May 18, 2023
IntelBrief: South Africa No Longer Hedging, Moves Closer to Russia
Earlier this month, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, alleged that the South African government delivered arms and ammunition to Russia, despite sanctions currently in place against Moscow. In December, a sanctioned Russian cargo vessel, the ‘Lady R,’ docked at a naval base in Simon’s Town, South Africa, where weapons were loaded before the ship returned to Russia. The ‘Lady R’ was added to the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions list, along with other Russian-flagged cargo vessels, in May 2022. In a video released by a local South African news channel, Ambassador Brigety noted, “We are confident that weapons were loaded onto that vessel, and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion.” The South Africans responded by issuing a demarche. Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president, claimed that he had not been provided with evidence to back claims consistent with what Ambassador Brigety was alleging.
Unlike other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) countries, including India and Brazil, that have attempted to hedge their bets and avoid being caught in the middle of taking sides between Ukraine and Russia, South Africa has flaunted its relationship with Moscow. In February, South Africa hosted joint military drills with Russia and China, a particularly noteworthy development considering Russia’s bellicosity in Ukraine, where its forces have been accused of committing war crimes. This week, the commander of South Africa's ground forces visit Moscow in a pre-planned bilateral meeting where according to Russian wire services the delegation discussed "issues relating to military cooperation and interaction." Close ties between South Africa and Russia date back to the Cold War and Moscow’s support for the anti-apartheid movement. As South Africa drifts even closer to the Russian orbit, a number of issues plague relations between Pretoria and Washington, including South Africa’s failure to effectively combat a growing Islamic State presence in the country, especially with respect to logistical support and terrorism financing.
By allegedly assisting Russia in its war efforts, South Africa joins an infamous list of rogue nations like Belarus, North Korea, and Iran that have supplied Moscow with weapons and ammunition needed to continue its bloody siege of Ukraine. South Africa’s actions have strained already tense bilateral relations between its government and the United States. At the United Nations General Assembly, South Africa has repeatedly abstained from votes condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Despite the African National Congress’ (ANC) relationship with Moscow dating back to the Soviet era, both the U.S. and the European Union remain more significant trading partners for South Africa, which is scheduled to host a BRICS summit in Johannesburg in August later this year. The summit itself is also a key source of contention with the West, ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes back in March. South Africa remains a signatory to the Rome Statute, a treaty that compels nations to arrest individuals indicted by the court. Putin’s possible visit to the BRICS summit in August has complicated matters further, with the South African government initially stating they would not detain the Russian president and even threatened to leave the ICC. President Ramaphosa’s office has since walked back this threat. During a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this year, South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor commented: “I’m really proud that we enjoy excellent diplomatic relations with your country, which we regard as a valued partner.” South African government officials have at times parroted Kremlin talking points about the war in Ukraine, while at the same time raising issues of Europe’s colonial past and highlighting Washington’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq during the Global War on Terrorism.
Russia’s image in South Africa, as elsewhere throughout the continent, stands in stark juxtaposition to how Moscow is viewed throughout the West and, indeed, much of the world, with some exceptions in the Global South to varying degrees of success. The Kremlin dedicates significant resources to burnishing its image in Africa. It often invests in disinformation campaigns that seek to discredit the United States, European countries like France, and now, Ukraine. If South Africa is perceived as continuing to help Russia evade sanctions, it could have a long-term impact on Pretoria’s relationship with Washington, London, and Brussels, to say nothing of Kyiv. Further, such a perception could complicate South Africa's efforts to move forward a potential peace plan and damage its image as an honest broker; President Ramaphosa announced this week that President Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had agreed to meet a group of Africa leaders to discuss the potential peace plan. The approach seems short-sighted, especially as Russia continues to prove, through its lackluster performance on the battlefield and mounting economic issues, that it should not be considered in the conversation about so-called “great powers.” Formally, South Africa claims to adhere to its non-aligned status, but recent actions and cozying up to Moscow suggest that Pretoria has already chosen sides. It’s a decision South Africa may come to regret, especially if there is consequential fallout with the U.S. and European countries.