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Зураб Гачечиладзе

MGMO Post-Graduate Student

After the start of the operation, virtually all South African media outlets sharply criticized Russia’s actions in the spirit of the Western mainstream, while the Ukrainian ambassador to South Africa was constantly on the screens of the country’s main news channels for several days, having effectively received unlimited access for making statements. Such situation is far from surprising, since South African media are largely controlled by Western corporations and cannot thus express the real sentiments of the local population. Rare rational comments, including references to the remarks produced by the Russian ambassador to South Africa, simply drown in the overall mass of critical statements condemning Moscow’s actions.

Nevertheless, the official position of Pretoria was not so biased and prejudiced. In general, countries of the African continent, especially judging by their votes at the UN General Assembly on two anti-Russian resolutions, turned out to be, if not the most “pro-Russian”, the most neutral in relation to Moscow. In both cases, South Africa abstained from voting, refusing to condemn Russia’s actions. Besides, South Africa has submitted its own draft resolution on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, which contains more moderate language in contrast to the French and Mexican draft. The South African proposal did not assign responsibility for the cessation of hostilities or the complication of the humanitarian situation to any one of the parties, nor did it say anything about Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine.

The former South African President Jacob Zuma also made a comment on the situation in Ukraine. He stressed that the current impasse between Russia and Ukraine should be regarded in the context of the dynamics in the balance of power on a more global scale. According to Jacob Zuma, such countries as Russia and China evoke admiration. Given their strong political and economic independence, they have managed to protect their territories from Western countries. The ex-President’s daughter, Dudu Zuma-Sambudla has launched the hashtag #IStandWithRussia, demonstrating her support for Russia during the special operation. Some Western experts tried to present the media company as one backed by Russia, but they had to admit that “pro-Russian sentiments in the countries of Africa and the East are just finding fertile ground.”

It is unlikely that the current South African government will take a tougher stance against Russia and its special military operation, despite the fact that the country finds itself in a difficult economic situation due to rising prices, although the country’s leadership is under serious pressure from European countries and the United States. Nor should we expect Pretoria to fully share Moscow’s position. Under such circumstances, the ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa will continue to balance all forces within the country, and they will not take sides in the conflict on the international arena, continuing with a prudent and neutral position.

Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine has put to test the traditionally friendly relations between Russia and South Africa. The events in Ukraine have acquired a wide international resonance, with many nations publicly discussing the hostilities. South Africa, as a projected continental leader, BRICS member and the only full-fledged African participant to the Group of 20, could not stand aside, having to formulate an official stance towards the Ukrainian crisis.

South African official position

After the start of the operation, virtually all South African media outlets sharply criticized Russia’s actions in the spirit of the Western mainstream, while the Ukrainian ambassador to South Africa was constantly on the screens of the country’s main news channels for several days, having effectively received unlimited access for making statements. Such situation is far from surprising, since South African media are largely controlled by Western corporations and cannot thus express the real sentiments of the local population. Rare rational comments, including references to the remarks produced by the Russian ambassador to South Africa, simply drown in the overall mass of critical statements condemning Moscow’s actions.

Nevertheless, the official position of Pretoria was not so biased and prejudiced. In general, countries of the African continent, especially judging by their votes at the UN General Assembly on two anti-Russian resolutions [1] , turned out to be, if not the most “pro-Russian”, the most neutral in relation to Moscow. In both cases, South Africa abstained from voting, refusing to condemn Russia’s actions. Besides, South Africa has submitted its own draft resolution on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, which contains more moderate language in contrast to the French and Mexican draft. The South African proposal did not assign responsibility for the cessation of hostilities or the complication of the humanitarian situation to any one of the parties, nor did it say anything about Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine. Having seen the draft, the Ukrainian ambassador to South Africa labelled the country’s position at the UN “puzzling and unacceptable,” saying that it was difficult for her country to interact with the government in Pretoria on this issue.

Notably, at the initiative of the South African side, a telephone conversation took place on March 10 between the presidents of Russia and South Africa. Vladimir Putin, alongside discussing issues of bilateral cooperation, informed his colleague of the reasons and objectives of Russia’s special operation to protect Donbass as well as of the course of negotiations with representatives of the Ukrainian authorities [2].

Seemingly, Putin’s explanations had an effect and found understanding, as South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking to parliament just a week after the telephone call, directly accused NATO of fomenting the crisis, making it clear he would resist calls to condemn Russia’s actions. In his speech, he also noted that the countries could have avoided direct confrontation if NATO had listened to the warnings of its own leaders and officials that an expansion to the east would lead to greater—rather than reduced—instability in the region. However, at the same time, Cyril Ramaphosa added that South Africa could not endorse use of force and violation of international law, calling for an early settlement of the conflict through negotiations and even offering his services as a mediator.

In general, Ramaphosa’s speech strikingly distinguishes him from most world leaders, especially those in the West, and this despite the fact that South Africa enjoys much closer trade and economic ties with Europe and the United States than with Russia [3]. Besides, the President of South Africa became one of the few leaders who publicly made accusations against NATO and did not succumb to the enormous collective pressure of the Western nations. His speech once again demonstrates the independence of South Africa in calibrating the country’s foreign policy and the desire of the state to operate on the basis of its own national interests.

Interestingly, it is not the first time in recent years that South Africa has so unpleasantly surprised the West with its position. For example, in February 2020, South Africa—the only nation of all the members of the UN Security Council—supported Russia and opposed the British draft resolution, which was supposed to approve the results of the Berlin conference on Libya.

Views on crisis of other South African parties

At the same time, not all political forces in South Africa agree with the country’s leadership. The ANC-led South African government essentially wanted to remain equidistant from both Russia and Ukraine, and it refused to explicitly accept the position one of the parties to the conflict. This causes criticism within the country’s main opposition party “Democratic Alliance”. Its representatives, building on their majority in the cabinet of ministers in one of South Africa’s provinces (Western Cape), even adopted a resolution supporting Ukraine and “condemning the Russian invasion.” In addition, speaking in support of the Kiev regime, the government of the Western Cape, led by the Democratic Alliance, illuminated the building of the provincial parliament and the Cape Town City Hall with the colors of the Ukrainian flag. John Steenhuizen, the Federal Leader of the Democratic Alliance, criticized the position adopted by the ANC during parliamentary discussions on the conflict in Ukraine.

The South African media are also on the side of the opposition, sowing the panic in the country, as most publications and news reports note that Russia is the only culprit for the sharp increase in prices for essential goods and gasoline. News outlets continuously accuse Russia of the negative economic situation as it unfolds, obsessively referring to the operation as “a Russian-Ukrainian war” and calling on the government to join sanctions against Moscow. Such a discourse, certainly, does not contribute to a rational assessment of the crisis, while the South African government has to consider the pressure coming from the opposition.

However, if the ANC’s neutral position seems fundamentally wrong and incorrect to some, it seems insufficient to others. The most left-wing parties of the country—the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)—expressed their unconditional support for Russia. The leadership of the SACP made a special statement on the situation in Ukraine, where the SACP noted that NATO systematically violated all security agreements with Russia that were signed after the collapse of the USSR. Solly Mapaila, First Deputy Secretary General, said that condemning Russia would be unfounded, given how the United States and its allies have sponsored and waged with impunity wars in Syria, across the Middle East and in other parts of the world throughout all these years. Julius Malema, the leader of the EFF, also strongly supported Russia in the ongoing conflict, noting the support that Moscow provided during the liberation struggle against the apartheid regime and going on to suggest that “the world needs a new world order and that the world is tired of America’s dictates.”

The former South African President Jacob Zuma [4] also made a comment on the situation in Ukraine. He stressed that the current impasse between Russia and Ukraine should be regarded in the context of the dynamics in the balance of power on a more global scale. According to Jacob Zuma, such countries as Russia and China evoke admiration. Given their strong political and economic independence, they have managed to protect their territories from Western countries. The ex-President’s daughter, Dudu Zuma-Sambudla has launched the hashtag #IStandWithRussia, demonstrating her support for Russia during the special operation. Some Western experts tried to present the media company as one backed by Russia, but they had to admit that “pro-Russian sentiments in the countries of Africa and the East are just finding fertile ground.”

Possible change of policy

When we try to explain why Russia’s position finds support in South Africa, we can highlight a number of reasons. First, it is the historical legacy of the relations between the two countries. For several decades, the Soviet Russia supported quite a number of liberation movements throughout the African continent, including the ANC and the SACP. Since coming to power in 1994, the leadership of the ANC, not forgetting all that military, financial and ideological assistance, has been very careful and balanced in its statements about Russia’s policies and actions, especially when they are widely criticized by Western countries. The night before Russia launched a special operation in Ukraine the South African Defense Minister attended a cocktail party at the Russian embassy, celebrating the Russian Defender of the Fatherland Day. In general, Russia and South Africa have established close ties in the military-political sphere.

Second, given the examples of the invasion of Western countries in Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc., the South African leadership witnessed the double standards the West uses when approaching the crisis in Ukraine. The more destructive wars carried out by European countries and the United States caused entire humanitarian disasters in some states and regions of the Third World, while their masterminds have not been criticized and have not received due attention in the West.

Third, many in the ANC are close to Russia’s anti-Western rhetoric. In this regard, Russia presents a global alternative to the West and is seen as somewhat of a counterweight to U.S. hegemony.

It is therefore unlikely that the current South African government will take a tougher stance against Russia and its special military operation, despite the fact that the country finds itself in a difficult economic situation due to rising prices, although the country’s leadership is under serious pressure from European countries and the United States. Nor should we expect Pretoria to fully share Moscow’s position. Under such circumstances, the ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa will continue to balance all forces within the country, and they will not take sides in the conflict on the international arena, continuing with a prudent and neutral position.

1. ES-11/1 "Aggression against Ukraine" dated March 2, 2022 and ES-11/3 "Suspension of the Russian Federation's membership in the Human Rights Council" dated April 7, 2022. Definitely, the resolutions of the UN General Assembly are not legally binding, but they still have a certain political weight and value.

2. It is interesting that the President of South Africa also had a telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Zelensky, but he did it much later – on April 20.

3. Russia's share in South Africa's foreign trade does not exceed even 1%, when with European countries this figure has been consistently above 20%.

4. The former president is currently under investigation and has been charged with corruption.

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