South Africa


Friendship or fiendship? South Africa’s weird love for Russia poses serious questions

Friendship or fiendship? South Africa’s weird love for Russia poses serious questions
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) is welcomed by South Afrian Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor for bilateral talks in Pretoria on 23 January 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

Either the Russians have some kompromat on SA decision-makers; they’re paying them off; or SA decision-makers are incompetent and lacking any awareness of the objective of international relations and diplomacy. Or it could be a combination of the above. Even a pretence of neutrality — or non-alignment — has been firmly abandoned now in Russia’s favour by South Africa’s diplomatic mandarins led by Naledi Pandor, whose embarrassing public pledge of fealty to Lavrov must mark the low point for human rights in post-apartheid South Africa.

Fiendship. Noun. A relationship between two evil entities. Or between an evil entity and an utterly incompetent and morally bereft one.

The dogs have barked and Sergey Lavrov’s caravan has moved on to Russia’s next lapdog, but the question remains: Amidst all the fawning, flip-flopping statements, why exactly does the ANC government support Moscow in its invasion of Ukraine?

Leaving aside legal norms and niceties and questions of morality, as Tim Cohen has written on these pages, the US outscores Russia as a partner in every objective, commercial measure, from investment to trade. 

After the Bell: SA’s decision to back Russia over Ukraine is objectively bonkers

It outscores Moscow in other aspects too, not least that the West is by far preferred as an emigration destination. South Africans, it turns out, do not share the ANC’s enthusiasm for autocrats like Russia and China. Having experienced the whip under apartheid, they value freedom, democracy and the quality of life in an open society. 

Were it not for the Constitution, the ANC would long since have adopted the Russian model. 

It has tried to hamstring the media with security legislation and “media tribunals” and has attempted to delegitimise opposition while capturing the state. All of these efforts have failed, thanks to the entrenchment of democracy and openness in the Constitution as the ANC’s support base has dwindled.

You would think that the ANC would by now realise that it faces an existential crisis as a result of its failings. Most recent polls show it dropping to around 40% in the 2024 election. Most ANC voters — almost three-quarters of them — believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should be condemned.

But even a pretence of neutrality — or non-alignment — has been firmly abandoned now in Russia’s favour by South Africa’s diplomatic mandarins led by Naledi Pandor, whose embarrassing public pledge of fealty to Lavrov must mark the low point for human rights in post-apartheid South Africa.

Lavrov’s visit comes after the Simon’s Town naval base was the scene of late-night cargo movements on and off the Lady R, a Russian ammunition ship (now docked in Port Sudan, another fine holiday destination) and the announcement of joint Russian-Chinese-SA naval exercises off Durban next month.

Russian vessel slips out of Simon’s Town with still no official explanation

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Fake news playbook

Being hosted by Pretoria provides Russia with an opportunity to build its fake news playbook (“see, even democracies love us!”) and suits the Russians perfectly. Their new strategy across Africa appears to be to subjugate African nations using their Wagner mercenaries while extracting minerals worth billions for oligarchs. This is State Capture on a scale that even the ANC cannot compete with and must lust after.

Wagner Group leads Russia’s African front in cold war with the West

Intelligence and media operations, platoons of bots and bags of diplomatic bluster are the weapons of choice as Russia tries to roll back the tide of democratisation in Africa.

The Africans who have been taken in by this new-found pal (a minority, sadly for the Russians, if UN voting is used as a measure) seem to forget that Lavrov’s love has not come about because the Russians suddenly have a change in attitude about Africa, but because Moscow’s relationship with the West has changed as a result of its military misadventure in Ukraine. 

And South Africa’s failure to see this (or, to be kinder, to believe that a Ukrainian victory would pose a threat to its own options with the West), has all manner of implications, not least about the state of South Africa’s own security, both economic and military. 

Take the upcoming naval exercise. What, pray, could the SA Navy learn from the Russians? Just as one would not expect the Boks to learn anything from playing Pakistan at rugby, the abject performance of the Russian military, their murderous philosophy, their appalling kit and their history of disasters, cockups and accidents are hardly the kind of thing SA would want to emulate. 

So there must be another reason. Either the Russians have some kompromat on SA decision-makers; they’re paying them off; or SA decision-makers are incompetent and lacking any awareness of the objective of international relations and diplomacy. Or it could be a combination of the above. 

As for the SA position that Russia is no longer obliged to withdraw from Ukraine, it is short-sighted in the extreme. Rules around sovereignty exist for a reason. There would be some unhappiness in the ANC, for instance, if the West failed to condemn an invasion of SA. As the German post-war chancellor Konrad Adenauer reminds: “An infallible method of conciliating a tiger is to allow oneself to be devoured by him.”

During Lavrov’s visit to SA, he was asked whether the high number of Ukrainian civilian casualties was the result of Russian military incompetence or a deliberate targeting of soft targets. Lavrov’s reply was predictably fake, referring to Ukraine’s use of civilian shields. How Pretoria can hold out its hand of friendship to a country that trades in callousness and doesn’t care about the law, democracy, and individual rights is as stunning as it is concerning. 

Or should that be “fiendship”? Either way, the warmth of these relations will attach a premium of risk to everything South African, from investing in power stations to buying bonds. 

News has just broken that Westinghouse Electric Company has lost its licence from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to export fuel-assembly components to Eskom’s Koeberg plant near Cape Town, MyBroadband reported.

“Eskom is exploring the implications of the withdrawal of the US NRC approval for Westinghouse, and what is needed to enable them to continue supplying fuel,” the utility was quoted as saying.

Here’s an educated guess: Perhaps one of the things that is needed is not to break sanctions and help a global rogue power which is threatening nuclear war.

“When all else fails, there’s always delusion,” reminds Conan O’Brien. He was joking of course, as that’s his job, but Pretoria and Pandor appear to have taken this seriously. 

The joke’s on them, but the cost is South Africa’s. DM

Greg Mills and Ray Hartley work for The Brenthurst Foundation.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Diana Penny says:

    Naledi Pandor – you owe us as the majority of South Africans who support Ukraine an explanation and an apology for not representing the majority – shame on you for meeting with Lavrov – you are no better than the rest of your imbeciles in government.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Disgusting, subservient and cowardly in the extreme, and bereft of any human, moral and ethical decency. The grossly vile, evil, brutal and murderous Putin’s Russia owns the ANC and there is a sinister and nefarious agenda here at play, as so aptly set out by these two experts. This miserable, obnoxious, corrupt, predatory and criminal government, dripping with hypocrisy and false promise, has sold its soul and betrayed SA to the most wicked and diabolical regime a la Stalin/Hitler mould! To hell with them and that monstrous scumbag that is Putin, Lavrov, Medvedev, Peskov and the deranged morons in the Kremlin. Good and justice will triumph over evil – it always does.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    This corrupt relationship between South Africa and Russia is nothing more than back scratching and paybacks for the “commissions” already paid by Russia for an energy deal that has never happened. Russia aims to reclaim this “commission” with the Kapowership deal through Turkey. All Russia has to do now is persuade the Minister of Energy to accept the Turkish deal and offer a sweetener at the same time. Paranoid? Maybe but nothing would surprise me anymore!

    • Errol Price says:

      Almost certainly correct. Whatever the exact mechanism may be, money is the most likely motivation.
      The ANC learned early on that in a country with more or less no regulatory checks and balances, deals could be done with foreigners which would provide rich pickings for both suppliers and ANC politicians. It matters not whether the stuff bought is useful or useless.
      Thus was the arms deal born. And so on…. and so on…..

  • Richard Bryant says:

    My late father, who died in 1995, but lived through the transition of SA to a constitutional democracy, remarked that SA’s new constitution would prove to be the rock which would prevent SA from falling into a typical African quasi military style brutal autocracy. How right he was!

    If it were not for our Constitution, the ANC would have long ago banned the media and arrested anyone in political opposition. They would have assembled private military gangs through state security just as Zuma did when he was President and dissidents would simply disappear without trace. The government would have become totally corrupt and unaccountable. Which pretty much describes the state under putin.

    I worry about what will happen when the ANC lose power at the ballot box. They won’t go quietly or easily. They have the propensity to totally destruct things in order to stay in control. Just like putin is doing in Ukraine. Their latest tactic of using untrained Russian civilians to storm Ukrainian positions and die like flies just demonstrates how little he cares for human life.

    The truth is they are so alike. The ANC and putin. Scary to contemplate.

    • Nic SA says:

      They are not alike at all really. The ANC is corrupt, lazy and incompetent but it is not evil in the way Putin is. It does not have grand visions of empire or subjugating neighbouring states. For better or worse, the leadership of SA lacks this kind of vision and is corrupt in an extremely banal and senseless way.

      If SA really had a Putin like government the ANC leadership would be talking about annexing Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe but it is more about personal wealth accumulation and sticking up the middle finger to the West like an angry teenager rejecting his parents just for the sake of it.

    • harmonyplace says:

      Really interesting stuff. Where can I get further information about untrained Russian civilians storming Ukrainian positions and dying like flies?

  • Tim Price says:

    More embarrassment for us as citizens when we are asked by foreign visitors what our government is up to cosying up to the murderous Putin. Makes me feel sick every time I read about our record at the UN or hosting despotic leaders or their minions.

  • harmonyplace says:

    The language and choice of words says a lot, “mandarins, incompetent, morally bereft, pledge of fealty, lust after, kompromat…” Fact is, new economic and political relationships are slowly taking form and the dominating and threatening power of the West is eroding away. This seems to be shaking up the ‘we know what is best for you crowd.’ Governments are making decisions based on facts and in the interest of their people unlike others who make educated guesses on issues like the Westinghouse Electric Company licence based on scraps of information garnered from the internet for their own ends. Ukraine was one of the most corrupt countries in Europe until the war started and then everyone was told to forget that, and they did. Facts were labelled as Anti-Ukraine propaganda. Now their own president is saying that corruption is rampant. Telling us that Europe and America are popular emigration destinations is not going to change political and economic relationships. We will welcome the participants in the Navy exercises to our shores and hope they will be more focused and professional then this article.

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