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Flying Circus — Thandi Modise’s shocking trip to Russian security conference

Flying Circus — Thandi Modise’s shocking trip to Russian security conference
Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

You can be sure that hanging around at a security conference in Moscow is not going to win the ANC any votes. It will raise the obvious question among voters — does our security alliance with Russia in fact harm our security and economic interests?

Monty Python left Pretoria last night for the circus in Moscow. Only the comic absurdity of the great John Cleese and his gang can adequately describe South Africa’s diplomatic antics.

There are, of course, less fanciful ways to describe the government’s flip-flopping: At best ‘confused’; at worst ‘two-faced’.

And so it was that, barely a week after hosting US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Pretoria — where amidst discussion about shared values, the platitudes used by the foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, included “We are appalled by war” and “We abhor war because it brings untold suffering, which is something we experienced under apartheid” — the South African Defence Minister, Thandi Modise, departed for Moscow for the “10th Moscow Conference on International Security at the invitation of the Russian Minister of Defence, General Shoigu”.

Russia, the watching world knows from its invasion of Ukraine, is clearly in favour of war, aggressive, belligerent, imperialist conquest of neighbouring territory using a scorched earth policy. Even its supporters will acknowledge this fact.

Of course, with the exception of a statement that was walked back on the day of Russia’s invasion, South Africa has found itself unable to express this view for reasons yet to be fully exposed.

When meeting Blinken, Pandor went as far as she possibly could down the road of condemning the invasion, saying: “Firstly, on the matter of Russia and Ukraine, there is no one in South Africa who supports war. We’ve made that very clear.”

By using the word “war” rather than “invasion” (the term that her department used on the day of the invasion for the last time), she cleverly pretended that both sides were at fault and that there was a need for “intensified efforts at increased diplomacy utilising the good offices of the United Nations, particularly the secretary-general and other leaders who may be of weight in terms of persuading the interlocutors to come around a table and negotiate a settlement of this awful conflict.”

And so, with the door to peace hanging loosely on its hinges, Modise departed for Moscow at the invitation of Shoigu.

The aforementioned Shoigu is one of the prime drivers of the scorched earth policy in Ukraine. In July, after his artillery and missiles has flattened vast swathes of urban Ukraine, he called for more intense attacks “in all operational centres”, presumably including civilians, hospitals, schools, shopping malls and other congregations of Ukrainian military might.


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In a further moment of surrealism, he borrowed the phrase “shock and awe” to describe what he wanted to see taking place on the Ukrainian battlefield.

The same Shoigu was filmed by Russia Today at Syria’s Hmeymim air base while RBK-500 ZAB-2.5SM incendiary cluster bombs were being loaded onto Russian airplanes in the background. Oops. The offending frames were quickly removed by the propaganda outlet.

According to the statement announcing the departure of Modise’s Flying Circus, the minister will address the conference and will “have a bilateral meeting with the Russian Minister of Defence, General Shoigu, on the margins of the conference”.

It went on to state: “South Africa and the Russian Federation enjoy cordial relations. Both countries have signed a number of military-related bilateral agreements which are yielding significant benefits for both countries.”

Perhaps it is time for the nature of these “military-related bilateral agreements” which are yielding untold benefits to be publicly debated. Are South African arms or munitions being supplied to Russia? Or is this just hollow talk? We should be told.

Russia, says the Modise statement with teary admiration is “one of the key players on peace and security on the African continent”. She must be referring to the presence of the notorious “Wagner Group” in conflicts to the north because there is very little else beyond these illegal and mercenary-based deployments that makes Russia a “key player”.

Russia’s shadow presence in Africa: Wagner group mercenaries in at least 20 countries aim to turn continent into strategic hub

Modise is, however, convinced that attending the conference — and presumably during her chuckle-along meeting on the sidelines with Shoigu, “this conference will help expose South Africa to practical and innovative strategies to address defence and security challenges that confront Africa”.

What is puzzling is the belief in Pretoria that this game of diplomatic charades somehow fools the South African public — and the many African states that have taken a clear stance against the invasion. The only credible survey on public opinion on the Ukraine invasion done early on in the war by The Economist, found that South Africans were against it.

Opinion polls are showing a rapid deterioration of the ANC’s support among voters — somewhat of an electoral shock and awe. There are many reasons for this, but you can be sure that hanging around at a security conference in Moscow is not going to win any votes. It will raise the obvious question among voters — does our security alliance with Russia in fact harm our security and economic interests?

The same question about South Africa will — and certainly should — be asked in Western capitals, our foremost trade and investment partners, notwithstanding China’s rapid growth. Washington’s policymakers will have taken note of this in the wake of the timing of the Blinken trip. At the very least, it shows just how divided our polity is, how the ANC cannot be taken at its word, and how Pretoria’s values, interests and aspirations widely differ from Western democrats.

While South Africa bangs on about the role of the UN, it forgets who pays for this privilege. In 2021, Russia provided $69-million to the UN’s regular budget, or some $416-million together with China, while the US and EU together contributed $2.3-billion. Russia’s market size is just 7.3% of that of the US, and 10% of the EU’s. Russian global aid contribution is just 3% of the US total, and 6.7% of that of the European Union.

It’s a no-brainer, except to those trying to make a different point — presumably to prove their radical credentials whatever the cost to South Africa’s interests.

This outcome would have made Blinken look foolish, and his trip misdirected. If Washington could be at all bothered, a strategic recalculation in the relationship should follow. Otherwise, the Secretary’s words about “vital interests” and “shared priorities” will remain simply vacuous pleasantries. It’s only a week ago, after all, that he laid out his administration’s view at a joint event with Pandor

“The United States and the world will look to African nations to defend the rules of the international system that they’ve done so much to shape. These include the right of every country to have its independence, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity respected, a principle at stake now in Ukraine. We believe that all nations should be able to stand up for the right of a country not to have its borders redrawn by force, for if we allow that principle to be violated anywhere, we weaken it everywhere.”

Viewed through the Moscow lens, Russia cannot believe its luck. Here is an established democracy that cherishes transparency and accountability looking to it for leadership despite its decades of autocratic rule and its disregard for the integrity of neighbouring democracies. Little wonder they are fawning over Modise, offering her “sideline meetings” in the Big Top, where she can feel important and among friends.

South Africa’s moral ambivalence is not going unnoticed in Ukraine. “South Africa has reputation as a country fighting against racism,” says Oleskandr Merezhko, chair of the Ukrainian Parliament’s foreign relations committee. “There is no need to ruin this reputation by such visits.”

From confusion and double-speak over the “national interest”, South Africa’s foreign policy is drifting rapidly into surrealism. Surrealists, says the dictionary definition, “seek to overcome the contradictions of the conscious and unconscious minds by creating unreal or bizarre stories full of juxtapositions.” DM

Greg Mills is the Director of The Brenthurst Foundation and Ray Hartley its Research Director

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    Shameful! I see another Arms Deal coming along or some sort of corruption. the minister should be resolving the dire issues in the SANDF.

  • Russ H says:

    Quite unbelievable ! This simply demonstrates the profound stupidity and ignorance of the ANC so-called leadership.

    Jaw dropping ineptness !

    Showing the west the middle finger might make you feel powerful but wait until they cut aid and trade with SA.

  • Rudd van Deventer says:

    Words fail me. The ANC is so tone deaf.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    I’m surprised that you are surprised by this government’s double speak.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Our soldiers are badly trained and under equipped and this moron wastes money by traveling to a country that arrests anyone who disagrees with official policy.

  • Helen Swingler says:

    Naledi Pandor is someone I once respected. I thought she was presidential material, a cut above the rest. Silly me. The Russians are clearly calling in pre-1994 favours. I can only imagine what’s listed in the debit column. Why else have we hitched our country to the dead horse that is Putin and his sociopathic narcissism? The fact that South Africans are appalled by Russia’s invasion (there, I said it) of Ukraine doesn’t register at all among the people’s governing party. I wonder if anything is getting through. It’s like a whiteout in a blizzard.

    • Gordon Pascoe says:

      Was Naledi Pandor not one of the first architects responsible for the decline in the quality of education provided to our children?

  • Derek Jones says:

    This government has no idea of global responsibility. They are totally selfserving. They have not read or understood the history of global wars and learnt about global responsibility. Not surprising I guess as they failed in their responsibility over the last 25 years to improve education in SA. The ANC are sickening in their selfishness. Get out of office you deserve nothing but our contempt.

  • Gregory Scott says:

    The fact that South Africa will be represented at the security conference in Moscow is not a surprise, it is appalling, an absolute disgrace. It clearly shows the ANC government lacks ethical standards, flip flops on policy and cow toes to Russia. Might it have something to do with a lucrative nuclear power station deal that may fill the ANC’s depleted financial coffers?
    I am confident that Minister Thandi Modise would not be missed at such an event and what value she could bring back to SA to justify somehow the cost of the trip, including her entourage.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    This giggling woman once spoke to the Cape Town Press Club. Her “achievements” were measured by the number of lunches she had with “dignatories”.

  • Patrick O'Shea says:

    I’m waiting for the announcement: Russia will establish nuclear- capable military bases in SA.

  • Michael Kahn says:

    How does one make sense of the DIRCO stance? Are we to believe that Venezuela, North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Belarus, and Russia represent the greatest good? That Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are innocents? All follow their own interests. So what interests does DIRCO promote? Those of the nouveau riche/unpatriotic bourgeoisie? Unreconstructed Stalinists? Workerists? Please do tell.

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      I think we tend to act as if we are still in the Cold War where every country in the world needed to be either on the side of the West or the USSR, or else be at the mercy of both. The Ukraine war has brought all these memories back and we now react as if we are back in the old times. Even the USA president made the mistake of cutting off communication with Russia over the nuclear war, and now can’t communicate directly with them about the Iran nuclear pact. But in the end the seemingly contradicting rhetoric does not matter. It is called rhetoric. Eventually it is what nations do, not the words they use that one needs to look at, and they are going to construct those actions in such a way that it benefits their own citizens – or at least according to how the government of a country sees this “interest” (or pretend to, because the governments are the sole adjudicators of it). And depending on the event, they are tweaking what they say according to the audience. If they don’t and want to look consistent, then they run into the sort of trouble that Biden ran into with the Iran deal and when he had to negotiate more supply of oil to bring oil prices down again. So we have to be patient with our governments regarding their international diplomacy and rather look at what they are achieving, which in the case of SA I have to admit is preciously little.

  • André Pelser says:

    Modise is an ANC apparatchik and embarrassment – is boggles the mind that we have people of this calibre in the cabinet.
    Clearly president Ramaphosa is not in control, if he is, he should hang his head in shame!

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Simply and appallingly DISGUSTING and DISGRACEFUL beyond words!!! This SA and ANC government are rotten to the core and their whole DNA and ethos is hypocrisy and deception. Eternal shame.

  • Luan Sml says:

    We should expect nothing more from the rudderless ship that is the ANC ruling party. It requires more than guerulla tactics and a BCom to ensure the safety and security of our country…especially where Russia is concerned!

    I read that Denel had managed to settle outstanding salaries and had a possible R12 billion contract on the horizon… wonder if this may be discussed on the “side-lines”?

  • Rowley Beckett says:

    Does our security alliance with Russia in fact harm our security and economic interests?
    Thank you Messrs Hartley & Mills for posing this question. Anyone with half a brain would answer in the affirmative. I would be very surprised if the damage is not already well and truly in the pipeline. What are the ANC’s Cadres thinking? Its already almost impossible to secure a visa to visit the UK… but lets not loose heart as there is always, Eritrea, North Korea & China.

  • Rg Bolleurs says:

    By now we surely know that the ANC will be on the wrong side of every argument from the economy to eskom, to education, policing, you name it

    Why on earth wouldn’t they be on the wrong side of the war in ukraine?

    It’s all totally depressing

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    The only thing this hapless government of ANC zombies need is a blow to the head, to end this pathetic semblance to ‘life’. The Monty Python Circus is a good analogy of what is going on in our Little Cabinet of Horrors, the clownish shitshow pretending to be a government; the nation in the benches, rictus grins glued to their faces, canned laughter in the background hehehe… It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so damn tragic.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Cash for the ANC perhaps or just certain individuals ?

  • Lee Richardson says:

    Vile.

    The Russians have littered tens of thousands of mines all over the Ukrainian countryside. Despicable evil.

  • Pete Farlam says:

    It’s amazing to me how many South Africans seem to be of the view that “Russia supported the ANC therefore we need to side with Russia and stand up to ‘Western Imperialism'”. Let’s hope this trip is just a circus and doesn’t lead to more dodgy deals.

  • Chris Green says:

    A Luta Continua !!
    Love the pic – it says it all
    LOL

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    It is time that Greg & Ray take note of the nature of international relations. The kind of rhetoric that they see as so ridiculous is made every time that important delegations from nations visit other nations and has partly to do with competing heads of state making visitors feel at ease, and partly with looking amicable in the media. If you doubt, think back to the meetings between USA and USSR heads of state in the middle of the Cold War (which was effectively a conflict between the two nations). Besides, the USA, by cutting off communications with Russia because of the war, is not in a position to communicate with Russia on other issues any more – from what I see in the media they had to communicate indirectly through other countries about the renewal of the Iran nuclear treaty. On the other hand, Turkey, by keeping communication lines open with both sides, were able to successfully negotiate opening up the grain trading lines from Ukraine to the rest of the world again. South Africa has, regarding economy & military power, never been a significant player on the world scene, but we have always played an important role on the diplomatic scene, from Jan Smuts (who wrote the Pre-amble to the UN) to Thabo Mbeki (who was a significant player in the establishment of NEPAD and getting Africa to be represented on the UN Security Council). We can only play this role if we don’t choose sides if we want to promote the values of the SA Constitution as our government is supposed to.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    . . . I understand that we live in times which in the international arena are unprecedently emotional because of the threatening collapse of the whole rules-based international system, as is shown by its’ inability to do anything to the Ukraine war. We are not accustomed to these kinds of conflict any more. But potentially it has always been with us, because that is the nature of international politics with the nation states that are competing with each other without a world government to act as referee. The UN for a long time played that role to an extent, but many voices say that it has run its’ course; on the other hand I see that the UN Secretary General has recognised the reality of the position of the UN and is starting a process of fundamental renewal. But the UN is not a complete “referee”; its’ role is still at most a diplomatic roleplayer and thus the seemingly contradicting position of countries will always exist. If one analyses this carefully, it is clear that SA still only not taking sides, even if parts of the population is zealously on the one side or the other.

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