South Africa


South Africa and the Russian Federation — Pause before Engaging

South Africa and the Russian Federation — Pause before Engaging
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Yuri Kochetkov / Pool)

Why anyone would want to do business with the Russians, particularly if sanctions are tightened in the future, is unclear. It may be an act of economic isolation and even desperation by one or both parties, perhaps also a degree of opportunism.

The state-owned Russian Export Center Group and its affiliates, the Russian Agency for Export Credit and Investment Insurance and the Eximbank of Russia are staging an “International Business Mission of the Russian companies” on 20 and 21 July in Sandton on the topic of “Mechanical Engineering, Agricultural Mechanisation and Infrastructure”.

With 12 Russian companies in attendance, according to the programme, “The mission is aimed at strengthening economic relations between the Republic of South Africa and the Russian Federation and will be attended by the representatives of South African government bodies, business associations, major Russian companies in the sectors of mechanical engineering, agricultural mechanisation and infrastructure, Trade Mission and the Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Republic of South Africa.”

This event comes five months after the Russian Federation invaded its neighbour Ukraine and strengthens the suspicion that South Africa’s stated “neutrality” is merely a figleaf behind which it intends to deepen its relationship with Russia.

While there will be some who ask: “Why not? Why should South Africa not profit just as some European and other countries continue to do business with Russia”? Yet there are two key reasons to reconsider.

The first is about principle.

There were surely many profits to be made in doing business with Nazi Germany in 1938, after its annexation of part of Czechoslovakia. Would, with the benefit of hindsight, any peaceful, democratic country have thought this to be a particularly good idea even if appeasers and opportunists will always find excuses?

There are key principles at stake even if this may not be a war fundamentally between democracy and authoritarianism, despite Ukraine and Russia reflecting those political differences. As Tommy Koh, the veteran Singaporean scholar and diplomat, points out, “The war would be equally objectionable if Russia were a democracy and Ukraine an autocracy.”

This argument is in danger of obscuring the key value at stake in Russia’s action. Ukraine, as Koh points out, “is fighting for its survival and independence”. For this reason, among others, Kyiv’s future should not be determined by the negotiations of outsiders to whom Ukraine has not given a mandate to negotiate on its behalf. Nor should Ukraine attempt to cede more territory to buy peace. The history of authoritarians being appeased in this way is dangerously slim.

And nor should world opinion be determined by the relative size of the two protagonists, since: “History has many examples of a militarily powerful country being defeated by a less powerful adversary,” writes Koh.

Rather, the world should support Ukraine in its efforts, in the process upholding key principles of international law, self-determination and democracy.

The second issue is one that requires leadership and strategic thinking. Even if the Ramaphosa administration were to ignore these foundations of its own experience, is there really a buck to be made in this way, and for how long? How might siding up with Russia right now affect its own economic interests? In which direction is the tide of international sanctions heading?

And there is the cost of associating with a rogue state. South Africa is already in danger of being “grey-listed” over its weak action against financial crimes. According to the acting Treasury director general, Ismail Momoniat: “It is not just an issue that we are weak on money laundering, but we are generally weak in dealing with any financial crimes or corruption.”

Read in Daily Maverick: ‘Miracles’ needed to stop a deficient SA from being greylisted by global anti-terror financing watchdog

The country is trying to regain its feet after years of State Capture by Jacob Zuma and his cronies. Cosying up to the Russians with their notoriously amoral business practices might be courting a new era of capture.

Why anyone would want to do business with the Russians, particularly if sanctions are tightened in the future, is unclear. It may be an act of economic isolation and even desperation by one or both parties, perhaps also a degree of opportunism. 

Given its overwhelming exposure to Western investment, South Africa should be thinking of the consequences should the US — among others — take a dim view of it as an investment destination. Companies that trade directly or indirectly with Russian state entities could find it harder to trade with the US or even the European Union. This is what has happened with sanctions on Cuba and Iran. Of course, this outcome depends on whether Western political will holds — so far, it seems to be the case, given the threat that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s action poses. 

Whatever the argument — warm and fuzzy principles or hard-nosed strategic economic positioning — South Africa would do well to pause before it engages in scrumming down with the Russian Federation right now. DM 

Dr Greg Mills heads the Brenthurst Foundation.

Ray Hartley is research director at the foundation.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Whilst I agree wholeheartedly with this article, I don’t have any hope that our deceiving, corrupt and outright unprincipled government and ANC would ever do the right thing. They are immoral, devoid of any integrity and ethics, hypocritical and cowardly in the extreme. If we had any backbone, we would send these hideous Putin Russians packing to the shit-hole where they belong. What was Cyril doing at the G20 meeting? SA under his and the ANC leadership do not deserve to be there – nothing but the elephant in the room. He hobnobs with the West, wanting their money and investments whilst blindly supporting, aligning and closing ranks with worst human rights abusers and murderous regimes. Actions speak louder than words and hope that they would tell him exactly where to get off.

  • Bruce Sobey says:

    You make a number of good points. With respect to Russian “notoriously amoral business practices”. Some data. South Africa was rated at 70 on the on the Transparency International site in 2021. Russia was rated at 136 – much worse. I agree. If we want to bring down corruption in this country it hardly makes sense to encourage trade with a country so far down on the corruption scale.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Shameful unprincipled ANC. We are all well aware of the Zuma, Mabuza and other extended trips to Russia. Follow the money?

  • Bill Schaerer says:

    SA should rather be looking for ways to produce it own equipment locally to reduce unemployment.

  • Sheda Habib says:

    The human race seems hell bent on politics.
    Firstly we know that the propaganda coming out of the US and Russia means that we will never know the truth.
    We as a country should avoid taking sides and look after ourselves. Yes I understand the US could put a gun to our heads and boycott us for not adhering to their politics (or Russia could do the same).
    Why should we cow tow to either. Ignore the gun and avoid the politics, we will be better off for it.
    For a country that cannot look after itself we have a lot to say about Israelis, Palestinians, Ukrainians, Russians, Chinese, Zimbabweans. Nigerians etc. and should just mind our own business

  • Stef Viljoen Viljoen says:

    The authors mention two key reasons for South Africa to reconsider its stance towards Russia. Although I fully agree with this I also think it is beyond our current skillset.

    The first point mentioned is the one of principle. The short and sweet of it is that looking at what we do to each other and how we govern, is it realistic to say we have(or even strive to have) a good set of principles we live by?
    The second point is about strategy and foresight. These are the qualities that would have prevented load shedding, water shortages, unexpected riots, deteriorating health services and the like. It has been proven that this is also not one of our strong suites.
    Nope. I think we will have to lower our expectations.

  • Hilary Morris says:

    Sadly it increasingly seems that the ability to think rationally about minor and major issues is not within the ANC’s repertoire. There is a total lack of morality, integrity or decency in how they function. Internal battles are irrelevant here, on foreign policy issues there are no ‘good guys’. And the voting masses are unlikely to change allegiance. Basically, we’re screwed!

  • Craig King says:

    Presumably we are also advocating for our removal from BRICS, the economic and political grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. It would surely be immoral to stay as a member if we are to resolutely campaign against Russia.

    • Brian Van Der Vijver says:

      A completely biased article. It has no historic context as to why Russia invaded the Ukraine. The Russiaphobia comes directly from the Main Stream Media. Why is no mention made about the US meddling in Ukraine that lead to all the trouble. And while you are it please explain how NATO got to be on Russia`s borders and what exactly they are doing there.

      • etienne van den heever says:

        Utter garbage!
        Following the example of Dmitri Peskov, Sergei Lavrov, Vladimir Putin et al – in blaming the “Western Media” for creating false news aimed at discrediting Russia
        If you cannot see for yourself that what you see in various international news channels -from BBC, through Al Jazeera is real incontrovertible truth, you should consider moving to Russia, where there is only one flavour of news: Kremlin-approved

  • Richard Fitzpatrick says:

    Quite something that a party that was on, deservedly, the right side of history not that long ago has been on the wrong side of it ever since they were elected.

  • Chris 123 says:

    I don’t see any independent company going to this shindig, most would find it morally wrong, beside all would have strong ties to the West and they don’t want to get on the wrong side of any sanctions. Only the ANC see any merit in this, I’m sure more to do with financial self interest than South Africa as a whole.

  • tyasbek says:

    When you are going to hell in a hand basket the only friend you will have is the devil himself.

  • etienne van den heever says:

    Is anyone organising a protest at this venue?
    I believe this is essential – to show that we are not simply after profit -but have a sense of moral duty, given Russia’s appalling conduct in Ukraine
    I feel compelled to add my voice

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