By: Sanoop Suresh, Research Analyst, GSDN
Pretoria’s backing for Moscow is distinctive in the global order, despite the nation’s meagre trade and cultural connections with the Kremlin. South Africa’s trade with Russia is the lowest among the BRIC nations, comprising only 2.29% of its trade with BRICS nations. Nevertheless, despite their claim of neutrality, South Africa and Russia have a friendly connection that dates back to the USSR, when Moscow decided to aid the anti-apartheid resistance of African people. When no one else was willing to do so, the Soviet Union gave the African National Congress (ANC), which is currently in power in South Africa, significant and essential military and financial assistance. The Russia-Ukraine crisis has highlighted the close relations between South Africa and Russia. With several African countries, South Africa also abstained from voting in the UN General Assembly to denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last October. South Africa’s relations with the US, another significant regional actor, were frequently strained due to Pretoria’s tilt towards Moscow. Both Russia and the United States seek to win over the so-called Global South by isolating their respective counterparts. Given the criticism Russia has gotten from other African countries, the Kremlin is especially keen to maintain good relations with South Africa.
Tensions between Russia and African Countries
The ties between Russia and the African nations became sour after Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine began in February 2022. Due to their reliance on those countries for agricultural supplies like wheat and sunflower oil, the developing countries of Africa were the accidental victims of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Over 70% of the world’s sunflower oil, as well as over a third of its wheat and barley, are exported by Russia and Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine produced food shortages around the world, especially in Africa, which sparked inflation and social unrest there and hampered the already fragile economies of these countries as they attempted to recover their position following the global epidemic. Despite Moscow’s desire to play a more significant role in the region, African countries are beginning to question the credibility of the Kremlin due to its misplaced priorities and broken promises.
Intending to become a significant force in the Global South, Russia used a variety of strategies, including their allies’ becoming adversaries like the Wagner Group, resulting from sanctions and isolation from much of the Western world. The second Russia-Africa summit, which came after the first one in 2019, was held in Johannesburg on July 27-28, 2023, to attract more allies among the African leaders. However, the conference caught attention for its underwhelming attendance, which signals that African leaders are possibly deserting the Kremlin. Despite the Kremlin’s diplomatic push in Africa, only 17 African leaders attended the Russia-Africa summit, which is fewer than half the number that participated in the previous one in 2019.
Africa’s mistrust of the Kremlin is primarily due to Moscow’s broken pledge to raise trade with the continent to US$ 40 billion annually. The Chinese activities in the African continent and the Western sanctions on Russia leave little space for a proactive role for Moscow. Nevertheless, the fallout of the Black Sea grain initiative between Ukraine and Russia regarding its export to the global market, is the pressing issue of the moment in the Russia-Africa relationship.
The UN initiative has two components. Firstly, it ensures that Russian food and fertiliser reach international markets to avert famine and reduce food insecurity worldwide. Secondly, it allows commercial food and fertiliser export, including ammonia, from three crucial Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea: Odesa, Chornomorsk, and Yuzhny/Pivdennyi. The agreement, signed on July 27, 2022 is the most significant negotiation success the international community has achieved since the beginning of the war. Thirty-three million tonnes of grain departed Ukrainian ports in the year leading up to July, despite the stark lack of trust, which led to a drop in high grain prices globally. According to reports, low and middle-income countries profited more from this program. Moscow’s recent and unexpected withdrawal from this deal hampered these states’ expectations of the Kremlin.
Nevertheless, several African governments have reacted strongly to Russia’s withdrawal from the agreement. The head of Kenya’s foreign affairs ministry, Korir Sing’Oei, wrote in a tweet last week “The decision by Russia to exit the Black Sea grain initiative is a stab in the back at global food security prices and disproportionately impacts countries in the Horn of Africa already impacted by drought.”. Despite the anxiety in relations between Russia and Africa, as well as the disapproval of the West, the third-largest economy on the African continent continues to seek to maintain friendly ties with Moscow.
Complex ties between Moscow and Pretoria
The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrest on March 17, 2023, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. As a signatory to the 1998 Rome Statute, South Africa must detain Putin and send him to The Hague. The Rome Statute calls for under Article 59.1, that “A State Party which has received a request for provisional arrest or for arrest and surrender shall immediately take steps to arrest the person in question in accordance with its laws and provisions.”. Since the summit is supposed to happen in August 2023, Pretoria is desperately seeking a way to avoid this commitment since the President of South Africa thinks that arresting the Russian President would be equivalent to a ‘declaration of war.’ This recent controversy surrounding Putin’s rumoured trip to South Africa to attend the BRICS meeting once again exposed the nuanced relationship between South Africa and Russia.
Although South Africa tries to be outspoken about its loyalty to non-alignment and peace efforts, Pretoria demonstrates a tilt toward Moscow by defying Western demands to isolate Russia. Most crucially, its inclination is not at all covert. In February 2023, the South African Navy participated in a 10-day naval drill with Russia and China. This practice occurred after South Africa abstained from a UN vote denouncing the invasion. Additionally, it declined to impose sanctions against Russia despite the Western push. High-level diplomatic missions sent by Pretoria to the Kremlin further fuelled doubts about South Africa’s purported neutrality.
Scholer claims multiple reasons for South Africa’s inclination to favour Moscow. First, the ANC wants to thank Moscow for supporting the anti-apartheid movement with crucial financial and strategic support when no one else was willing to do so. Second, Pretoria doesn’t want to maintain a hostile alliance with a superpower. Nonetheless, the fundamental driver for South Africa’s decision to preserve tight links with Africa is the belief that a multipolar world will give South Africa’s voice greater weight than a unipolar world. However, South Africa’s friendly relations with Russia cause rifts in its relations with the United States.
Unanswered questions on the US-South Africa Relationship
South Africa’s refusal to sever its links with Russia upset the West, especially Washington. Despite efforts on all sides to allay their fears, there has been little success. South Africa is an essential component of Washington’s strategic jigsaw puzzle because it makes up a vital buffer against the rising influence of Russia and China on the continent, which the U.S. cannot afford to lose. However, recent developments do not favour Washington.
In May 2023, Reuben Brigety, the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, accused South Africa of secretly shipping weapons to Russia via a cargo ship linked to a sanctioned Russian corporation. Washington accused Pretoria of arming Russia, which led to significant concerns about the country’s purported neutrality, and called for a redrawing of relations between the U.S. and S.A., which had severe ramifications. Due to South Africa’s allegedly “deepening military relationship” with Russia, several U.S. congressmen have demanded that the US-Africa trade meeting scheduled for later this year in South Africa should be held elsewhere.
Similarly, South Africa also faces the risk of losing the advantages of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which gives exports from eligible nations preferential access to the U.S. market. In the first three months of this year, South Africa’s exports to the U.S. via AGOA totalled around US$ 1 billion, making it the second-biggest beneficiary of the program behind Nigeria. Removing these benefits would be disastrous for the nation.
Pretoria’s relationship with Washington will depend on how South Africa engages with Moscow in the future. As a result, South Africa will have to choose between the United States and Russia. Given its financial dependence on Washington, it is doubtful that South Africa will select Russia over the United States. If the Kremlin does not bridge the gaps between its interests and those of Africa, it risks increasing isolation. Because of these factors, South Africa and the African continent will likely play a prominent role in the great power struggle between Russia and the United States. What will this power game do for the region is the crucial question. Time alone has the answer to that query.