Has the ANC govt finally gone too far?

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the implications of the weapons for Russia scandal


Out of a fatal combination of naïveté and arrogance, South Africa’s African National Congress government may have made a massive foreign policy miscalculation. 

This would place the country in the greatest economic and political danger that it has been for decades. At risk are billions of rands in investment flows, many thousands of jobs, and important historical ties with the Western democracies whose democratic and human rights values we purport to share.

Thursday’s claim by the United States ambassador to Pretoria that SA is clandestinely providing armaments to Russia was explosive. The rand tanked on currency markets and while it may recover, its vulnerability signals the grave disquiet of overseas investors. 

As damaging to our national reputation was President Cyril Ramaphosa’s response. Refusing to confirm or deny the veracity of Ambassador Reuben Brigety’s bluntly worded statement, Ramaphosa blandly told Parliament that he would appoint a commission of inquiry, headed by a retired judge, to establish the truth.

This may be characteristic of Ramaphosa, always dithering and stalling, trying to avoid confrontation. After all, what president anywhere else would opt for a protracted judicial investigation instead of just picking up the phone to the Minister of Defence, Thandi Modise? ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

On the other hand, this may be something other than typical Ramaphosa ineffectuality. It may be a ploy — admittedly, not a particularly plausible one — to distance himself from actions that the inquiry, in the fullness of time, will rule to have been unauthorised, illegal and possibly treasonous. The president will then express appropriate shock and horror and do nothing. 

The US, Ramaphosa said, has not provided evidence to back Brigety’s statement that the US was “confident” that weapons were loaded onto a Russian ship last December and that he would bet his life “on the accuracy of that assertion”.

While The Economist cites unnamed diplomatic sources as backing the American version and expressing distrust of Modise, SA’s Defence Web says an arms shipment was “highly unlikely” since “there is little [weaponry] they need from us or can use”. 

If Brigety’s claims are correct, this is going to be extremely damaging to South Africa’s reputation and welfare. 

The ANC has always been enamoured of Russia, dating back to the support it received from the Soviet bloc during the exile years. The nostalgia of the ANC and its tripartite allies, the SA Communist Party and the Congress of SA Trade Unions, extends also to an almost mystical veneration of the antiquated tenets of Marxist-Leninism.

While Western nations despise SA’s pro-Russian tendencies, they until now have grudgingly accepted that it’s perfectly within SA’s rights as a sovereign state to pursue such a path. But sending arms to Russia, supporting its war against Ukraine, would put a very different complexion on things. Credibility is the issue. 

The government’s avowed policy is one of non-alignment in general and, specifically, its oft-repeated desire to act as even-handed, independent peacemakers in the Russia-Ukraine war. SA cannot afford now to be shown to be acting duplicitously — leveraging its neutral stance to extract economic benefits from trading with both blocs, while covertly providing military supplies to the Russian aggressor.

It will also have been caught out as a bald-faced liar. As recently as January, SA officially stated that it had not approved any arms sales to Russia since that country’s invasion in February 2022.  

And Communications Minister Mondli Gungubele, who chaired the National Conventional Arms Control Committee at the time, on Friday told Radio 702 that if arms went to Russia this “wasn’t sanctioned or approved” and that it was “illegal and inappropriate”. 

Whatever the ANC government’s denials, because of the extremely warm ties with Russia and an outspoken hostility to the West, suspicions will be hard to dispel. This may very well be the sum total of US ambitions: a metaphorical shot across SA’s bows.

It’s no secret that the West was unhappy about the SA navy joining the Russian and Chinese fleets in naval exercises timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine. And at the United Nations, SA has refused to support the imposition of sanctions against Russia while crafting General Assembly motions that seek to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine that steadfastly avoid any mention of Russia’s role in the crisis. 

This balancing act was further complicated by the International Criminal Court issuing an arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin over alleged war crimes against children. Putin, a generous contributor to the coffers of the ANC and especially those of the Zuma faction, is scheduled to attend an August BRICS summit that will be hosted and chaired by SA. 

Again, as is the wont of Ramaphosa, the government dithered, ducked and dived. First, Ramaphosa said last month that SA would resign from the ICC. Then it withdrew the statement, claiming “communication errors” between the party.

These are presumably similar to the “communication errors” that last February caused International Relations and Co-operation Minister Naledi Pandor to spontaneously and unequivocally condemn Russia’s aggression, only to do a complete about turn 24 hours later, under the instructions of the ANC national executive.

And the tack taken by Pandor since has become steadily more hardline. When she recently welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on an official visit, she said it would be “simplistic and infantile” to ask Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, “given the massive transfer of arms” the country has received from the West.

This a deeply divided ANC and government. Ramaphosa has to somehow reconcile the huge and passionate support for Russia that exists within its ranks — and a similarly large degree of bitter antipathy towards what many ANC supporters view as the imperialist, colonialist, war-mongering West — with realpolitik. And the reality is that SA simply can’t afford to fall out with the US and its partner in lockstep, the European Union, a realisation that has not yet dawned in the ANC’s policy making forums.

AGOA, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which is coming up for renewal, benefits South Africa to the tune of about R400 billion a year.  PEPFAR, the US HIV/Aids relief programme has given SA healthcare institutions around R130 billion over the past two decades. SA’s trade with Russia is just over R20 billion a year.

Whatever the truth of the US accusation, the change of tack is a clear warning. The days of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds are drawing to a close. 

The era of ANC impunity, of seeking aid and investment from the Western democracies while simultaneously abusing them and actively seeking to thwart them, is becoming intolerable to those nations. 

The message being sent, which SA shouldn’t ignore, is simple. Sovereign nations can do whatever they wish but then have to bear the consequences of their actions. 

Cosying up to Russia may prove to be both costly and unpleasant. 

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye