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Understanding the Knot of South Africa's Stance on Russia/Ukraine War

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Marking the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, attention was centred on the geopolitical tensions between Ukraine and its allies, NATO countries and the US, in relation to Russia and the ongoing war since its first day - writes Ali Hisham.

Kiev has welcomed Western leaders to meet President Zelenskyy and attend the virtual conference with the Group of Seven (G7) country leaders and EU allies to reaffirm their substantial support for Ukraine, which is manifested in pledges of filling shortages in amination and other support.[1] However, another critical yet often overlooked aspect is the waves of disinformation and geopolitical soft power dynamics, which appear to significantly help to position Pro-Kremlin narratives.

One of the most underrated powers is Africa, or -to avoid the pitfall of Afro-pessimism- the influence of 54 African countries, which are often inadequately addressed as a homogeneous entity. Contrarily, Afrocentric perspectives appreciate the uniqueness of each African country, acknowledging that they are not the same. This is clearly evidenced in the context of the Russo/Ukrainian conflict, where the votes against condemning Russia at the UN varied among African countries. Moving away from any monolithic views of Africa, South Africa holds a critical and influential position in this context, perhaps the most, due to its BRICS membership with Russia, the country’s historical context in terms of Apartheid, and its recent unique move to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) presenting a genocide case against Israel.

South Africa has maintained longstanding strong historical ties with Russia, becoming the first African country to establish official diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation on 28 February 1992, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The relationship between South Africa’s current leadership and Russia was strengthened during the Apartheid era when the Soviet Union provided military training, financial aid and diplomatic backing to South African liberation movements like the current ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). Africa represents a welcoming strategic area for establishing dominance, promoting anti-Western sentiments, and securing internationally backed protection to enhance its global standing in the post-Cold War geopolitical landscape.

Despite Africa's reliance on both Russia and Ukraine for food security as main import sources of wheat, Russia's contribution is more than double that of Ukraine, according to statistics. Furthermore, on November 17, 2023, Russia's agriculture minister announced Moscow's first shipment of wheat, fulfilling President Putin's promise to African countries' leaders during the summit held in July 2023. The move was intended to alleviate the impact of wheat shortages in Africa following Moscow's withdrawal from the agreement that allowed Ukraine to ship grains from Black Sea ports.[2]

When the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine commenced in February 2022, South Africa's official stance was one of "neutrality." Despite this neutrality, the war has paradoxically underscored Russian superiority and popularity in Africa, particularly in comparison with Ukraine, which has become apparent in many aspects over time.

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While Johannesburg was poised to host the BRICS summit in August 2023, South Africa was expected to arrest President Vladimir Putin in accordance with the International Criminal Court's (ICC) warrant of arrest issued back in March of the same year. However, there were valid doubts that the country’s law enforcement authorities would comply, particularly given their previous refusal to arrest former President Omar El-Bashir in 2015. Bashir faced similar accusations from the ICC of committing genocide in Darfur between 2003 and 2008, with two arrest warrants issued in 2009 and 2010[3]. At the time, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa substantiated these uncertainties by petitioning the ICC to invoke Article 97, which allows countries to seek exemption from warrant compliance if this could precipitate significant issues, including the risk of war[4]. In doing so, Pretoria implied that arresting Putin would be tantamount to a 'declaration of war' against Russia, as Ramaphosa said[5].

However, by July, it became evident that there were additional reasons for this stance, as Ramaphosa travelled to St. Petersburg to meet with Putin at the second Russia-Africa summit, where they appeared to be very close. Ramaphosa’s address to Putin was notably warm, expressing gratitude for his 'continuous support.' The strength of their ties became further apparent when Ramaphosa ended his speech by publicly thanking Putin for the 'welcoming dinner and the cultural shows that showcased St. Petersburg’s culture'.

On the other side, the High Court in Pretoria ordered the South African government to comply with the ICC decision and arrest Putin as soon as he arrived [6]. Opposition voices in South Africa internally pressured the government to arrest Putin.

One notable aspect of the South African public's perspective on the Russia/Ukraine war is evident through their engagement on social media platforms. Many comments on this conflict suggest that South Africans view the war as outside their sphere of concern, arguing that Africa, and South Africa in particular, has its own crises to deal with.

 A significant portion of these comments also express suspicion towards Western attempts to sway their government into supporting either Russia or Ukraine. These views are notably reflected in the comments that received the most likes and were frequently repeated.

But still, South Africa maintains its influential presence and intervention in the international arena, continuing its historical legacy of significant global engagement. This influence is underscored by its decisive stance on the war in Palestine, exemplified by its initiation of a Genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The majority of South Africans fervently support their government's action, viewing it as an extension of their enduring struggle against colonialism and a manifestation of the principles from the anti-Apartheid era.

The Palestinian quest for justice has long been paralleled with South Africa’s anti-colonial and anti-Apartheid struggles, a comparison that is rooted in history, and before any of the current wars. This perspective is not solely held by activists and advocates; it is also recognised by the United Nations. In 2020, the UN published a press release addressing the Israeli annexation of parts of the Palestinian West Bank[7]. The statement by UN declared that Israel is breaching international law. The UN clearly and explicitly considered Palestine as 'the 21st-century apartheid'[8].

Aside from the strong historical ties with the Soviet Union, South Africa primarily views both Ukraine and Russia as key sources of grain supplies, which is crucial in the context of food security. However, Russia's presence in Africa is more pronounced than Ukraine's. Even though Moscow invests less than 1 percent of its foreign direct investment resources in the entire continent, it is still more than Ukraine[9].

In the end, it is not surprising that South Africa is maintaining neutrality to avoid losing diplomatic relations with Ukraine, while still maintaining closer ties with Russia. However, the US, through its ambassador to the Republic of South Africa, Reuben Brigety, accused South Africa of supporting Russia more seriously by shipping weapons to the country. The South African government has strongly denied these allegations.

African nations have long endured marginalisation within the international community by most centres of power, often labeled as "third world" countries, particularly after their struggles to reclaim sovereignty post-colonialism. South Africa's journey through Apartheid is a direct legacy of colonial oppression, an ordeal that continues to cast a long shadow into the 21st century. Beyond historical grievances, African nations grapple with poverty, resource scarcity, inadequate education, and a lack of basic necessities like food and justice. The continent's diverse and rich cultural heritage has frequently been overshadowed by a monolithic perspective, neglecting the unique Afrocentric characteristics of each nation.

In today's global landscape, marked by escalating conflicts, war crimes, and the International Criminal Court's issuance of arrest warrants for sitting presidents, the repercussions of prolonged injustice towards Africa are becoming increasingly evident. The continent, bearing the scars of centuries-old injustices, now finds itself a focal point for global powers seeking allegiance in their geopolitical confrontations. Yet, just as South Africa surmounted Apartheid and now champions the Palestinian cause against genocide, there is a lesson in resilience and the pursuit of justice. The criticisms and allegations of double standards faced by the Pretoria government underscore the complex interplay of history, present challenges, and future implications. Understanding this connection is vital, as it reveals a cycle of injustice that benefits no nation. In striving for a world where all countries are treated with equal regard, we might break this cycle and foster a more just global order.

Ali Hisham, an Egyptian media specialist, focuses on dissecting narratives and combating hate speech and disinformation. He's been writing since 2009, with several successful titles to his credit. Hisham's insights have graced academic papers, earning him accolades such as the prestigious Chevening scholarship for his MA in Media, Campaigning, and Social Change at the University of Westminster, London.


[1] ‘Western Leaders in Kyiv, G7 Pledge Support for Ukraine on War Anniversary | Reuters’, accessed 2 March 2024, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/western-leaders-kyiv-g7-pledge-support-ukraine-war-anniversary-2024-02-24/.

[2] ‘Russia Says First Free Grain Shipments to Africa Are on Their Way | Reuters’, accessed 13 March 2024, https://www.reuters.com/markets/commodities/russia-begins-supplying-free-grain-african-countries-agriculture-minister-2023-11-17/.

[3] ‘ICC Rules against South Africa on Shameful Failure to Arrest President Al-Bashir - Amnesty International’, accessed 2 March 2024, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/07/icc-rules-against-south-africa-on-shameful-failure-to-arrest-president-al-bashir/.

[4] ‘South Africa Asks ICC to Exempt It from Putin Arrest to Avoid War with Russia | Reuters’, accessed 2 March 2024, https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSKBN2YY1E6/.

[5] ‘Arresting Vladimir Putin in South Africa Would Be “Declaration of War”, Says Ramaphosa’, BBC News, 18 July 2023, sec. Africa, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-66238766.

[6] ‘South Africa: Human Rights Organizations Intervene in Court Case to Have Russian President, Vladimir Putin, Arrested | International Commission of Jurists’, accessed 2 March 2024, https://www.icj.org/south-africa-human-rights-organizations-intervene-in-court-case-to-have-russian-president-vladimir-putin-arrested/.

[7] ‘Israeli Annexation of Parts of the Palestinian West Bank Would Break International Law – UN Experts Call on the International Community to Ensure Accountability - Press Release - Question of Palestine’, accessed 2 March 2024, https://www.un.org/unispal/document/israeli-annexation-of-parts-of-the-palestinian-west-bank-would-break-international-law-un-experts-call-on-the-international-community-to-ensure-accountability-press-release/.

[8] According to Mbalula, the ANC Would Warmly Welcome Russian President Vladimir Putin to South Africa, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0aP3171Gag.

[9] ‘Russia’s Growing Footprint in Africa | Council on Foreign Relations’, accessed 2 March 2024, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/russias-growing-footprint-africa.

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