Cape Town, South Africa – In April, a delegation of senior officials of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) undertook what the party said was an invitation from “a long-standing ally”, Russia’s ruling party. It travelled to Moscow to discuss what the ANC said was the “recalibration of the global order”. Among the delegation was Deputy Foreign Minister Alvin Botes.
This month, army chief Lawrence Mbatha was also in Moscow on the invitation of Oleg Salyukov, commander-in-chief of Russia’s ground forces, who described it as a “goodwill visit”. State security minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni is also to visit Russia in a few days, ahead of President Cyril Ramaphosa as part of an African leaders’ peace mission to Russia and Ukraine.
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The flurry of high-profile visits has come even as South Africa insists publicly that it is neutral in the war between Russia and Ukraine despite longstanding ties with Moscow.
And now, ahead of the BRICS summit of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in August, the extent of that neutrality will be put to the test.
In March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for the arrest of Russian President Vladimir Putin for forced deportations of children from Ukraine to Russia.
South Africa, a signatory to the ICC, is mandated to execute the warrant if Putin sets foot in the country. The Russian leader has indicated that he will indeed attend, laying the scene for a dramatic diplomatic dilemma.
Indeed, Pretoria has said it is assessing its legal options, including immunity for visiting officials.
“We will explore various options with regard to how the Rome Statute [ICC’s founding treaty] was domesticated in our country including the option to look at extending customary diplomatic immunity to visiting heads of state in our country,” Lamola told parliament on May 2.
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki has already said it is unlikely that Putin will be arrested, echoing sentiments within the ruling party. In April, Ramaphosa said the country was considering withdrawing from the ICC; hours later, his office denied that, saying the stance arose from a communications error.
In 2015, South Africa failed to arrest then-Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, who was also the subject of an ICC warrant. But this time, things are slightly different because of what might seem to be an inscrutable relationship between Pretoria and Moscow.
An ‘irrational Russian love affair’
For years, the relationship between South Africa and Russia has baffled pundits and governments in the West.
There are no cultural or linguistic ties between the two countries.
Russia is also not a major trading partner for South Africa; the United States, United Kingdom and European Union account for more than a third of South Africa’s imports while Russia accounts for approximately 0.4 percent.
In October, South Africa abstained, like many other African countries, in a United Nations General Assembly vote condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine which began in February 2022; there were 143 votes in favour of the resolution. At the time, the South African ambassador said the country “must stand in seeking peace”.
One explanation being bandied about for South Africa’s seeming reluctance to criticise Russia is that its policymakers are keen to see a more multilateral world in which Africa, as well as Asia, get more control on the global stage, including seats on the UN Security Council.
“We don’t want a hegemonic US but that is to make the world fairer,” said Oscar van Heerden, a Johannesburg-based international relations expert. “We are rational international actors, and we can see what is happening in the global space. It is not romanticism … there is a need for change in the global order.”
Pretoria’s bias towards Moscow or the “irrational Russian love affair” as Kobus Marais, shadow defence minister and member of South Africa’s leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance has described it, are also traceable to the ANC’s roots.
Formed in 1912, the ANC was a liberation movement – Africa’s oldest – fighting against white minority rule in South Africa. At the height of the Cold War, it relied heavily on support from the Soviet Union.
Ebrahim Rasool, South Africa’s former ambassador to the US, told Al Jazeera the movement received “no warmth from the West, and the USSR was the only ally that would give the party time of day”.
The Soviet Union provided the ANC with much-needed and substantial financial and other support when no one else was willing to do so.
According to the Russian historian Irina Filatov, the Soviets supported the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, in the 1960s “with arms, ammunition and equipment and gave military training to its cadres and leadership”.
“No other country rendered such support to the ANC,” she wrote.
Zwelinzima Ndevu, professor of public leadership at Stellenbosch University, agreed.
The Soviet Union “held the ANC during the dark days of apartheid … in terms of financial help and also with training,” he told Al Jazeera. “Now in 2023, the relationship is still there, and this is why the country is standing on the fence on the Ukraine-Russia conflict.”
But the relationship is a complicated one, some say.
In 2014, during the presidency of Jacob Zuma, a deal for a $100bn nuclear power plant with Russia was concluded. Three years later, a local court order blocked the deal.
The opposition and civil society argued that the deal was an attempt to grant Russia influence in Africa. Zuma, an ANC veteran, was a member of the Umkhonto we Sizwe and intelligence chief for the movement before the end of apartheid and had long-standing networks in Moscow.
“We were suspicious of why he [Zuma] wanted the deal signed,” Rasool said. “We knew something was amiss; there was an attempt to get us into the kleptocracy.”
Even today, Russia seems to have forced South Africa’s hand, analysts say.
Van Heerden told Al Jazeera that the April visit to Moscow was to engage and “get the Russians to understand the dilemma the country is in” and perhaps appeal that Russia sends another senior politician in Putin’s stead.
Indeed, after that visit, Obed Bapela, another of Ramaphosa’s ministers said Russia’s ruling party made it clear that “the arrest of Putin in South Africa will be a declaration of war”.
Friction and sanctions
South Africa’s noncommital stance is already causing friction with one of its biggest political and trading partners, the US.
In May, its ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigetty, accused the country of arming Russia, charging that weapons were loaded onto a Russian commercial vessel, the Lady R, docked at a naval base in Simon’s Town, in December.
Since then, the South African authorities have been on a PR offensive to deny this.
There have also been recent navy drills between South Africa, Russia, and China. All of this has sparked an outcry from opposition parties and brought into question South Africa’s neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. “We would like [South Africa to start] practising its non-alignment policy,” Brigetty said in a press conference in May.
“On paper, SA is neutral,” but in reality “and certainly in my view, we are not”, Ndevu the professor told Al Jazeera.
“Their many recent actions show, it is clear, the ANC is firmly aligned with Russia,” said John Steenhuisen, the DA leader, in a recent statement.
The ambiguity, Steenhuisen added, could cause severe economic and social damage to the country, risking thousands of jobs and billions of rands in trade with the West if there were to be foreign sanctions.
In May, days after Brigetty’s comments caused the rand to drop by 2.4 percent to the dollar, the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) warned that the economy could be hurt if the US implemented sanctions in light of the allegations.
The bank warned that any such penalties would make it “impossible to finance any trade or investment flows, or to make or receive any payments from correspondent banks in USD”.
But the resistance from different quarters is yet to change the government’s stance.
“South Africa will continue to support the efforts to end the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and as a country and global player, we believe that such conflict should be ended through peaceful negotiations and engagement, not through South Africa taking sides,” Ntshavheni said during a recent debate in parliament.