So, where did this fokol go?

Andrew Donaldson writes on the Wagner Group's non-imperialist plunder of Africa


IT is very frustrating — always the same bloody thing, again and again, day in and day out, and what for? They know they’ll never get the answers they want, and still they persist! 

Thus the exasperation in defence minister Thandi Modise’s snarky response to yet another question from some hack about this ship that docked at Simon’s Town in December.

“I’m tired,” the Mail & Guardian quoted her as saying, “because every time we have to be told about the US. Everybody now sees the spook called South Africa. I can tell you that categorically, we did not send fokol, not even a piece of Chappies [bubblegum] to Russia. We should be left alone.”

As previously noted, we tend to dismiss anything government says these days as being fact-free, especially where the aggressively non-nonaligned position on Moscow’s war in Ukraine is concerned. Basically, they’re incapable of telling the truth and so they lie with every breath they take. It’s a wonder, then, that anyone still listens to them.

However, I have been struck by a nagging suspicion: what if Modise is technically correct and nothing, no arms, ammunition or military material of any sort, was sent to Russia — but instead to various destinations in Africa? ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Perhaps this is the line of inquiry to be followed by journalists at future government press briefings. If not Russia, then where exactly is this fokol going?

Earlier this month, Business Day reported that a military aircraft owned by Aviacon Zitotrans, a company under sanctions for transporting armaments and components on behalf of Russia’s armed forces, had “quietly slipped into the Waterkloof Air Force Base at night on April 24”. 

The newspaper said the Ilyushin IL-76 heavy-lift cargo aircraft left the Chkalovsky Air Base on the outskirts of Moscow on April 24. The base is home to a Russian air force “Special Purpose Aviation Division” and, more notably, units which provide logistics for the Wagner Group, the mercenary outfit that is Vladimir Putin’s de facto private army.

Wagner personnel have been active in several African countries, including Central African Republic, Mali, Chad, Burundi, Libya, Sudan, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Nigeria, Egypt and Mozambique. I gather they go through a lot of ammunition in these places and could do with replenishments from time to time.

It is unsurprising then, that after leaving Chkalovsky, the Aviacon Zitotrans Ilyushin landed in various destinations on the continent before its arrival at Waterkloof at 10pm on April 24 on a flight from Luanda. 

According to an SANDF spokesman, the aircraft was merely delivering “diplomatic mail” to the Russian embassy in Pretoria. Clearance to do so had been granted by the department of international relations and cooperation. Four hours later, it left Waterkloof for Harare, an alleged courier service clouded in a fog of secrecy and the usual obfuscation.

What is clear, though, is that the Wagner Group is fast emerging as the 21st century equivalent of the East India Company. The comparisons are striking. 

Formed in 1600, the EIC was the English joint-stock company that seized control of huge chunks of the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and Hong Kong — and sowed the seeds of Britain’s empire in the East. At its peak the company ran half the world’s trade in such basic commodities as cotton, silk, indigo dye, sugar, spices, salt, tea and opium. 

It had its own armed forces, in the form of three armies with some 260 000 troops — twice the size of the British army at the time — and this enabled it to exercise military power over the subcontinent, which it ruled until 1858, when the Crown assumed direct control of the territory and gave rise to the British Raj. 

Consider, for example, the Wagner Group’s activities in Central African Republic, which is now wholly “captured” by the Russians. The country, one of Africa’s poorest, has been embroiled in a civil war since 2012 with large portions of the the former French colony falling into the hands of rebels opposed to president Faustin-Archange Touadéra.

Due in part to its waning influence in the region, France elected to withdraw its peacekeeping forces from the CAR in October 2016, thus providing an opportunity for increased Russian involvement in the country’s troubled affairs. In 2018, Touadéra signed a bilateral military cooperation agreement with Moscow and received arms and mercenaries to bolster his crumbling armed forces. The Wagner Group have now penetrated every aspect of the state’s functions, be it cultural, military, political or economic.

Writing in The Times, journalist Anthony Loyd has described the mercenaries’ model of counter-insurgency as being so “effective in its takeover of the CAR that the country has become a zombie host barely capable of making its own decisions without consulting Russian mercenary chiefs”. 

Touadéra is advised on security issues by a Russian veteran of the French Foreign Legion’s parachute regiment. Russian advisers are present in leading ministries. A radio station funded by a Wagner affiliate churns out anti-French and pro-Russian propaganda. Local journalists are encouraged to write pro-Russian stories, and are rewarded with the promise of trips to Moscow. Gold, diamond and timber concessions are granted to Wagner-affiliated companies in return for weapons and more mercenaries. Tellingly, the Wagner Group even effectively run mines supposedly controlled by the rebels.

There is, Loyd has noted, a “lingering antipathy” among residents in the CAR towards France and this has contributed to the success of the Russians; the Soviet-era “anti-imperialist stance” is still a powerful factor in many parts of Africa. As one local priest, Monsignor Serguei Voyemawa, now bizarrely a minister with the Russian Orthodox Church, told him:

“The Russians aren’t strangers here. They have been here for a long time. They never colonised Africa as the French did. They came to support the Africans. It was the French who committed mistakes. But now the French speak of the Russians here as if they wanted to steal part of France.”

This is unholy crap. But there are, of course, many South Africans who agree with Voyemawa. Their cheerleader is the charmless Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, who has been identified in a study by the London-based nonprofit Centre for Information Resilience as being at the forefront of Russia’s drive to sway public opinion to its side in South Africa and elsewhere. 

Our spaza shop Lady Haw-Haw is now regarded as a “super-influencer”, a status that thrills Dudu no end. Her posts on Twitter have been reused in other regions in the #IStandWithRussia and #IStandWithPutin campaigns. CIR vice-president Nina Jankowicz explained:

“As patient zero on so much of this content that was then replicated through ‘copypasta’ around the internet, it stands to reason she wasn’t just making it up for fun. This looks both malicious and coordinated … The evidence is compelling. She was a clear driver of the campaign and the origin point for many of the tweets that were replicated around the South African information environment, and eventually even further afield.”

Unfortunately, #StandingWithRussia does come at an awful cost, as some are now discovering to their regret. In the CAR, there have been numerous accounts of mass executions, arbitrary detentions, rape, torture, forced labour, attacks on humanitarian workers and the displacement of citizens by both Wagner mercenaries and government troops. 

Elsewhere, a new UN report has detailed the “hour by hour” account of a five-day anti-jihadist operation in Mali in April last year in which government troops led by Wagner mercenaries massacred more than 500 villagers in the country’s Mopti region. 

It was, according to the Guardian, “the worst single atrocity associated with the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group outside Ukraine”. The newspaper this week quoted Volker Türk, the UN high commissioner for human rights, as saying, “These are extremely disturbing findings. Summary executions, rape and torture during armed conflict amount to war crimes and could, depending on the circumstances, amount to crimes against humanity.”

But, say the hard of thinking, at least the Russians aren’t colonisers.

Back to the future

Back in the days when it was a proper newspaper, the Cape Times reported on the refusal by a hospital in Gardens, Cape Town, to admit a black domestic worker who needed urgent surgery. Responding to charges of racism, the then regional director of medical services said the patient was not turned away because of the colour of her skin but because the three beds reserved for blacks at the hospital were full.

This was in January 1990. Apartheid was in its death throes. Within a few days Nelson Mandela would be released from prison and … well, the rest is history. Or so it should have been. Because we’re back in Absurdistan with the Employment Equity Act that Cyril Ramaphosa signed into law last month.

The act is an awful mess of racial quotas, as DA leader John Steenhuisen has pointed out. He has rightly described it as the Group Areas Act all over again, legislation that effectively states that “people with certain skin colours do not belong in certain areas”. Steenhuisen has accordingly turned to the history of the struggle against apartheid and called for a new defiance campaign. “It is time for us to do it again,” he has said, “this time against the ANC.”

Hundreds of thousands of South Africans stand to lose their jobs, according to Michael Cardo, the shadow employment and labour minister. In Gauteng alone, at least 220 000 white people, 85 000 coloured people, and 50 000 Indians will find themselves out of work. “Should the Racial Quota Act’s guidelines be fully adhered to,” Cardo said, “a total estimated 404 608 white individuals, 116 934 Indians, and 71 518 coloured people could lose their livelihoods within the next five years.”

It’s difficult to understand government’s alleged thinking here. However, the DA have asked the labour minister Thulas Nxesi to explain the methodology behind these idiotic quotas (“… a business operating in Kimberley will be violating the law if they happen to employ more than 15.8% black women …”) but I fear the opposition will be wasting their time. They may as well look under rocks for answers. 

Some 33 years ago, the last white Parliament was told that in 1989 the department of home affairs had processed 1 229 applications by South Africans who wished to change their race. Of these, 106 were successful. To wit: two white people became Cape coloured; 54 Cape coloureds became white; one Malay became white; one Cape coloured became Indian; 42 blacks became Cape coloured; one Cape coloured became black; one black became an “Other Asian”; three Indians became white; and one Cape Coloured became an “Other Asian”.

It’s the stuff of nightmares. But it has given the regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) an idea: let’s just all apply to be black and be done with it. Let home affairs suffocate under a barrage of applications…