The 10-day war games in the Indian Ocean includes the participation of Chinese warships. The US embassy in Pretoria has said the naval drills could help Russia boost its war-fighting abilities and be exploited by the Kremlin for propaganda purposes.
However, Pandor tells The Africa Report that the exercise is not a show of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and points out that South Africa holds military drills “with various partners all over the world,” including ones with the US in November.
“South Africa has always maintained an independent foreign policy,” says Pandor. “The fact there’s a war between Russia and Ukraine doesn’t mean Ukraine is the enemy of South Africa, or Russia is the enemy of South Africa.”
Pandor’s country is one of several African states that have abstained from UN General Assembly votes to condemn Russia’s invasion and its annexation of Ukrainian territory.
Pretoria has deep trade links with the US and the EU but balances these with ties to Russia and China through its membership of the BRICS group.
A fine line
However, geopolitical tightropes like these have become increasingly difficult to tread since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, which has prompted a new scramble for influence on the continent. Its countries form a significant voting block at the UN.
The world has become much more complex and certainly powerful countries are trying to flex their particular muscles.
Ukraine has launched a campaign to rally support from African states, donating shipments of grain to Ethiopia and Somalia, while also inviting diplomats from the continent to attend a four-day online training course last week, to provide them “with knowledge of ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine.”
For its part, Russia has dispatched its diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, on several trips to Africa that have included Sudan, Ethiopia, Mali, Ghana, Egypt and South Africa.
The country’s Wagner Group mercenaries are present in several parts of the continent.
“The world has become much more complex and certainly powerful countries are trying to flex their particular muscles,” according to Pandor, who says it’s crucial for South Africa to maintain its diplomatic independence in this polarised environment.
US spin on Russian ties
In April, the US Congress passed a bill dubbed the “Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act” by a huge majority of 419 to 9. The bill says malign activities in Africa are ones “that undermine United States objectives and interests” and aims “to hold accountable the Russian Federation and African governments and their officials who are complicit” in them.
We’re totally shocked that a country that is the lodestar for freedom and democracy and independent thought is the initiator of such a piece of legislation, which implies that if you make a particular political choice, you are due to be punished.
Congress members have characterised the bill as a show of support for Africa. But its sweeping scope has outraged many African diplomats. An official from Southern African Development Community (SADC) says the bill would allow the US government to sanction individual states for having “basically any link to Russia.”
Pandor says she plans to raise the bill during a visit by a congressional team to South Africa this week. “We’re totally shocked that a country that is the lodestar for freedom and democracy and independent thought is the initiator of such a piece of legislation, which implies that if you make a particular political choice, you are due to be punished,” she says.
Her party, the African National Congress (ANC), attended the founding conferences of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War. Pandor says this means “we are very aware of the negative impacts” that come “when postcolonial countries are compelled to choose one power group versus another, because you are almost compelled to become party to conflicts which you have no particular interest or role in. »
Even so, many observers say the timing of the naval drills with Russia is ill-judged.
“We are very much disturbed this is happening exactly at the time that coincides with the anniversary of [Russia’s] aggression,” says Liubov Abravitova, Ukraine’s ambassador to South Africa.
“These are the same criminals that are killing Ukrainians, with the same types of weapons and missiles that are going to be demonstrated in South African territory.”
Amid this geo-political tug of war, African states are increasingly finding their collective diplomatic voice.
Last weekend’s annual heads of state gathering at the African Union (AU) saw increasing calls for African representation at major international organizations including the G20 and the UN Security Council.
Both the US and France have come out in support of permanent African representation at the Security Council. During a trip to Addis Ababa last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said “we should boost the representation and voice of developing countries, especially those of African countries, in the UN Security Council and other international organisations”.
Speaking alongside Qin Gang during that visit, AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat said “Africa refused to be considered an area of exchange of influence” by great powers. “We are open to cooperation and partnership with everybody but our principles, our priorities, must be respected,” Faki said.
A permanent seat at the Security Council would certainly help African states better pursue their priorities on the global stage, but Pandor says such reform will take time.
“It’s very easy to talk about it,” she says. “We’ve been advocating it for several years, but we are calling for text-based negotiations. We’d like to see something on paper [alongside] these nice grand statements.”
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