South Africa defies Western leaders as it hosts Russia-China naval drills

By Ray Mwareya

Posted on Tuesday, 21 February 2023 13:34
Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov is docked en route to scheduled naval exercises with the South African and Chinese navies in Durban, South Africa, February 17, 2023. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

This week, South Africa is defying fierce rebukes from Western governments as it hosts Russia’s and China’s navies for joint military drills off its Indian Ocean shoreline.

As the world marks the first anniversary of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, a Russian frigate armed with hypersonic missiles will be coordinating with Chinese and South African vessels, projecting power in the Indian Ocean.

Foreign and local critics are mocking the stark imbalance between the host navy and its overbearing guests – two of the most powerful fleets in the world.

“Most, if not all, the SA Navy [SAN] vessels are unserviceable,” Kobus Marais, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party shadow defence and military veteran minister, told Defence Web, an Africa-based online news service. “South Africa hardly has sufficient resources to comply with basic SA naval requirements and obligations to protect the nation’s integrity and secure the safety of our people.”

However, some military analysts see a strategic logic behind these drills, beyond a pointed defiance of Western authority. According to them, they are a rehearsal for projecting maritime force from the rim of the Indian Ocean around the Cape and into the South Atlantic.

“We should not be welcoming sanctioned Russian ships to our naval base, helping them test and perfect their missile technology,” Geordin-Hill Lewis, the DA mayor of Cape Town, said in an email to The Africa Report when he saw the Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov sail  into his city’s harbour on Valentine’s Day.

Admiral Gorshkov, one of the newest hyper-sonic missile launcher frigates in Moscow’s armoury, later sailed eastwards to Richards Bay on the Indian Ocean to position itself for the  ‘Exercise MOSI II’ war games from 17-27 February with China and South Africa’s navy.

Mismatched drills

Given the mismatch in vessel capacity and weaponry, South Africa’s naval ships are little more than a cosmetic accessory in these war games, Stephen Chan, a professor of World Politics at the University of London, tells The Africa Report.

He describes the ship that South Africa would deploy as a ‘coastal craft.’ Its navy is expected to provide the new inshore patrol vessel SAS King Sekhukhune I and the hydrographic survey vessel SAS Protea.

For Russia, says Chan, the drills are “a form of floating political gesture that the war in Ukraine is a Russian project with South African endorsement”.

That counts for a lot in the week following the Munich Security Conference when senior US and European officials tried to persuade the rest of the world of the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and to convince them that Moscow’s militarism had driven up food and energy prices, triggering international suffering in its wake.

Russia got the symbolism it wanted. In this sense, neutrality has been compromised

That it would allow itself to be a bit-player in this diplomatic play “….could be pure naivety on the part of South Africa”, suggests Chan.

In line with the conference decisions of the ruling African National Congress, South Africa’s government adopted a so-called ‘neutral’ position towards Russia’s war in Ukraine. It went on to abstain in the UN General Assembly votes to censure the Kremlin.

“Russia got the symbolism it wanted. In this sense, neutrality has been compromised,” says Chan.

South Africa’s bravado could prove costly – by defying the US, EU and domestic critics and hosting the Russian navy as the Kremlin marks the first year anniversary of its war in Ukraine, fumes Lewis, the mayor of Cape Town.

“[South Africa’s stance] flies in the face [of our] commercial interests, but also places us very much on the wrong side of history,” says Lewis.

Last year, the Cape Town municipal government embraced Liubov Abravitova, Ukraine’s ambassador to South Africa, while shutting out Russia’s envoy from briefings and civic engagements.

We can’t beg Washington

Enthusiastic supporters of Moscow in South Africa are thrilled that these multinational war games are going ahead in face of Washington’s demonstrations. South Africa marks its Armed Forces Day on 21 and about 350 South African personnel will take part in MOSI II.

“Military drills are not new. South Africa has had military drills with the US before [and] despite the US waging questionable wars,” says Vuyo Zungula, a South African lawmaker and president of the opposition African Transformation Party (ATM). “We cannot wait for Western approval.”

Zungula’s ATM party is linked to former South Africa president Jacob Zuma, a key Kremlin backer. “We are alive to what’s going on in Eastern Europe, but military drills will [sharpen] our army to confront terrorism and [other] threats.”

The Africa Report asked South Africa’s ruling ANC party and the foreign ministry to explain their enthusiastic  hosting of Russia and China’s navy for drills. Our questions went unanswered, but on Thursday, Mondli Gungubele, minister in South Africa’s presidency, celebrated the start of the navy drills.

“It’s quite an interesting scene [if three] countries come together to do that exercise,” Gungubele told local reporters that he wanted to drive to the ocean and watch the exercises.

Scramble for ‘Indian Ocean rim’

Frans Cronje is a geo-security expert and director of Frans Cronje Private Clients, a US-South Africa consultancy that has briefed embassies in South Africa, wealthy individuals and foreign banks about the strategic threats and opportunities in Southern Africa.

He questions arguments that these naval exercises are a waste of time and money for South Africa.

South Africa’s location, logistics, and communications capacity are important assets to the Russian and Chinese militaries

“[The] purpose of this [naval] exercise, [is] to show how Russia and China can use South Africa as a logistics and communications hub to project military power into the Indian and Atlantic Oceans,” Cronje tells The Africa Report. He shares a confidential multi-page draft of a strategic briefing he outlined to executives of The Namibian Stock Exchange in November.

Two of the most important pieces of global geostrategic real estate are the Indian Ocean rim and the South Atlantic, says Cronje.

China is advancing into both via its string of ‘pearls strategy’ and its bases at Djibouti and has similar plans for Bata and the Falklands – as well as probably Simons Town, South Africa, and Walvis Bay, Namibia.

If you can exercise naval influence along the western flank of the Indian Ocean rim (up Africa’s east coast) as well as at the northern (Bata), southwestern (Falklands), and south-eastern (Simons Town to Walvis Bay) entry points to the South Atlantic, you can influence much of global bulk shipping, he says.

“South Africa’s location, logistics, and communications capacity are important assets to the Russian and Chinese militaries as those assets allow them to operate far from home – [that’s] South Africa’s key contribution,” he says.

In December, a mysterious Russian ship dropped unknown goods at South Africa’s key Atlantic Ocean Simon Town harbour. South Africa’s military has been tight-lipped about the ship’s mission.

Toothless Washington?

US officials are outraged that South Africa is hosting Russia’s navy at this sensitive time, but it looks unlikely that Washington would impose any sanctions.

“There will be no punishment,” says Chan, who has worked as a diplomat in Southern Africa since the 1980s.

“It isn’t worth it for the US to respond in a hostile fashion, but private messages will have reached Pretoria from Washington DC. In the language of diplomacy, they may have been ‘robust’”.


Cronje says the ruling ANC in South Africa understands the importance of US trade and investment and may not get such generous terms from Russia and China. However, it has taken a bet that US and European governments will try to keep South Africa on side and see sanctions against as counter-productive in the new geopolitics.

“The ANC believes that Western diplomats are too afraid of driving it deeper into the Chinese and Russian embrace,” says Cronje.

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