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Why the Global South should care about Great Power competition

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By Ryan Hand
09 Mar 2022 0

Ryan Hand is a political scholar and researcher based in Cape Town. He has written extensively on Russian foreign policy, the role of the media in conflict and the resilience of authoritarian regimes. He is the winner of Rhodes University’s 2021 John Daniel Award for excellence in political and international studies and is in the process of completing his master’s degree through Rhodes University.

In recent times, Russia and China have shown that they aim to upend the global order and rival the US for superpower supremacy. Africa is a prime territory in this campaign. The use of a private military company to secure a foothold in useful territories, and oligarch-funding of social media manipulation in foreign elections, shows some of the tactics Russia is willing to use. There is much at stake. South Africa must urgently consider the outcomes it wants from its alliances, and how these affect its approach to world affairs.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has sent shockwaves through the international community. Many have been quick to draw historical parallels to the Cold War or even the expansion of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and while these comparisons are probably unfounded, the fact that two of Europe’s largest and most powerful nations have gone to war is profoundly significant for the future of the international order.

Half a world away in South Africa, however, it seems easy to discount the relevance of these events. Why should any of us — least of all our policy makers — care about the affairs of far-flung nations when the problems in our own country seem almost insurmountable?

The last year has seen South Africa face myriad challenges. Civil unrest, political paralysis, rampant unemployment and inequality, an inconsistent power supply — these are just some of the issues South Africa must solve in order to prosper. Consequently, there seems to be a growing sentiment that South Africa should direct its focus internally and worry about its own issues, rather than involve itself in international politics. 

One can see this opinion beginning to manifest in the increasingly xenophobic rhetoric of certain political figures, and in a growing mistrust of foreign nationals. 

The perspective is a simple one — internal problems should take precedence and an interest in the affairs of other states should be left alone until our own issues have been solved. Indeed, our government would seem to agree with this position, given their abstention from the United Nations vote to condemn the Russian invasion.

But South Africa is not isolated from events such as the invasion. Of course, there are the obvious likely economic effects — higher fuel prices, shocks to international trade — but there are also important implications for national sovereignty.

For 20 years, the United States has claimed virtually unchallenged supremacy over the world’s power structures. But that era is rapidly coming to an end. As it does, China has begun to flex its considerable economic and political might in an effort to establish itself as a true rival to America, and Russia seems set on ensuring its place as a successor to the Soviet Union. 

With these powerful states vying with each other for influence, Africa is becoming a diplomatic and economic battleground in a set of circumstances increasingly reminiscent of the Cold War. In Russia’s case, this has taken the form of a strategy particularly reminiscent of the 20th century: the use of armed private military groups.

In the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis in 2013, in which the Russian-backed regime of Viktor Yanukovych was deposed by popular protests in Kyiv, Russia began to plan what would eventually become the government’s own deniable private military company (PMC). Inspired by PMCs such as South Africa’s Executive Outcomes, Russian officials began to recruit former special forces and private military members into what would become known as the Wagner Group — a PMC that could carry out delicate or politically sensitive missions for the Russian government in combat zones throughout the world.

While private military contracting is technically illegal in Russia, several groups used a lack of governmental oversight to operate from the 1990s until government crackdowns in the early 2010s. Wagner was formed from the remnants of several of these now-defunct groups by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a multibillionaire oligarch and close personal friend of Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin is also believed to be the main financier of the Internet Research Agency, a St Petersburg group that has been linked to election manipulation through discourse-shaping efforts on social media.

The actions taken by the Russian government through proxies such as the Wagner Group demonstrate that powerful nations have already begun to employ extreme measures to assert their place in the coming world order. 

However, recent years have seen an increased presence of Wagner Group operatives on the African continent, with the shadowy group involved in operations in Mali, the Central African Republic and Madagascar, to name a few. In most of these instances, Wagner and their handlers have secured concessions for Russia from their host nation in return for their services.

In Mozambique in 2019, for example, Wagner operatives were involved in attempts to arrest the ongoing insurgency in Cabo Delgado province. This came days after the Mozambican cabinet decision to allow Russian warships to use its ports — a decision which was itself facilitated by Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi’s re-election on 15 October 2019. 

According to research by Stanford University’s Internet Observatory, the election had been influenced in Nyusi’s favour by social media posts linked to the Internet Research Agency. It is thus no leap of the imagination to conclude that the Mozambican government accepted Russian political help with the election and military help with the insurgency, in exchange for Russia gaining a naval foothold on Africa’s southeastern coast.

This pattern — a quid pro quo arrangement in which Russia provides underhanded political or military support to a regime in return for natural resources or military rights — has played itself out multiple times in the Middle East and Africa. In Syria, Wagner forces have assisted those of Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Putin’s and the man who leases a naval base in Tartus to Russia.

In Madagascar, Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency is thought to have assisted in the electoral efforts of Erie Rajaonarimampianina in exchange for a stake in the country’s previously state-owned chromium production company. And in Sudan, Wagner worked to quell unrest in the country both before and after the ousting of Omar al-Bashir in 2019. In exchange, Russia again received permission to use the country’s ports as fuelling and logistics stations for its warships.         

The actions taken by the Russian government through proxies such as the Wagner Group demonstrate that powerful nations have already begun to employ extreme measures to assert their place in the coming world order. 

While the Russian approach is particularly aggressive, other powerful states such as the United States and China also have their own ways and means of building influence on the African continent — albeit somewhat more subtly. 

If African countries are to avoid becoming subject to the goals of powerful states at the expense of their own sovereignty and ability to self-determine, an active and conscious approach will be necessary

The world has entered a new and multipolar era, one in which states will be forced to find their own niche in the coming global order. In spite of the internal problems that the continent faces, African leaders cannot risk being left behind as the new order forms, as the alternative would be for African states to once again find themselves caught in a cold war between global superpowers.

South Africa, in particular, should consider its allies carefully — the BRICS alliance ties us closely with both China and Russia, and while allying with Western states may not necessarily be preferable, South Africa should carefully consider the consequences of friendship with these states, especially given their track record on democratic governance.

With factions of the ANC offering words of support to Putin even as government condemns the invasion, it is now urgent for South Africa to consider its alliances and its approach to world affairs. 

While focusing solely on domestic issues may be tempting, insularity should be understood as a distraction from our leaders’ most important task — to ensure that Africa does not flounder in the international environment of an unstable and changing world. DM

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