Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation, excels at putting people at ease. “You are obviously a very popular person,” she told Sergei Lavrov, her Russian counterpart, pointing out the many journalists who had come to the press conference.
Since nothing was announced at this conference, it is worth focusing on the symbolism behind the Russian foreign minister’s quick visit. It was clearly a propaganda visit meant to demonstrate the renewed and relaxed relationship between Russia and South Africa, almost a year since the war in Ukraine began. “I am very proud that we have excellent diplomatic relations with your country,” said Pandor.
The Russian Federation and South Africa celebrated 30 years of diplomatic relations in 2022. However, their friendship dates back to the 20th century, when the African National Congress (ANC), then just a political movement, was fighting South Africa’s racist and anti-communist apartheid regime.
The USSR was an ally of the ANC and the Southern African liberation movements. Moscow trained their leaders and provided military equipment. This shared history serves as a justification for maintaining their diplomatic relations, against all the odds, even though the war in Ukraine could have damaged their friendship.
On 24 February 2022, Pandor issued a surprisingly harsh statement, calling on Russia to “immediately withdraw its troops from Ukraine”. However, three days later, President Cyril Ramaphosa distanced himself from her remarks. Today, Pandor cannot imagine saying anything like that to Lavrov. “I would be seen as simplistic and childish given the massive movement of arms that has taken place since then and the level of conflict,” said the international relations minister.
The Ukrainian diaspora’s anger
The ANC government is careful not to upset its Russian ally. Pretoria says it is neutral in the Ukrainian conflict, abstains from voting at the UN and refuses to refer to it as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Our most sincere wish is that the conflict between Ukraine and Russia quickly finds a peaceful solution through diplomacy and negotiation,” said Pandor. Lavrov has described this position as “responsible”.
The local Ukrainian community sees it as a betrayal. A small group gathered outside the Department of International Relations before Lavrov’s visit. “The deeper we get into this war, the more we are outraged by the South African government’s position,” said Anastasia Korpeso, secretary of the Ukrainian Association of South Africa. “In fact, their neutrality is not so neutral anymore,” she says.
The Ukrainian diaspora is also likely to be very upset, as Russian soldiers will soon be present off the coast of South Africa. For its second edition, Operation Mosi will see Russian, Chinese and South African ships conducting exercises off the coast of Durban and Richards Bay, from 17 to 27 February. The main objective is to prepare for the fight against terrorism, according to Lavrov. The training coincides with the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “What will they [Russian soldiers] teach them? How to rape women and children, and commit atrocities,” says Korpeso.
Much to the chagrin of South Africans opposed to Putin’s regime, 2023 is expected to see the return of the Russian-South African friendship. Delegations from both countries are due to meet several times this year. The Russian-South African Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) will be held during the first half of the year. South Africa will then be present at the Russia-Africa summit in July in St Petersburg. Finally, Russians will come to South Africa for the Brics summit in August. “I look forward to seeing you in South Africa,” said Pandor.
The US is trying to insert themselves into this busy agenda. After US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit in August 2021, it will now be Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen’s turn to visit South Africa for three days – from 25 to 27 January. She previously visited Senegal and Zambia, while Lavrov is due to travel to Eswatini, Angola and Eritrea. “Foreign Minister Lavrov is trying to solicit countries to try to limit the wave of outrage against Russia,” said David S. Feldmann, the spokesman for the US embassy in Pretoria.
Torn between these two competing superpowers, South Africa is trying to keep both countries happy, which is not an easy task, as this standoff with the US demonstrates. In December, the Lady R, a mysterious Russian ship under US sanctions, docked at the Simon’s Town military base near Cape Town.
The US embassy warned that entities supporting the cargo ship would be subject to sanctions. “The United States is threatening the whole of Africa… as soon as it smells Russia,” said Thandi Modise, South Africa’s defence minister. The US ambassador echoed these remarks without mincing his words. “For the minister to make these kinds of obnoxious comments in the wake of President Joe Biden’s US-Africa summit is an outrage,” Reuben Brigety told News24.
The South African government’s complacent attitude towards Russia is annoying some members of the public. In an editorial, News24 describes the “legitimate sense of shame” that South Africans must have felt when they saw Pandor and Lavrov sitting side by side. President Ramaphosa also met with Lavrov. “The world’s pariah has found a safe haven in South Africa,” said the news website. Elected members of the Democratic Alliance (DA, the main opposition party) also criticised the meeting.
Despite these insults, Russia and South Africa have promised to maintain their relationship through the next few years. “Our two countries can and should do more to increase our cooperation in the economic sphere,” says Pandor. While parts of the world turn up their noses when Russia is mentioned, South Africa actively demonstrates its great friendship with the former USSR. Pandor made sure to tell Lavrov: “I think we have become friends.”
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