to be had.

  • Riette Fern says:

    Modise, sies.

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    The approach by President Ramaphosa effectively amounts to the continued appeasement of President Putin, who is clearly indicating that he is willing to do whatever is necessary, at whatever cost in damage and destruction, to get what he wants. To blame President Biden for the failure of negotiations is completely unfair, President Biden and several other leaders met and had discussions with President Putin several times, it made no difference. Russia launched the invasion even while the UN Security Council was discussing the matter. It was quite clear that further discussion at that stage was pointless.

    The statement by Minister Pandor was quite clear and appropriate, and in line with what most other nations are saying, including Kenya, which made a very clear and effective statement about countries that have experienced colonialism needing to stand up and speak out against new imperialist moves by other countries. President Ramaphosa has clearly placed South Africa in the embarrassing appeasement club with China, India and the UAE. South Africa must move away from alignment with BRICS, whose other members are led by autocrats and negative populists. South Africa really gets no benefit, and only embarrassment, from aligning with that grouping.

  • Johan says:

    It is a bit of a trend, isn’t it? Siding with despots: Bashir, denying the Dalai Lama a passport to appease China…

  • Kat Hessler says:

    It seems to me that Naledi Pandoor should be our next president, and hopefully, our last ANC president. Although what comes next may be even more dire than the ANC

    • Helen Swingler says:

      I second that.

      (As for the dude with the handlebar moustache in the embassy pic…I just can’t. Is he for real or did they freeze-dry him in the 50s and revive him for this USSR nationalistic charade?)

      • Alan Paterson says:

        I have a funny feeling there is an element of Photoshop in that picture. Looks odd. Or maybe Thandi always simpers like that when dealing with the Russians (or Cubans, come to think of it).

  • Brian Kritzinger says:

    Its hard to not to become negative about South Africa. Here we are siding with a regime that history will probably put in the same catagory as Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Then you take a drive through the streets of Sandton and Rosebank – areas that used to be well kept, clean and modern – the roads and infrastructure are a mess. Sewerage and water reticulation are failing. Eskom is a failure, Transnet, SAA…

    Its as though we stuff things up on purpose, as if to spite someone. My Old Man told me once that if I thought South Africa was any different to the rest of the continent I was mistaken. He was right.

  • Andrew McWalter says:

    Pity our poor President Cyril Ramaphosa. The amount of flip-flopping starts early every morning. Just how does one decide which shoe to put on first? The left has advantages, like also owning the last bum-cheek to leave the bed. The right though, provides relief to the sciatic nerve, so long live the right bum-cheek. One may have thought the battle had been won earlier, when choosing which sock gets the nod. Nope, that is only the opening salvo of the war to follow. The real test of character comes when dear old Cyril is fully attired and looking at himself in the mirror, wondering which foot should launch him into the day.

  • Alley Cat says:

    Come on people… YOU are Naïve!!! Think about where the ANC and CR are coming from? They want to get their hands on all that loot that would start flowing when we sign the nuclear power station build with Russia.
    THAT”S why they are so desperate to lick Putin’s ass!

  • Smudger Smiff says:

    “Ukrainian soldiers who died defending an island in the Black Sea from an air and sea bombardment reportedly told an officer on board a Russian navy warship to “go f*** yourself” when asked to surrender.” Guardian newspaper
    Same message for Ramaphosa and the ANC

  • Chris Green says:

    Dear CR-ook,
    As an accredited ANC member of your thieving organisation, please do not presume that you represent South Africa in this Russian war. It’s the same as Kenneth Kaunda siding with Verwoerd in the railway coaches on the bridge – morally corrupt !! Allowing Thandi to prostitute our people and our country by attending that event at the Russian embassy, and thereby supporting the murder of Ukaraine soldiers and civilians, is worse than Jimmy Kruger saying that the death of (I think it was Steve Biko) leaves him cold.

    DM please assist by engaging with the Ukraine embassy to advise where I can get a Ukraine flag to fly in my part of my country – thanks

  • Sam Shu says:

    OMG!!! Doesnt it hurt, just being on the fence. Russia’s invasion is everything that the ANC stood against back in the day.

    • Karl Sittlinger says:

      Not really. The ANC and its left arm SACP were always pro Russia, Marxism etc, and against the west, freedom of speech and democracy. Not really surprising who they are rooting for, and what their values are.

  • Trevor Thompson says:

    Why can we not just do what is right for a change? Why do we always have to ingratiate ourselves to some dodgy oligarch or Chinese politician? When they are wrong and not acting in the interests of anyone but their own personal fortune?
    I am proudly democratic and humanitarian. I support the independence of Ukraine (and Crimea) and cannot support the flimsy argunmeent to invade and attempt to overthrow the legitimate governments in question.
    Our government will be on the wrong side of history and this will adversely affect or international standing. It willo result in disinvestment in this country when we need more investment. And we need a more free economy which seems is disappearing ever closer to the horison.
    This country is going nowhere ………..
    Just admit that the Russians are wrong here. No need to have allegiance to them either as they have always been on the wrong side of human values, rights of citizens, freedom of choice, freedom in general.
    We join the handful of states supporting Russia at our own long-term peril. Expect an exodus of capital from here as a result.
    Cry the Beloved Country ……..

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    Oh dear, this cannot be, surely? Naledi Pandor for president

  • Eulalie Spamer says:

    Maybe it is nostalgia for the decades SA was the polecat of the world. Second best option is get in bed with the current polecat.

  • Tim Price says:

    The ANC have a lot in common with Putin’s kleptocracy, in fact he probably gave Zuma a few tips.

  • Jennifer Ward says:

    Thankyou Naledi Pandor.
    Surely, surely no-one can be supporting this invasion of a sovereign state.

  • Richard Erskine says:

    Shame on you CR, Thandi and the corrupt ANC. You are all disgraceful. Spineless and bring South Africa into disrepute. Where is your backbone? Are you hoping for some backhander which will not be forthcoming?
    Putin is a criminal who serves only himself and none else. Biden has done all he possibly can within reason to help Ukraine a free and democratic country living in peace and prospering in the free world. For South Africa to align itself with a quasi dictator given our long history of subjugation is shameful.
    CR you would do well to to take heed of the Kenyan representative at the UN who has so eloquently stated an appropriate response to Russia.

  • Sabine Riedrich says:

    “south africa is like Russia” (Bill Browder said this in a maverick webinar a couple of years ago)

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    This all shows why we should all vote for a liberal DEMOCRATIC party.

  • Russ H says:

    Both the ANC and Putin’s party are simply organised criminals. The end. Of course they have each other’s back. The ANC now prove that they cannot choose good over evil ! You will be judged by the company you keep you spineless, inept kleptocrats. But you are Happy to accept cash from USAID to pay for the treatment of HIV-a tad hypocritical !

  • Malcolm Mitchell says:

    I gather Machiavelli said, more or less that good politics requires that you act in the interests of your country first.
    The problem seems to be that our government seems to not be sure what are our country’s interests are.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    The ANC needs to come clean on the exact relationships between DD Mabuza and Jacob Zuma have been and whether any binding commitments and agreements exist.

  • Peter Dexter says:

    I found this article so depressing. In the last few days Putin has been exposed as a kleptocratic criminal with no conscience or morals. The only governments in the world that have not condemned his actions are those with questionable ethical values themselves. I suppose we should have expected no different from the ANC “comrades” but I had hoped for a new dawn.

  • Rg Bolleurs says:

    Did the same when mugabe stole the elections… Set up a government of national unity. The best we can do is don’t take sides.

    But where is the back channel diplomacy? Ukraine does not join nato, and putin does not invade

  • Confucious Says says:

    Isn’t the ANC et al, against colonisation? Where’s the uproar?

  • Chris Green says:

    Hi CR-ook,
    Thinking about releasing Janus and deporting him to Poland or are you concerned he may cross the border to assist Ukraine against your lunatic handler !!?? NOT.

  • Gerhard Theunissen says:

    The lack of a moral compass and blind loyalty of this government is staggering. I guess we are all just venting our anger here, but with little hope that the people who really need to read the comments, will actually take note.

  • R S says:

    Less than a week before they invaded Russia said they had no plans to! How can CR be so spineless about this issue?

  • Jos Verschoor says:

    If anyone thinks that what Putin’s Russia is pursuing is correct, we have a massive problem! Irrespective of what was supposedly agreed to in the passed regarding membership of certain organisations, as that is the prerogative of an independent, democratically chosen government and is nobodies business! The respective organizations/governments are of no thread to anyone, their leaders might be, that is where democratie is the tool do deal with such situations. Not to invade, murder and destroy. By now we ought to have learned that.
    Or am I missing something?

  • Patrick Devine says:

    What does Putin have on the ANC ?

    Remember all the stories about what Putin had on Trump, bet he has the same kind of footage of every ANC big shot who has visited a Russian Hotel or oligarch’s Dachau?

  • charlene klestadt says:

    I do believe that the President is making an awful mistake. Democracy for all in South Africa became a reality and the people cried freedom. Playing into the hands of the Russians Putin and company is like issuing a death threat to democracy and freedom. They will swallow you. One must also be fearful of the Chinese if one wants to live in a free and democratic world.
    The President and his followers will, if not stopped pay a heavy price for putting their faith in Putin’s wealth and that of his cronies. Money comes and goes.
    Let’s not make the poor suffer more.
    Let us learn from history and not repeat the same mistakes!

  • Jennifer Hughes says:

    54 comments… I’ll just add my disgust at our government’s pandering to a war lord.

  • Dave Reynell says:

    Whimps !

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    To President Ramaphosa:

    I have been a supporter of yours to date but regardless of any good you are doing, the position you are taking is beyond the pale for any leader of a democratic country.

    It is blindingly obvious that in endorsing Putin you are supporting:
    1. the unprovoked wholesale killing of innocent civilians
    2. a deranged megalomaniac mobster who
    – lies to his own people
    – crushes any democratic style opposition in his own people
    – would destroy everything to protect his own thieving backside
    3. the destruction of the global economy to the detriment of everyone including your own people in this country who can least afford it.

    So I would like to request on behalf of all South Africans that you pen an article in the Daily Maverick explaining clearly your reasons for this on the face of it nonsensical behaviour.

    Thank you

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      – Civilian death toll now stands at 352 people, including 14 children, Ukraine’s health ministry says.
      – Moscow shifts its nuclear forces to a high alert footing.

      …even just these 2 statements from Aljazeera tell a terrible story.

      How is it possible that you could support such a terrible person in any way at all?

  • Dhasagan Pillay says:


  • Pieter Malan says:

    Cyril the Slow. Taking 12 months to appoint a Chief justice, many month & years to install new competent management at SAA, SAP, PRASA, SABC, Denel, SANDF, etc. Yet in less than 7 days support conflict nearly 10 000km away.
    “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

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