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The Cape Town mayor, the sanctioned oligarch and the limitations of municipal power

The Cape Town mayor, the sanctioned oligarch and the limitations of municipal power
The Nord superyacht belonging to Russian oligarch Alexey Mordashov in Hong Kong, China, on 14 October 2022. (Photo: Lam Yik / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis’s call on the national government to bar a Russian oligarch raises questions about the limits of municipal power.

When Tshwane’s then mayor Solly Msimanga of the Democratic Alliance (DA) visited Taiwan in 2016, the ANC blew a fuse and accused him of “treason” because it said he had violated Beijing’s “One China” policy, to which the South African government adhered.

Msiminga eventually moved to defuse the row by writing to the Chinese embassy to explain that his trip had not been intended to violate the One China policy, but only to explore opportunities for cooperation in good governance and business.

cape town russia mordashov

Russian oligarch Alexey Mordashov. (Photo: EPA / Sergei Ilnitsky)

This week another DA mayor, Cape Town’s Geordin Hill-Lewis, challenged the ANC’s foreign policy. He wrote to International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor urging her not to allow the Russian oligarch Alexey Mordashov, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, to dock his R9-billion 142m superyacht Nord in Cape Town or to allow Mordashov to set foot in South Africa.

The US sanctioned Mordashov and members of his family in June, along with several other oligarchs and officials, “to degrade the key networks used by Russia’s elites, including President Vladimir Putin, to attempt to hide and move money and anonymously make use of luxury assets around the globe”.

The US said Mordashov was the leader of Severgroup and one of Russia’s wealthiest billionaires.

Hill-Lewis pointed out that Mordashov was the main shareholder and chairman of Severstal, Russia’s biggest steel company.

“The steel industry is of key strategic significance to the government of Russia and of the Russian war effort,” said Hill-Lewis.

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The mayor also pointed out that Severgroup, which Mordashov chairs, is a major shareholder of Rossiya Bank, which had expanded aggressively into Crimea after Russia’s illegal annexation of the territory from Ukraine in 2014. He said Rossiya had opened branches in Crimea, “forcing the economic integration of Ukrainian territory into Russia. Accordingly, Mr Mordashov has personally derived financial benefit from illegal activities.

“Severgroup also owns a large share of the National Media Group, which controls several Russian television stations which broadcast Russian propaganda and actively promote the Russian government’s actions in Ukraine. In this way, again, Mr Mordashov has helped to support activities which undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and is an accomplice to the unconscionable crimes committed against Ukrainian civilians.”

Hill-Lewis continued: “South Africa has a moral duty to do what it can to protest unjust war, state terrorism, and the gross violation of human rights. We must stand up against expansionist imperialism wherever it rears its ugly head. This is especially so, in light of our country’s own painful history of imperialism.

“The founding provisions of our Constitution state our nation’s commitment to human dignity and the advancement of human rights and freedoms. To welcome an accomplice to state terrorism against innocent people to our shores as a guest would be a violation of these values. If Mr Mordashov is allowed to dock and enter, I believe this is something of which we will come not only to feel ashamed as a matter of our own morality, but it will also lower our reputation and standing amongst the peace-loving nations of the world.

“The national government has a duty to nurture our country’s standing in the international community and uphold our obligations to other nations. It must be said that so far, our country’s foreign policy conduct in relation to Russia’s illegal, imperialist war has been nothing less than shameful. Here is an opportunity to correct some of those errors of judgement and stand up for what is clearly right.”

Nord is believed to have left Hong Kong earlier this month, heading for Cape Town, where it is expected to arrive on 9 November. Oligarchs like Mordashov, whose yachts are sanctioned, have to choose their routes carefully. In March, the Italian government seized his superyacht Lady M at the port of Imperia in Italy.

Demand effectively rejected

Pandor has not responded to Hill-Lewis’s call, but President Cyril  Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, on Tuesday effectively rejected his demand.

“Legally, South Africa is only obligated to sanctions imposed by the United Nations. There are no UN-imposed sanctions on this particular individual. For as long as he abides by South Africa’s immigration laws, we will have no reason to prevent his entry into South Africa.”

In effect then, Magwenya was clarifying and upholding the national government’s “non-aligned” policy on Russia’s war against Ukraine, a policy which some critics say is really pro-Russian.  

Hill-Lewis was challenging that policy by demanding that South Africa should in effect sanction Mordashov. The DA has more generally sided very clearly with Ukraine in this war, most conspicuously when the party’s leader, John Steenhuisen, visited the country earlier this year.


The episode of the superyacht raises some interesting questions about the limitations of foreign policy conducted by subnational governments. This foreign policy by provinces and cities has been termed “paradiplomacy”. 

Back in 2016 when Msimanga dared to venture into Taiwan, thereby irritating the Chinese government and its ally the ANC, the ruling party’s Tshwane caucus issued a statement in which it said that the mayor’s trip had exposed “the limited understanding of Mr Msimanga on his roles and powers as well as his understanding on the functioning of the three layers of the state, which are interrelated and interdependent.

“While at the same time they all operate according to the Constitution and laws and policies made by national Parliament, local government may not do anything that is against the laws or policies set down by national government. We are … characterising this trip as treason and we will be consulting with the MEC of Cogta [Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs] and law-enforcement agencies on the implications of this trip.”

Nothing came of the ANC’s dire threats, including its threat to charge Msiminga with an offence.

To defer or not to defer

Are subnational governments like those of Tshwane and Cape Town really obliged to defer to the national government’s foreign policies? Is it an offence not to?

Fritz Nganje, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Johannesburg, suggests that Hill-Lewis acted inconsistently with his constitutional mandate. Nganje specialises in the role of sub-national governments in foreign policy and co-authored a chapter on that subject in the book Values, Interests and Power: South African foreign policy in uncertain times, edited by Daniel Bradlow and Elizabeth Sidiropoulos.

There is precedent in countries like the US where city governments have intervened directly in foreign policy issues often against the position of the national government,” he told Daily Maverick.

“However, the role of local and provincial governments in international relations, and especially in foreign policy, in the South African context is greatly circumscribed by the country’s legal and institutional framework.

“So, while provincial and local governments would be justified in engaging in international relations and activities that further their domestic development mandates, I don’t believe inserting themselves in the foreign policy realm in this manner, in direct contradiction of the national government’s position, is consistent with their constitutional competence or is even desirable.

“It seems to me that this is a manifestation of party-political and ideological differences over foreign policy issues that city governments do not quite have authority over. Ideally, those differences should find expression in parliamentary debates.”

Nganje notes that the US is a federal system which gives states — and to some extent, local government — greater autonomy than South Africa’s provinces enjoy.

However, it seems Hill-Lewis’s statement is defensible on the grounds of his right to free expression to state his views on foreign issues, as on other issues, insofar as these issues may impinge on the interests, including the reputation, of South Africa and therefore of Cape Town.

It could be argued that as long as the City of Cape Town does not act on its foreign policy views — for instance in this case, by forcibly trying to prevent Mordashov from docking his yacht and from disembarking in South Africa — it violates no constitutional limitations.

What is striking about this episode though is that the naked aggression of Russia against Ukraine and its atrocities against the Ukrainian people have emboldened the DA to challenge the ANC government’s controversial non-aligned stance more openly than any other of its foreign policy positions. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • André Pelser says:

    Blatant political posturing, nothing to do with municipal powers.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    South Africa will not condemn Russia’s mass murder in Ukraine. Minister Neladi Pandor is obsessed with Palestine. Hamas’ master Iran has troops in Crimea. Palestinian President Abbas was recently in Moscow either teaching or being taught the latest terrorist techniques . See the pattern. South Africa, Palestine, Iran and Russia V The Rest.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Why not prevent all the African autocrats and tyrants coming here for medical treatment too? The mansions bought in Cape Town with money looted by family members of dictators are obviously easily tolerated.

    • Christopher Bedford says:

      “mansions bought in Cape Town with money looted […] are easily tolerated” – you say this like Capetonians _like_ and _want_ property prices driven through the roof by foreign money, in which case you’re desperately out of touch with sentiment here.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Hill-Lewis expressed the views of the City of Cape Town and the Province of the Western Cape. That is his democratic right. He broke no law. If the ANC are upset by his actions that is just tough.

    It must be pointed out that the ANC break the South African Constitution every day that they conform to racist BBBEE, AA and Cadre Deployment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    “What is striking about this episode” – why is it striking, Peter? I’d like you to say what you haven’t said.

    • Christopher Bedford says:

      “why is it striking, Peter? I’d like you to say what you haven’t said” – it’s hard to see _your_ point here. What are you implying, that Fabricius is implying the DA has some hidden agenda?

  • James Miller says:

    It boggles the mind, how our government almost unfailingly makes the wrong choice. On questions great and small, international and domestic, we can depend on them to defy logic and decency. There is no neutral position between right and wrong, and there is no clearer example of wrong than Russia’s unjustified murder of innocent Ukrainians. Nevertheless, the geniuses who’ve brought us State Capture and load shedding etc., true to form, insist on being “neutral” towards the war in Ukraine. Allowing this R9 Billion monument to authoritarian corruption to dock in Cape Town, as I said, boggles the mind. On the other hand, banning the Nord from our shores would be the obvious right thing to do, so yeah.

    • Martin Ernst says:

      I don’t see it as “Our government” – just a parasitic cabal of thieves and terrorists. No wonder they side with the terrorist Putler regime. To expect anything vaguely moral from the bunch of crooks in the ANC is delusional. A leopard doesn’t change it’s spots, and the ANC won’t change it’s thieving, amoral ways, ever. They will never make a decision in the best interests of the country, let alone some country far away that’s being invaded by the worst colonizer in recent times – but hey.. decolonize everything except what Russia or China colonizes? Bunch of hypocritical morons. It’s tragic that our electorate keep voting for such horrendous human beings.

  • Dhasagan Pillay says:

    It would be politic for the DA to “roadblock” their caucus questions at the medium-term budget statement to focus solely on the claimed 85% likelyhood of SA being greylisted by FATF (Financial Action Task Force) and whether DIRCO is impeding his department’s actions by exposing SA to reputational damage not just risk by refusing to condemn Russian aggression and now to insist on harbouring (literally) an economically sanctioned individual while claiming neutrality during the ongoing illegal invasion.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    Seems to me good opportunities to object to some dubious decisions made by our flailing government, several members of which on the one hand has been denouncing our Constitution (which is a grave offence against the people of SA) while on the other hand suppporting authoritarian regimes wherever they exist (which also goes against the grain of our Constitution). I would say toeing a line drawn by this pathetic excuse of a government does no one any good, while pushing against it is almost a patriotic duty.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    I seem to remember this government had no compunction about refusing the Dalai Lama a visa three times last decade at the behest of China …

  • Bruce Anderson says:

    Perhaps communicating the link between the current high inflation in food and fuel costs and the Russian invasion of Ukraine needs to be given greater emphasis. This would effectively illustrate that the current ANC government policy supports those that are directly negatively damaging the lives of millions of our citizens through both high inflation and suppressed economic activity. How can “SA” be neutral in relation to the very cause of hardship? If unions are concerned about high inflation, should they also not be at the forefront of expressing their dissatisfaction against the government policy of neutrality (tacit support) in this instance? Allowing entry simply underscores the limited priorities of the SA governments narrow interests.

  • Riel Meynhardt says:

    I am sure a few thousand people who condemn the genocidal maniac Putin, and all his cronies, would make a fabulous welcoming committee at the harbor and wherever Putler’s buddy cares to venture while in SA. The ANC, who has no moral compass whatsoever, would never prevent any criminal from entering SA.

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    I’m sure there are many resourceful Capetonians who can conjure up creative ways of hindering the docking process. Accidentally cutting or untying themoors at night, blockades to not allow anyone off or on to the yacht etc etc
    Make the vessel undockable, mateys!

    • Christopher Bedford says:

      “Accidentally cutting or untying themoors at night, blockades to not allow anyone off or on” – OK good luck with that. Guaranteed Russian Oligarchs travel with a squad of goons with submachine guns and as long as they stay on board no-one will touch them even if they shoot you dead.

  • Bruce Sobey says:

    It is appropriate for Hill-Lewis to make such comments. Proverbs says “Like a muddied spring and a polluted well, is a righteous person who gives way before the wicked”. Hill-Lewis may not be totally righteous, but there is no doubt that Russia and its oligarchs are behaving wickedly.

  • Andrew Newman says:

    Yacht is taking a very roundabout route to SA so it may not be coming.
    Maybe going to the Maldives or Dubai.

  • Matsobane Monama says:

    Ah! my white compatriots so knew all along about right or wrong, just to borrow a line from George Bush when bombs were raining down on innocent civilian Iraqis” it’s collateral damage “, Bagdad bombed to smithereens, still haunted by the unprovoked murder of Mohammar Gaddafi live on TV, starving of Cubans, drugging of Chinese( heroine by the French), killing of Syrians, supporting of evil dictators in the developing world, extermination of Indeginous people all over the world, devils and self proclaimed leaders of the free world. Ungrateful, arrogant, comedian begger disguised as a leader, pls Elon switch off the Spacelink internet satellites if he refuses another peace plan, he must go back
    to Minks accord and Budapest memorandum. He refused to honor all
    made with his predecessor, NATO and Russians, now innocent Ukrainians are paying the price. Putin is and will always be a friend of
    Africa, we come a long long long way. CRIMEA belongs to the Tatars.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      I love your “Minks” agreement (probably unintended comedy!) …. and the rest of the pretty pertinent points and the indignation of tone! But … please tell me if two wrongs make for a right … Madiba (and his mate Arch) at least understood this dilemma … and transcended it. The current bunch of hypocrites in ‘government’ just have no clue unfortunately. And … pray tell why are there “innocent” Ukrainians … surely in terms of your logic (and Putin’s) … everyone is ‘guilty’ ? Even the students from here … who had to hurriedly flee Ukraine when he invaded, under the pretext of a ‘special military operation’ . I am sure those students must be thrilled with your observations .

  • Elsabe Ketteringham says:

    Is anybody organising a picket line at the docks? I would be interested to join…

  • Brian Cotter says:

    Obviously, Putin asked Cyril could he stop by. No problem. When Dalai Lama was coming to see Desmond, China said no and we obey China. We all complained with Dalai Lama so why not now. Pariah state?

  • Brian Cotter says:

    I would assume concerned citizens will have an armada of small vessels welcoming our oligarch in a suitable protest. International exposure will do the rest.

  • David Stevenson Stevenson says:

    If S. Africa supports the one China policy, then it should support the elected government.
    The only election has been in Taiwan. Therefore the administration in Taipei,is representative of the Chinese people.

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