Russia vs Ukraine: What is SA up to and why?

Irina Filatova writes on the interests, perspectives and ideology behind our approach

What Defines South Africa’s Policy towards Russia and Ukraine?[1]

William Gumede, a South African political scientist, wrote in connection with the war in Ukraine: “South Africa and other African countries must link their foreign policy to their strategic domestic economic interests, political stability and investment attraction – rather than base it on mere ideology, leadership connections or corrupt interests.” [2] A good suggestion. But “must” is one thing, and the reality a very different one. And then, of course, views on what constitutes “strategic domestic interests” differ.

South Africa’s policy

So, what is South Africa’s policy in this conflict, and what defines it? It would seem that from the beginning of the war the economy loomed large in the minds of the South African public. Apart from expressing indignation about violations of international law by Russia and its abhorrence for the scale of destruction and death, South Africa’s mainstream media has been mostly preoccupied with the war’s economic fallout, first of all for Africa.

It often quotes Moussa Faki Mohamat, chairman of the African Union Commission, who famously called Africa “a collateral victim” of the war. According to a figure mentioned in Parliament, by the end of March the war had already cost South Africa about R77 bn. [3] By now it is probably impossible to quantify the damage to South Africa’s economy from the sky-rocketing fuel, fertilizer and grain prices, the slump in exports to Russia, and the disruptions in logistics and the world financial system.

South Africa’s policy towards the war in Ukraine was always consistent. In 2014, the fateful year when the present conflict started, the UN General Assembly passed two resolutions on Ukraine, one calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops, the other for non–recognition of the incorporation of the Crimea and in defence of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

The first was supported by an overwhelming majority, the second, by a large one. South Africa was among 35 abstentions in the first case, and 58, in the second. Nor did it support Western sanctions against Russia.

The political situation was quite messy then – not easy to understand for anyone who did not follow it closely, which the South African government certainly did not. Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s legitimately elected president, reneged, at Moscow’s demand, on his election promise to lead the country into the European Union. He was overthrown by an uprising in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, in which radical right-wing nationalist elements played a very visible and prominent role as enforcers, assisted, the Russians claim, by the Americans.

In the Russian narrative, this uprising was a Nazi coup, organised by the perfidious “collective West”. But for the majority of Ukrainians this was a revolution to rid the country of the corrupt pro-Russian government and to clear the way for the realisation of a popular pro-European course. There were attempted pro-Russian counter-revolts in the East of the country, accompanied by bloody clashes, which succeeded only in the Crimea and the Donbas, both with covert Russian help.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Russia has always denied its involvement in the Donbas. As for the Crimea, soon after its incorporation into Russia – an act supported by the majority of the local population – Putin proudly confirmed the deployment of Russian troops there to assist the forces of resistance to the establishment of a pro-Kyiv administration.

To outsiders the situation looked more like a civil war than a war with Russia. The character or even the fate of the post-revolutionary government was far from clear. Some of its steps were highly controversial, particularly its denigration of the Russian language, the mother-tongue of the large Russian population of the country. Whether the Crimean referendum was legitimate or not in terms of international law, it was clear that the majority of that region’s population welcomed the Russian intervention with open arms and would have voted for the incorporation even if the Russian army was not involved.

But South Africa’s vote was not based on a misinterpretation of the situation or doubts about its nature. It was based on the ANC’s deeply ingrained trust in Russia’s good will, on its perceived duty to pay a debt of loyalty to Russia for Soviet support during its struggle against apartheid, and on its traditional urge to stand up to the West, particularly since all its newly found ideological allies in BRICS also abstained.

The fact that in the eyes of the South African ruling elite Russia could do no wrong was stressed later that year when Jacob Zuma went to Moscow for treatment of his purported poisoning. Less than two weeks after he was cured Tina Joemat-Pettersson, his energy minister, signed an agreement with Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency, on the construction of nuclear power stations.

This might have saved the country from its present energy crisis – but at the cost of about a trillion rands. No source of financing a project of such magnitude was provided, and no proper feasibility assessments made. Zuma obviously believed that Russia would simply forfeit the payment. “Russia will never come for South Africa”, he explained later.[4]

Both Zuma and the State Security Agency were convinced that the poisoning was organised by the CIA with the purpose of “eliminating” Zuma as a punishment for leading South Africa to BRICS. For the ANC BRICS was never just an economic, but rather a political alliance.

Mandisi Mpahlwa, Zuma’s former economic adviser and trade and industry minister, explained on South Africa’s accession to BRIC: “South Africa saw more in this mechanism than had most commentators... BRIC in a sense already existed... as an association of like-minded countries with a reputation of being independent and committed to reforming global decision–making structures... It has a potential to become a political and moral force for change”.[5]

By 2022 the situation in Ukraine had completely changed. It was still battling with separatists in Donbas who were assisted by the Russians, but this war seemed to have strengthened the country’s spirit and its sense of national identity. It had held two democratic elections and had a stable government. This time Russia did not hide its agenda.

It openly sent a massive army into the territory of its neighbour with the proclaimed goal of toppling its government and destroying its army. It is destroying Ukrainian cities and killing civilians in full view of the international media, and it blames Ukrainians themselves for it. Millions had to leave the country, and more millions have been internally displaced. Ukrainians are now fighting a life and death battle for the survival of their nation and their state.

Yet South Africa’s attitude to this war has not changed. In fact, Ramaphosa’s government did more for Russia than even Zuma. Ramaphosa personally disavowed the original statement of his Department of International Relations, which called for Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. He stressed South Africa’s neutrality and called for the negotiated resolution of the crisis, when Russian troops were closing in on Kyiv.

Already on 11th March he requested a phone conversation with Putin and, having spoken to him, thanked him for “taking my call today, so I could gain an understanding of the situation that was unfolding between Russia and Ukraine.” No similar conversation with Ramaphosa’s Ukrainian counterpart happened until 21 April. Ramaphosa did not initiate that call and expressed no gratitude to Zelensky for taking the call and explaining the situation.

South Africa abstained in the UN’s General Assembly votes on the “aggression against Ukraine” and on Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council. It proposed its own resolution on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, which did not blame this crisis either on Ukraine or Russia – it just happened.

Russia seems to be pleased with this “neutrality”. The Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), an international affairs and diplomatic relations think tank founded by presidential decree and closely associated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, approvingly quoted every one of South Africa’s diplomatic moves.

It particularly noted Ramaphosa’s call to Putin, stressing that it was South Africa’s initiative and that “Putin’s explanations had an effect and found understanding”, as Ramaphosa, “speaking to parliament just a week after the telephone call, directly accused NATO of fomenting the crisis, making it clear he would resist calls to condemn Russia’s actions”.

“In general”, the Council remarked in its publication, “Ramaphosa’s speech strikingly distinguishes him from most world leaders, especially those in the West, and this despite the fact that South Africa enjoys much closer trade and economic ties with Europe and the United States than with Russia. The President of South Africa became one of the few leaders who publicly made accusations against NATO and did not succumb to the enormous collective pressure of the Western nations”.

“His speech”, concluded the article, “once again demonstrates the independence of South Africa in calibrating the country’s foreign policy and the desire of the state to operate on the basis of its own national interests.” This interpretation of South Africa’s national interests is obviously very different from Gumede’s.

What made the RIAC even more appreciative of South Africa’s policy towards the war was the fact that “virtually all South African media outlets sharply criticised Russia’s actions”. The reason for this was, it said, that they “are largely controlled by Western corporations and cannot thus express the real sentiments of the local population”. [6]

The “Real Sentiments of the Local Population”

So, who, in the Council’s view, does express “the real sentiments of the local population”? The article singles out several such political actors. One is the South African Communist Party (SACP), which was the first to back Russia and to put the blame for the war on NATO and the United States.

Its statement issued in the first few days of the war stated that the developments in Ukraine, in the framework of monopoly capitalism are linked to the US, NATO, and EU plans and their intervention in the region”.

Solly Mapaila, who has since been elected the party’s general secretary, opined: “An impression is created that Russia is the aggressor… the aggressor is US imperialism that has aggressively tried to encircle Russia, and Russia has to defend itself”. He also thought that the condemnation of Russia is unjustified because the USA and its allies “sponsor wars in Syria and the Middle East, with impunity”. [7]

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) agree with much of what the SACP says but view the ANC’s “neutrality” as a betrayal of its struggle era ally. “We are here to say to NATO, we are here to say to America: we are not with you, we are with Russia and today we want to say to Russia, thank you for being there when it was not fashionable to be there. And do not doubt our support, Russia. Teach them a lesson, we need a new world order, we are tired of being dictated to by America”.

NATO, in the EFF’s view, is supposedly led by neo-Nazis, Kyiv is committing genocide in the Donbas, and the USA has laboratories in Ukraine where chemical weapons are being produced specifically to attack the Russian population. [8]

The RIAC’s publication also refers to a statement by Jacob Zuma. According to the Zuma Foundation, the former President’s view is that “the current impasse between Russia and Ukraine must be seen within the context of dynamics in the balance of forces on a global scale. This impasse has by default also exposed the hypocrisy of what has become the conventional wisdom, which always favours the Western forces, including their bullying tendencies and their insatiable appetite to dominate others, while clandestinely furthering their own agendas and interests. Countries like Russia and China, thanks to their strong political and economic independence, have managed to defend their territories from these Western bullies and must be applauded.” [9]

The Council even noted that Zuma’s daughter Dudu Zuma-Sambudla has launched the hashtag #IStandWithRussia.

Surprisingly, the RIAC article did not mention yet another group of South African supporters of Russia’s war. MK Veterans are not a party, and their views vary, but their chat group re-posts only messages which praise Russia’s actions and its military power, quote pro­­-Russian military experts, describe Ukrainians as Nazi and racist, blame the war on NATO and the US, and say that the Americans built factories in Ukraine, producing chemical and biological weapons which specifically target the Russians.

Nobody has yet polled the South African population on its attitude to the war. But the RIAC may not be far off the mark about “the real sentiments of the local population” – or certainly of a large segment of it, judging by the views of its leaders and politically conscious circles.

The views quoted above are a fairly representative sample. The SACP may be just a small party and it does not independently contest elections. But its ideological influence on the ANC and on South Africa’s trade unions is obvious. The EFF is the third biggest South African political party.

The MK veterans represent an important role model for the younger generation. And Zuma is not just a private citizen. He and his clan represent a powerful faction in the ruling party, and the ability of this faction to mobilise crowds for whatever it deems a worthy cause was clearly demonstrated a year ago.

In a recent Politicsweb article Phumlani Majozi, South African political analyst, expressed the “real sentiments” of perhaps an even bigger segment of the South African population, when he wrote: “I am not interested in this Ukraine-Russia war continuing. The war must stop for the benefit of humanity. I’m also no longer interested in people who want this war prolonged, simply because they want their side to win… both the West and Russia must compromise to end the war”. Majozi does not put the blame for the war on any party but pegs his hopes for peace on BRICS and proposes negotiations between BRICS and G7 as a solution. [10]

What is common to all these narratives is the complete absence of Ukraine. Whatever the arguments, the discourse is about Russia (or BRICS) and the West (or NATO and the US). Ukraine merits a mention just once, when a narrator indicates which war he or she is talking about.

It looks like a huge segment of the South African population, if not the majority, agrees with Putin in that Ukraine, a country of 40 million people, has no agency. Basically, it should have given its territory to the Russians on demand instead of trying to defend it, or at least compromise itself out of existence as quickly as possible.

What is also obvious from all these narratives is that a large part of South Africa’s population harbours a feeling of deep distrust of, if not hatred for, the West. Of course, many South Africans still remember Soviet assistance for their struggle against apartheid, and they associate the USSR with Russia, not with Ukraine, although many studied there.

They also know that Western governments were not unambiguously on their side in that struggle. But for many, the struggle against apartheid was only part of a larger struggle against colonialism and imperialism, associated with the West.

The very fact that Russia challenges the West makes it a representative of all the good and progressive things: anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, a new and better world. And the very fact that the West supports Ukraine compromises it in the eyes of many in Africa.

The Reasons behind the Sentiments.

The “collective West” headed by the United States is now paying for its long predominance in the unipolar world after the collapse of the USSR and for multiple geopolitical mistakes it made in that time. Julius Malema’s “teach them a lesson, we need a new world order, we are tired of being dictated to by America” sums up the feelings of the majority neatly.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, gave a more elegant but similar answer to the attempts by the West to convince his country to take a tougher stand on Russia’s invasion. “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that its problems are world’s problems”, he said. [11]

Russia presents itself as a fighter against a unipolarity imposed by the West and for a new and fairer multi–polar world. Amazingly, it works, even though Russia’s war with Ukraine has already resulted in a new cold war, not in the imagined congenial multi-polarity.

The explanation of how this wonderful new multi-polar global order is going to work is still pending, but the consensus seems to be that when it finally arrives, the collective West will not be allowed to impose its will on anybody – but Russia will. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, explained during his visit to Africa this July, that: “We will definitely help the Ukrainian people to get rid of the regime, which is absolutely anti-people and anti-historical, if you wish.” [12] In other words, people may be dying defending this regime, but Russia alone will determine whether it is “people’s”, or “anti-people”, “historical”, or “anti-historical”, and whether it has the right to exist, or not.

This was said in Africa where normally people are extremely sensitive about the issues of independence, sovereignty, and nationhood, and where the history of many nations is much shorter than that of Ukraine. It is not difficult to imagine their reaction if a British Foreign Minister said anything remotely like that about one of Britain’s former dependents. Yet, in the case of Russia there has been no outcry – nobody raised the slightest objection.

In the last decade Russia has significantly increased its presence in Africa, positioning itself as a defender of law and order and a selfless fighter against terrorism. Its popularity in the Central African Republic, Mali, Burkina Faso and several other West African countries, where the Wagner group, its private military company, helped to fight off jihadists in exchange for mining contracts, is testimony to the fact that such tactics are often more effective in Africa than calls for democracy.

Russia has also dramatically improved and intensified its diplomatic efforts and propaganda in Africa. The 2019 Russia–Africa summit in Sochi raised its profile and resulted in multiple new contracts, particularly in arms supplies to the continent, in which Russia is the world’s leader. “Russia Today” (RT), Russia’s propaganda TV channel, was extremely popular in many African countries, South Africa among them.

Both MK veterans’ groups and the EFF expressed indignation when the MultiChoice Group, Africa’s biggest pay TV provider, stopped the RT channel as a result of EU sanctions. Now RT is going to open its own new hub in Johannesburg, broadcasting for Africa. Before the war discussions were held about opening such a hub in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital,[13] but Kenya voted against Russia in the General Assembly, and its representative there made one of the most impressive speeches in support of that vote.

At multiple international academic fora Russia presents itself as a participant, if not a leader, of the new, “deep decolonisation” which Africa is now undergoing. The idea is that having gained its political independence, Africa have long remained mentally and ideologically dependent on the Western model. This “deep decolonisation” resets the mentality of the people and allows them to take in the spirit of their own culture. [14] Russia and Africa have both suffered from their dependence on the West and are both victims of Western sanctions. This makes them natural allies against the West.

This narrative is very popular in South Africa – even in Ramaphosa’s cabinet. Lindiwe Sisulu, his tourism minister, has made quite a stir in the mainstream media by her denunciations of South Africa’s constitution and the judiciary. “Today, in the high echelons of our judicial system are these mentally colonised Africans”, she wrote. “We have a neo–liberal constitution with foreign inspiration. But where is the African value system in this constitution and the rule of law? If the law does not work for Africans in Africa, then what is the use of the rule of law?”[15]

South Africa is polarised. One part of its population wants, like Gumede, a foreign policy which stimulates economic growth and development – and this implies closer relations with the country’s trading partners and investors, the majority of whom are in the West.

The other which like Sisulu still fights for decolonisation, wants to delink the country from Western institutions whether at home or abroad and is impatiently waiting for the emergence of an alternative global order, headed by China. Which of these visions of South Africa’s national interest then, should the government follow?

Even the ruling party itself is torn between these two polarities. In economic terms the choice of partners between Russia and Ukraine is easy. South Africa’s trade with Russia is many times larger than with Ukraine. But the scale of its trade relationship with Europe alone far exceeds that with Russia. So, whatever Ramaphosa’s personal views, he has to find a balance for these divergent views and realities, and, for him, “neutrality”, even a bogus one, may be the best option.

But there may be weightier considerations than ideology and the economy, which the ruling party has to factor in while considering its allegiances. According to South Africa’s investigative journalists, in 2020/20221 financial year the United Manganese of Kalahari (UMK), a company established by Viktor Vekselberg, the Russian oligarch, emerged as the single largest donor of the ANC. Its only declared donation for the period from January to March this year was R10 million, also from the UMK. This is more than enough to tip the balance. [16]

There may be consequences, particularly as Vekselberg is under American sanctions. The US Congress has just passed the “Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa” Act as a result of which South Africa could lose its preferential access to US markets under the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA). It remains to be seen whether trade relations with fellow BRICS members will bring South Africa’s economy the same benefits.

Of course, South Africa may also benefit from the new cold war, just as many African countries benefited from the previous one. Russia, for example, is selling oil at a discounted price to India. Sanctions prevent South Africa’s big multinational oil companies from making a similar deal, but it looks like its government is already trying to find a way.

It has announced the creation of a national oil and gas conglomerate which could play a crucial role in exploration and procurement. [17] Such an entity would not need to pay attention to European sanctions. Conceivably it could also give Russia a platform for its gas explorations in the Antarctic, which it actively pursues.

Russia needs allies, and it needs to sell somewhere the goods that it cannot now sell to Europe or America. South Africa could buy cheaper grain, vegetable oil and fertilizers from Russia. It could also still contemplate another nuclear deal with that country. The ANC may also be interested in studying Russian election “technologies”, i.e. how to organise the elections in such a way that the ruling party gets the results it desires. There may be many other new openings for players prepared to flout Western laws and rules which, until now, have defined the global order.

It is highly doubtful, however, that in this situation South Africa will be able to keep whatever is left of the moral high ground which it acquired because of its fight against the immoral apartheid regime and its defence of human rights. But that, of course, will depend on the outcome of the present war.

Irina Filatova


[1] An earlier version of this paper was presented at a roundtable “The Rule of Law, the Constitution and South Africa’s International Diplomacy: What Role Should Constitutional Values; Pragmatism; and Ideology and Old Loyalties Play in Determining Foreign policy?”, organised on 13 July 2022 by FW De Klerk Foundation and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

[2] Daily Maverick, 11 April 2022

[3] Sunday Times, 26 June 2022

[4] The details of this story are succinctly described in: K. Maughan and K.Pearson. Nuclear. Inside South Africa’s Secret Deal. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2022.

[5] South Africa’s Accession to BRICS: its relevance for today’s global agenda. Statement by Ambassador Mandisi Mpahlwa of South Africa. Moscow, 18 May 2011, p. 4.

[6] Russian International Affairs Council. South Africa’s Position on Ukrainian Crisis. 13 May 2022.

[7] The Citizen, 25 February 2022.

[8] SABC News, 21 March 2022; The Africa Report 21 March 2022

[9] Independent online, 6 March 2022

[10] Phumlani Majozi. Reflections on the BRICS summit. Politicsweb, 24 June 2022.

[11] The Hill

[12] See here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdOiLhkr4Yc. The same in Al–Jazeera, 24/07.22: 

[13] Daily Maverick, 24 July 2022. 

[14] E.g. https://www.geopolitika.ru/article/afrikanskaya-glubinnaya-dekolonizaciya-vybor-sudby-za-kontinentom

[15] Mail and Guardian, 8 January 2022.

[16] News24, 10 September:  Daily Maverick, 9 May, 2022:  News24, 31 May, 2022: 

[17] IOL