South Africa, an Ally of Russia in Africa and Within the Global South

Since the massacre committed by Hamas on October 7, 2023, triggered a war in the Gaza Strip, the Republic of South Africa has led the international legal offensive against the state of Israel. Its leaders position themselves as the voice of the “Global South”. However, this stance cannot overshadow the importance of the political, diplomatic, and military ties with Russia. The weakening of the ANC’s (African National Congress) power in the latest legislative elections should not undermine the essence of this “special relationship”.

Moscow places great importance on Africa, a continent where Kremlin strategists develop and implement indirect, so-called “oblique”, strategies against the West. The presence of Russian forces in Libya and the push along the Sudan-Central Africa-Sahel axis have already made geopolitical headlines1. Despite initially underestimating this diplomatic and military breakthrough, analyses often focused on the minor Russian military presence and the evaluation of trade between Russia and Africa. However, the Russians have managed to achieve significant influence with minimal resources, to the point of ousting the French from the Sahel, a major diplomatic-strategic event.

An Overview of South Africa-Russia Relations

From a French perspective, the issues of Southern Africa may seem less pressing, but the Republic of South Africa remains significant to the Kremlin. The recent history and support provided by the USSR to the ANC during the apartheid era partially explain this. Many ANC leaders, now in power, were trained in the USSR. During the wars in Namibia and Mozambique, the USSR was politically, ideologically, and militarily engaged against the South African government.

At that time, Southern Africa was one of the “hot fronts” of the Cold War. The sudden collapse of the Portuguese empire in Africa in 1975 and the subsequent Soviet-Cuban intervention in Angola and Mozambique to support Marxist-Leninist guerrillas in their quest for power are well remembered. The United States, then hindered by the Vietnam War’s aftermath, Watergate, and a deep moral and political crisis2, had limited external action. The election of Ronald Reagan in November 1980 helped the U.S. overcome the “Vietnam syndrome”.

In Southern Africa, the fight against communism relied heavily on Pretoria, opposing the USSR, the Soviet bloc, and their local allies (Marxist-Leninist governments and guerrillas). Diplomatic relations between Pretoria and Moscow were severed in 1956 and only restored in 1992, as both countries entered a new era (the disintegration of the USSR and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa). Two years later, after multiracial elections in 1994, the ANC’s rise to power deeply renewed relations between post-Soviet Russia and post-apartheid South Africa.

In this new context, and even more so today, the Kremlin sees South Africa as the main power in sub-Saharan Africa, ahead of Nigeria, serving as a base for its continental strategy and its ambitions within the “Global South” and the world. Indeed, South Africa is a vast country (1.2 million square km; 60 million people), relatively developed and rich in various minerals. Besides the diamond sector, dominated by the Moscow-Pretoria duopoly, South Africa is by far the world’s largest producer of platinum (90% of production), ahead of Russia3.

Geopolitically, South Africa is influential on the continent. Within the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), it is indispensable. Globally, South Africa is a G20 member and participates in the IBSA forum (India, Brazil, South Africa). The recent past (the fight against apartheid) and Nelson Mandela’s memory give its diplomacy a certain prominence in the “Global South.” Moscow does not hesitate to recall the support it once provided, albeit within the logic of class warfare against “bourgeois states,” aiming to shift the “correlation of forces”.

The Pseudo-Emerging South Africa

Cleverly, the Russian power transformed the risky geoeconomic concept of BRIC countries (the heterogeneous grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, and China) into an effective diplomatic forum. In 2009, South Africa was invited to a BRIC summit in Yekaterinburg (Russia). Since then, the BRICS (“S” is for South Africa) have positioned themselves as rivals to the West and the Bretton Woods institutions (IMF and World Bank). Despite close trade and financial ties with the United States and Europe, the South African “ANC power” has not wavered and supports the positions of the Sino-Russian axis.

Bilateral relations between Moscow and Pretoria are overseen by several joint institutions — the Russia-South Africa Business Council, the Joint Intergovernmental Committee for Economic Cooperation, the Joint Commission for Technological and Scientific Cooperation — and South Africa is Russia’s main economic partner in sub-Saharan Africa. Various cooperation areas are highlighted, including infrastructure, energy, mining, aerospace, telecommunications, and agriculture.

It is essential to note that the economic and commercial interests of China and Brazil, and even those of India, which relies on its diaspora (established during the British Empire), remain far superior to those of Russia. In Moscow, South Africa has been seen as the “weak link” of the BRICS, given that it does not carry much weight in any power dimension. It was for ideological reasons and geopolitical balance that South Africa was co-opted and included in the BRICS conglomerate: Pretoria as a vector of anti-Western Pan-Africanism. Moscow’s claim to ideological leadership within the BRICS is noteworthy.

However, the two capitals have signed a significant contract for the construction of Russian nuclear reactors in South Africa, at the expense of French company Areva (now Orano). Moreover, South African diplomacy, despite the country’s trade and financial relations with the West, has not deviated from its Russophile inclination, the invocation of non-alignment, and other linguistic remnants of Third Worldism, which only deceive those who wish to be deceived.

The recent South African legislative elections revealed the country’s dire situation under ANC governments4. Initially, post-apartheid governments benefited from the inertia (in the Cartesian sense) of the South African economy and did not immediately deplete the capital. Some believed that an industrialized, dynamic, and globally open South Africa would be a development pole and organizing center for the continent, in partnership with the West. Even Clint Eastwood, the director of “Invictus” (the cinematic version of the “South African miracle”), succumbed to the lyricism of the “rainbow nation.”

Incompetence and Radicalization of the ANC

Unfortunately, the incompetence of ANC leaders was evident even before Jacob Zuma’s disastrous presidency (2009-2018)5. Simply put, new levels of corruption and looting of the country were reached, which a commission of inquiry report, formed after Jacob Zuma’s resignation, calls the “state capture.” A politico-business clique took control of the state apparatus, and corruption levels remain stratospheric today, even by local standards. The lack of real condemnation of Jacob Zuma, briefly imprisoned for contempt of court, illustrates the situation (riots in reaction to his incarceration resulted in 300 deaths).

Moreover, his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, has not reversed the trend, as it is caused by deep forces. In some respects, the situation (daily power outages, water shortages, vast socio-economic disparities, rampant crime) is worse than during apartheid. However, the South African president and the ANC have distinguished themselves by their leniency toward Russia’s aggression in Ukraine6 (no condemnation at the UN General Assembly), their hostility toward Israel (action at the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court), and their indulgence toward Hamas. Broadly, the Ukraine war is seen as a “white story” of little importance, while Gaza is viewed as the West’s sin and a tragedy for all non-Western humanity.

In short, Pretoria plays a diplomatic game that aligns with Russia and China, denouncing “double standards” and presenting itself as the voice of the “world majority” (the Russian term for “Global South”). Some may mock those who see the “hand of Moscow” everywhere. Simply put, the ANC leaders’ position aligns with their historical ties with “Russia-Sovietica” and reflects their worldview. There is no need to assume these individuals are mere pawns of Vladimir Putin. The situation is “pre-formed”: existing frameworks and historical legacies define the scope of possibilities and influence policy and strategy formulation.

Understandably, G7 countries have not given up on strengthening their diplomatic leverage in the “Global South,” of which South Africa claims to be a leading voice. However, South Africa was not present at the Puglia summit (Bari, Italy) on June 13-14, nor will it be represented at the Ukraine Peace Conference (Nidwald, Switzerland, June 15-16, 2024).

Should the ANC’s decline in the latest legislative elections (May 29, 2024) and the possibility of a coalition government with the Democratic Alliance (DA)7 — a business-friendly structure perceived as the “white party” — have favorable diplomatic consequences, bringing an end to Pretoria’s perverse games? This raises the idea of “enlightened self-interest”, disguised as national wisdom.

Firstly, the ANC still represents two-fifths of the electorate (57.5% in 2019!8), ensuring it maintains a significant role in South African politics, and its diplomacy reflects its history and ideological DNA. Secondly, Jacob Zuma and his new party, the MK (the “Spear of the Nation”), which has adopted the logo of the ANC’s militant wing, and the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), advocating for the confiscation of white farmers’ lands, are waiting in the wings9.

Putin’s arrival in South Africa for the BRICS summit in July 2018 // kremlin.ru

To Conclude

Finally, it should be evident that the pacifying and stabilizing virtues of “utilitarian reason”, supposed to guide a hypothetical coalition government between the ANC and the DA, are questionable. This thesis is merely a substitute for the idea of peace through commerce and the dissolution of hostility in the delights of the global market. In reality, war and various forms of conflict quickly generate their own “business”, with profiteers and operators who have their own ideas of what constitutes their countries’ enlightened self-interest. In the current world, there is certainly room for developing commercial relations between South Africa and the group of revisionist powers, led by Russia, this axis of chaos aiming to undermine the West.

Far from leading to any political, ideological, or diplomatic rebalancing, the ANC’s corruption and mismanagement could further radicalize South Africa in its international discourse and positioning. While Western diplomats should not give up working, they must adopt the tragic lucidity of the late French philosopher and sociologist Julien Freund: “Prepare for the worst to prevent it”. This requires breaking away from a lazy philosophy of history that suggests everything will eventually work out. On the contrary, things can still worsen, in Africa and on the world stage, including on the battlefields of Western democracies. In sum, a form of “reasoned catastrophism” is necessary.

Associate professor of history and geography and researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics (University of Paris VIII). Author of several books, he works within the Thomas More Institute on geopolitical and defense issues in Europe. His research areas cover the Baltic-Black Sea region, post-Soviet Eurasia, and the Mediterranean.

Footnotes

  1. Cf. “Wagner in Mali: the Tree Should not Hide the Forest”, October 8, 2021.
  2. Raymond Aron’s “In Defense of a Decadent Europe”, published in 1977, captures the psycho-historical atmosphere of that era when global strategic balances threatened to shift in favor of the USSR.
  3. However, note the lack of foreign investment in the South African mining sector, due to the state of railway infrastructure, almost constant power outages (335 days of load shedding in 2023, up to 12 hours per day), and more generally because of the deplorable political-judicial climate and corruption. Significantly, Australian mining giant BHP Group would be willing to buy out its major competitor Anglo-American, but only if it was divested of its South African assets
  4. “South Africa: the Waning Star of the Global South”, Le Monde, May 26-27, 2024.
  5. Cf. Mathilde Boussion, “In South Africa, Jacob Zuma’s Revenge”, Le Monde, June 3, 2024.
  6. In the spring of 2023, the United States suspected South Africa of delivering weapons to Russia, with the support of its intelligence services (weapons loaded on the cargo ship Lady-R, in the port of Simon’s Town, Cape Town, between December 6 and 8, 2022). The National Conventional Arms Control Committee rejected the accusations made by the American ambassador on May 11, 2023. Earlier that year, following a visit by Sergey Lavrov (January 2023), the South African navy participated in military exercises with Russia and China. The Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov was adorned with the letter Z, in reference to the “special operation” launched on February 24, 2024.
  7. The ANC garnered 40.2% of the votes and the DA 21.7%.
  8. That is 159 seats out of 400, compared with 230 in 2019.
  9. Jacob Zuma could not run for a parliamentary seat due to a conviction for contempt of court, but the MK, founded after his expulsion from the ANC and his brief imprisonment, is now the third political force in the country with 14.5% of the votes. In his stronghold, the key province of KwaZulu-Natal, the MK even ranks first with 45% of the votes, relegating the ANC to third place. The far-left Black nationalist party EFF garnered 9.5% of the votes.

See also

When Russia “helps” Africa

The African summit in St. Petersburg was not a great success. But Vladimir Putin was able to harangue...

The Strategic and Geopolitical Limits of the Partnership Between Delhi and Moscow

India has gone from neutrality to "multi-alignment". It does not condemn the Russian aggression in Ukraine and rejects...

Most read

Russian Expansionism: Enduring Goals and Recurring Methods

Russia's messianic, expansionist and militarist propensity is inseparable from the autocratic matrix of Russian power.

Toward a Putinization of France? 

This essay deals with both history and current events. The author demonstrates how Putin’s regime and its ideologues...