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WAR IN EUROPE EXPLAINER

Untangling the narrative web surrounding South Africa’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Illustrative image | Sources: Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Yuri Kochetkov) | Putin shakes hands with then South African president Jacob Zuma. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool) | President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photos: Gallo Images / Jaco Marais)

Former president Jacob Zuma says Vladimir Putin is a ‘man of peace’. President Cyril Ramaphosa says the West isn’t doing enough to support a peaceful resolution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. We unpack the issues around South Africa’s stance of neutrality on an escalating war.

South Africa’s decision to abstain from a United Nations vote condemning Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine has caused revulsion for many. In his regular newsletter on Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa defended South Africa’s neutral stance on the grounds that a peaceful resolution should always be sought in such cases.

This highly simplistic approach may be valid on paper, but it does not come close to matching the reality of the Ukraine situation — responses to which have been steeped in hypocrisy from all sides. Here we unpack some of the most important issues around the conflict as it pertains to South Africa.

Are there good reasons for South Africa to keep Russia sweet?

Ramaphosa pointed out with some justification in his latest newsletter that South Africa’s foreign policy stance in the democratic era has usually been to call for dialogue, mediation and peaceful resolution — on the somewhat controversial grounds that this is what worked for South Africa in the transition from apartheid to democracy. 

But there is obviously more to the government’s position than this. Ramaphosa did not make any mention of Pretoria’s particular affinity for Moscow, but other government leaders — such as Lindiwe Zulu — have made it clear that Russia is a “good friend” deserving of South Africa’s support.

It is impossible to make a rational case for South Africa’s support for Russia on economic grounds. When it comes to trade between the two nations, Russia imported R1.3-billion worth of products from South Africa in 2021 and exported products to South Africa to the value of about R458-million.

This is peanuts in comparative terms. Russia does not even warrant a spot on the list of South Africa’s top 14 trading partners, which is headed by China, the US, Germany and the UK.

Some have speculated that South Africa’s ambivalence on the Ukraine issue may ultimately be motivated more by concerns about offending China than Russia. But, as Phillip de Wet recently pointed out in Business Insider, South Africa’s combined trade with Russia, China and India still only amounts to 57% of the total trade South Africa conducts with Nato countries.

When it comes to foreign investment, the relationship between Russia and South Africa is unbalanced. South Africa has around R77-billion worth of investments in Russia, while Russian investments in South Africa don’t even total one-third of that, amounting to about R23-billion.

Although Putin has sought to deepen African relations over the last decade, and paid lip service to making Africa a foreign policy priority, Russia’s trade with the African continent is still dwarfed by its trade with Asia and Europe.

(It should be noted that it is even harder to make an argument that South Africa should support Ukraine on economic grounds, since South Africa’s volume of trade with Ukraine is negligible: it accounts for around 0.2% of exports and 0.05% of imports.)

Russia also does not give much development aid to Africa. The country is absent from the list of the top 10 donors of aid to Africa, which is headed by the US and the UK. Over the past decade, Russian seduction attempts towards Africa have been largely based on “an unusual combination of diplomacy, guns and mercenaries”, to quote The New York Times. Russia is reported to be Africa’s largest arms dealer.

South Africa does have money at stake in BRICS. It paid R25.5-billion in cash to be part of the BRICS bank. As Daily Maverick’s Peter Fabricius recently pointed out, however, it is far from clear whether membership of this bloc has thus far proved worth it for South Africa. It is also no small irony that a group ostensibly founded to counter Western imperialist dominance in fact grew out of a business idea from a Goldman Sachs banker.

BRICS — has South Africa caught a monster by the tail and should it let it go?

Is South African support for Russia defensible on ideological grounds?

Since South Africa’s reluctance to criticise Russia cannot be rationalised economically, the alternative we are pointed to is that it is ideologically founded.

In a statement in late February, the Russian foreign ministry took care to remind Pretoria of the support given by the former USSR to the anti-apartheid struggle, stating: “Let’s underline that for a long time, the USSR remained the only major state that fundamentally refused contacts with the criminal [apartheid] regime.”

Sunday Times editor S’thembiso Msomi wrote in the latest edition of his paper that the gratitude many older South Africans feel for this historical assistance should not be underestimated:

“To this day you will find veterans of the 1980s struggle who get emotional and nostalgic when they sing “Soviet people/ lovely people/ here we are far from home/We will miss you/ we shall love you/ for the things you’ve done for us …” Msomi wrote.

But current-day Russia is not the USSR. (Ukraine was also part of the USSR – Ed) As has been pointed out in response to the wider issue of far-left apologists for Putin, it would be one thing if Putin’s Russia was a glorious socialist paradise serving as a shining beacon for human rights defenders everywhere. This is quite grotesquely far from the case.

On everything from basic support for multi-party democracy, to freedom of expression, to LGBTQ rights, South Africa and Russia are — on paper at least — diametrically ideologically opposed. At least 10 prominent Russian dissidents, opposition politicians and journalists have been killed in mysterious circumstances during Putin’s reign. Putin’s only plausible political rival currently languishes in jail after surviving an assassination attempt by poisoning.

Ultimately, the only principle that seems to bind contemporary Russia and contemporary South Africa is some vague fantasy of “anti-imperialism”. This is not something that South Africa actually lives out in any substantive way, as its close ties to the West affirm. Russia’s own claims to being anti-imperialist are flatly contradicted by its own neo-imperialist land grabs, while the fact that some of Putin’s most fervent public supporters are found in the US Republican Party exposes further contradictions.

It is also worth noting that Russia is notorious for everyday racism towards people of colour, as explored by a 2020 BBC feature. When a biracial Russian blogger posted on social media discussing the prevalence of racism in Russia in mid-2020, she received a visit from the authorities to caution her against “spreading extremist materials”. In February 2022, a video went viral which showed African students at a Moscow university being given bananas and called “monkeys”.

Ukraine is also by no means exempt from this problem. Ukrainian sports fans, in particular, have a shocking history of racist incidents. When a white mob attacked four black soccer fans at a Kyiv stadium in 2015, the stadium director suggested the solution might lie in segregating spectators by race.

Finally, the argument that South Africa still owes a historic debt of loyalty to Russia must also be called into question by the actions of other African powers. They too have benefited from Russian support — for instance, the cancellation of Cold War debt — but have nonetheless felt able to take stronger stances over Ukraine. Kenya and Ghana have explicitly denounced Russia’s actions; 25 African nations voted in favour of the UN resolution criticising Putin’s invasion.

Is it accurate to say that Putin’s actions in Ukraine are aimed at the ‘denazification’ of the country?

A tweet by the Russian embassy in South Africa last week, retweeted by Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, repeated a claim often made by Putin: that Russia is “fighting Nazism in Ukraine”.

Although this claim has been flatly dismissed by most Western media outlets, the notion that Ukraine has a Nazi problem is, like most propaganda, not entirely devoid of truth. Indeed, organisations like Human Rights Watch have previously warned of the virulent antisemitism of Ukraine’s neo-Nazis.

Several prominent Ukrainian figures aligned with the Nazis in World War 2 and in some circles are still highly regarded. Most problematically, however, the Ukraine military has officially incorporated into its ranks a far-right militia of ultra-nationalists called the Azov Battalion, which previously fought pro-Russian forces in the Donbas region. The battalion has attracted international volunteers from within neo-Nazi and white supremacist ranks.

But to claim — as Putin has — that Ukraine is being de facto run by Nazis is outrageous. Far-right parties in Ukraine launched a combined electoral campaign in Ukraine’s last parliamentary poll in 2019 and won just 2.15% of the vote, too little for even a single parliamentary seat. Both Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and his deputy are Jewish.

Russia has its own shameful history of neo-Nazi groups, which for years into Putin’s reign were reportedly allowed to flourish. In a 2021 op-ed by former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev which was awash with dog-whistle antisemitism, Medvedev referred to Zelensky as a “man with certain ethnic roots”. In a revealing comment in a 2016 interview, Putin suggested that the people responsible for meddling with the US presidential election in the same year might be “not even Russians”, but perhaps “Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship”.

Putin himself enjoys near-adoration from far-right groups worldwide due to the perception that he holds the line against the tide of “wokeness” flooding parts of the planet. A prominent figure in the US religious right, Rod Dreher, summed up this position recently when he said, criticising the idea of US military involvement in support of Ukraine: “I adamantly oppose risking the lives of boys from Louisiana and Alabama to make the Donbas safe for gender queers and migrants.”

Has the West’s response to the Ukraine invasion been hypocritical?

Unequivocally: yes. The West’s horror at Putin’s actions should be placed in the context of the shameful history of Western powers’ involvement in illegal wars. In the past, Nato has engaged in exactly the same tactics — for instance, killing civilians — for which it now condemns Putin.

The West’s professed aversion to Putin has also not stopped many European leaders from cosying up to the Russian autocrat in recent years or prevented many European capitals — perhaps most notably London — opening their arms to the dirty money of Putin’s oligarchs.

But two things can be true at the same time. Yes, the West’s response to Putin reeks of selective outrage and double standards. Simultaneously, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is an unjustifiable and illegal onslaught on a sovereign state.  

The relentless focus of the media on the Ukraine war has also been a source of frustration for many South Africans, who point out that there has been far less attention and concern spent on conflicts closer to home, primarily involving black or brown people. The situation has been exacerbated by the blatant racism of some Western journalists and commentators, who have made observations like: “It’s really difficult for me because I see European people, with blue eyes and blonde hair, being killed.” 

Media outlets like even the famously progressive Guardian have also paid far less attention to the shockingly racist treatment of African nationals stranded in Ukraine than one might expect, perhaps because it muddies the highly one-dimensional portrait of Ukraine in vogue at the moment as a country populated exclusively by noble heroes.

There is no possible justification for much of this, but there are some reasonably valid reasons for the seemingly disproportionate volume of media coverage. One is the prospect of nuclear war, which should terrify us all. Another is the fact that South Africa is already feeling the impact of the conflict in practical ways — namely, the rising prices of petrol and food. As much as South Africa might not want to get involved, we are already affected.

Is Ramaphosa right to claim that there has not been enough focus on finding diplomatic solutions?

In Ramaphosa’s latest newsletter, he wrote:

“South Africa expected that the UN resolution [criticising Russia] would foremost welcome the commencement of dialogue between the parties and seek to create the conditions for these talks to succeed. Instead, the call for peaceful resolution through political dialogue is relegated to a single sentence close to the conclusion of the final text.”

But Ramaphosa is ignoring the fact that the conflict between Ukraine and Russia did not start when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, but almost eight years ago — during which period there have been countless unsuccessful attempts at international mediation. 

Zelensky has told his countryfolk that he wants them to be assured that he will not stop negotiating until he has exhausted every possible attempt to resolve matters peacefully, but there is some doubt about whether Russia has entered into talks in good faith. Russia’s most recent negotiations were led by the country’s former culture minister.

But the bigger problem, which Ramaphosa seems determined to avoid, is that Ukraine itself seems likely to be merely a pawn in Putin’s wider game. As such, talks focused purely on Ukraine cannot address the underlying issue: which appears to be about Putin’s desire to fundamentally reshape his country’s relationship with the West.

“That the Ukrainian crisis is about much more than Ukraine explains why mediation efforts have proved so difficult to produce any progress, much less breakthroughs,” wrote Foreign Policy in February. French President Emmanuel Macron came out of talks with Putin in the same month stating that Russia’s objective is clearly “not Ukraine but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with Nato and the EU”.

This was also made clear in January, when Ukraine was only invited to one of three negotiating sessions ostensibly dealing with the tensions with Ukraine. Russia demanded to talk directly to the US and Nato instead.

Is Putin a ‘man of peace’, as Zuma claims?

In a statement released by the Jacob Zuma Foundation on Sunday night and attributed to Zuma himself, the former president wrote that he had always known Putin to be “a man of peace”.

This is a simply ludicrous statement from anyone who has kept even half an eye on global news over the past two decades, let alone from a former head of state.

Putin came to power in 1999 on the back of the bombings of two apartment buildings in Moscow. Hundreds of ordinary Russians died. Putin blamed Chechen terrorists and promptly launched the Second Chechen War, which killed at least 25,000 further civilians. There is credible evidence to suggest that the apartment block bombings were in fact carried out by Putin’s former secret service colleagues at the FSB, possibly on Putin’s instructions.

A leader willing to sacrifice hundreds of lives to provide the pretext for a war in which thousands more would die cannot by any reasonable stretch of the imagination be described as “a man of peace”.

Putin’s legacy will, in fact, be one of a regime steeped in violence: whether taking the form of brutal crackdowns on protest and dissent internally or in its actions abroad. In attacks on Georgia and Crimea, the targeting of civilians has been standard for Russian troops. In Syria, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reports that Russia has killed more people than Isis, burning civilians alive in densely populated neighbourhoods and using chemical weapons against children.

Although Zuma making false claims in public is no longer remotely surprising, the brazenness of this particular position must legitimately raise questions about whether Zuma, and other ANC leaders, might owe far more to Russia than just historical gratitude. DM

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All Comments 34

  • On the economic front, Fareed Zakaria pointed out on the Erza Klein show that Russia stands directly to benefit from strategies of international instability because instability drives up oil prices. We’ve already seen that, to South Africa’s detriment and our friendly pro-Putin stance hasn’t helped keep our oil prices stable.

  • With reference to the last paragraph – exactly why this man and his foundation should be deprived of oxygen. Ditto Malema, whose public size can be attributed almost entirely to the media.

    • Exactly! Without media attention these idiots will shrivel away and disappear. It is only the media attention that keeps them ‘alive’.

      • I wish it was so, but it isn’t; what keeps them alive is a public discontent, and their need to run away from corrupt ANC. But of course, there is no good place to run to, it’s slim pickings out there.

  • Even if they are your friend it is important to tell them the truth!
    Putin’s actions against Ukraine are unacceptable and should be condemned.

  • Simplistically, there are two huge gangs weighing up each other to see who controls the playground. I would not rate SA’s chances whichever side it chose.

  • The fact that both the discredited Zuma and the impotent Ramaphosa support Putin is a sad indictment of the ANC and its (mis)governance of South Africa.

  • I also wonder what the likes of Zuma and Manrasche had to promise when they got kickbacks for the proposed and thankfully scrapped corrupt nuclear deal…

  • Just a general FYI , while the west can hypocritical at times , a link to to the bombing of Serbia was in response to a genocide , confirmed by the jailing of several serbians for crimes against humanity .

    Equating that to what Russia is doing to the Ukraine is in no way factual

  • Can you please explain “The West’s horror at Putin’s actions should be placed in the context of the shameful history of Western powers’ involvement in illegal wars. In the past, Nato has engaged in exactly the same tactics…” When and where exactly?

  • Superb article. Well thought out. It for one makes one realise, and we already knew it, that the West is not populated by saints. That said Putin is a thoroughly violent dictator who has amassed inexplicable wealth. He does not give a toss about anyone other than himself. I battle to understand South Africans love affairs with Russia. It seems that Ramaphosa et al are determined, to once again, make us a world pariah. Just look at the company we keep !

    How bad can SA get ? Just look North of Messina !

  • An entirely reasonable article – presenting various ways to look at the problem – and using various sources of information and opinion. It entirely falls flat for me with a last passage “In Syria, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reports that Russia has killed more people than Isis, burning civilians alive in densely populated neighbourhoods and using chemical weapons against children.” The writer is using sensation (unrelated to Ukraine) as proof and support for her opinion – can the rest of the foregoing article be trusted now ?? Methinks she shot herself in her foot

  • Use of the word ‘rational’ and ANC in the same sentence is not sensible. Morally bankrupt, without principle and opportunistic would be more descriptive. Social media, many contributors to which are much younger than the 80’s gang, seem intent on on glorifying Russia as some sort of African saviour. The numbers speak otherwise, as does the absence of anything useful left behind by the USSR in Africa after they collapsed in a heap. A few rusty tanks and 1950’s technology trucks maybe. Racism is another subject entirely-having been prevented from using black engineers working there in the 2000’s. Catch a wake up.

  • I prefer to think of Putin in French.

    Mr Ramaphosa I really think as the leader of a democratic nation you should too.

  • The ANC recently found itself bankrupt when the state capture gravy train dried up. A few visits to Russia by senior ANC members soon sorted that problem out. The current financial relationship (more so than its historical connection) between Russia and the ANC is at the root of the SA government’s approach to the Ukrainian situation. i.e. CR is Putin’s poodle.

  • If the World Court in The Hague finds Putin guilty and he becomes a war criminal, SA may well ironically find itself as one of only a few states that fundamentally remain in contact with this criminal [Putin] regime.

  • As Judge Zondo and others have reported, the ANC can be bought for as little as a few buckets of KFC at grassroots level, increasing on a sliding scale as you move up the hierarchy. I wonder how many ANC nests Put in is feathering?

    • Interestingly KFC is still operating in Russia after McDonalds, Coca Cola, Pepsi, etc have all announced their pull out, but will continue to pay their Russian staff.

  • Thank you for this piece. Necessary to have it spelled out. Reassuring that the one thing the current and former administrations as well as the tripartite alliance can wholeheartedly agree on is that vladimir putin is a sweetiepie.

  • We had one shining rainbow chance to be on the right side of history…we blew that with Zuma and it’s been downhill from there…
    All those icky, sticky ANC fingers in the Putin pie!

    • I see the readers are in good form today. Cyril the Poodle and Putin Pie could be turned into a comic strip in the style of Madam and Eve.

  • The South African government has no strategy. It’s preferable for Russia to lose this war because if they win the stench of it is a 30-year scenario for them and their friends. If they lose or withdraw the outcome for ordinary people Russians included is far better.

  • CR talks about moral regeneration, its time for him to stop talking and actual walk, the talk. The SA government’s stance on Ukraine is immoral.

  • A very sad statement from Ramaphosa if you don’t have the backbone to rule your own country nobody really cares what you say. For or against, your opinion just doesn’t count.

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