South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa baffled many diplomats when, fresh from a phone call with President Vladimir Putin, he said the country had been approached to mediate in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
He said the move was due to South Africa’s “relations with the Russian Federation” and because it was a member of the Brics group of nations alongside Brazil, Russia, India and China. “South Africa has been approached to play a mediation role,” Ramaphosa tweeted last week.
In the absence of details on how such a role would work alongside other mediation efforts such as those by Israel, and whether Ukraine itself had been told, South Africa’s main opposition said the refusal of the continent’s most industrialised economy to condemn the invasion of Ukraine signalled its “tacit support” of the action under a “shameful veneer of neutrality”.
“To the astonishment of the world, the same ANC that once relied on global solidarity in its fight against oppression has now openly sided with the oppressor,” John Steenhuisen, leader of the Democratic Alliance, said in a debate on the war in South Africa’s parliament on Tuesday.
South Africa’s government surprised US and European partners a few days before Ramaphosa spoke to the Russian president when it quietly dropped an early demand for Moscow to withdraw its forces and then joined India and China to abstain from a UN General Assembly vote to condemn the invasion.
It was not alone in Africa in refusing to condemn Russian aggression. A further 16 African countries abstained and eight were absent from the vote, making Africa the continent with the most implicit support for Russia’s position. Eritrea, which is run by an isolated autocratic regime, voted against the UN resolution.
That reflects the growing presence of Russia across the continent through resource companies, weapons sales and the supply of mercenaries to countries including the Central African Republic and Mali, both of which abstained in the vote.
“South Africa has always consistently expressed fidelity to international law, irrespective of the circumstances . . . Russia is an aggressor, and South Africa, however diplomatic they may have wished to be, should be aligned to that true north,” Mzukisi Qobo, head of the Wits School of Governance at Johannesburg’s Witswatersrand university, said. “It goes against the grain of what South Africa believes in.”
Nostalgia for Soviet support for the anti-apartheid struggle, an inward-looking and divided ANC, and limited capacity to conduct foreign policy after years of decay in the post-apartheid state have all played a role in South Africa’s position, analysts said.
South Africa has prided itself on being a voice of compromise in conflict, drawing on its own history of the negotiations to end apartheid. But Ramaphosa’s failure to revitalise foreign policymaking, after years of decline under his predecessor Jacob Zuma, have left South Africa’s diplomacy with reduced influence even in its own region, said Piers Pigou, a consultant for the International Crisis Group in southern Africa. He cited a lack of input in recent crises in Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
South Africa has scant direct economic or military interests at stake in its relationship with Russia that might have necessitated a realpolitik approach. Unlike India or other African states that rely on Russian parts to maintain their armed forces, South Africa uses its own or western suppliers.
In 2020 Russia accounted for about 1 per cent of South Africa’s imports and 0.5 per cent of its exports. That compares with 20 per cent of South African exports that go to the EU, the country’s biggest trade partner, according to Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies, a think-tank.
South Africa’s stagnant economy will struggle under higher oil and fertiliser prices if a prolonged war disrupts Russia’s role as a big producer of both commodities.
Ideology has shaped ANC views of the conflict more than these slender real-world ties. Even though Ukraine was part of the USSR, the party appears to have projected on to Putin’s Russia alone fond memories of Soviet aid in the struggle to end apartheid.
The resurrection of Soviet links to liberation struggles such as the ANC’s anti-apartheid fight is one of the ways in which Putin has built a “usable past” from what he otherwise considers the catastrophe of Soviet collapse, said Hilary Lynd, a historian of links between the USSR and South Africa.
“These elisions and gaps are the result of a very active process of framing a historical narrative in a certain way,” Lynd said. “That has been done deliberately by the Putin government.”
The African countries that abstained in the UN vote earlier this month included those with close ideological or military ties with Russia such as Algeria, Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, wrote Mahama Tawat, a research fellow at the University of Montpellier. Others, including Namibia and South Africa, remembered Soviet support for liberation movements.
For these countries, Lynd said, “it makes it seem very natural to equate Putin’s Russia with the Soviet Union.”
Additional reporting by David Pilling