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South Africa’s slow embrace of Russia should cause alarm for the West

Article by Cameron Scheijde

May 18, 2023

South Africa’s slow embrace of Russia should cause alarm for the West


South Africa’s creeping embrace of Russia leans heavily on the country’s collective perception of history; one that imagines Russia as the saviour that delivered South Africa from Western-sponsored apartheid. Having almost completely abandoned non-alignment and now chairing the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) alliance, Pretoria understands its position is elevated, not undermined, by its proximity to Moscow. The West should be concerned, but claiming moral authority is highly unlikely to win over South Africa’s political classes.


The shadows of history, real or imagined, loom large over South Africa’s Russian dilemma. Old alliances, grudges and obligations seem now to be making themselves felt, and Putin’s potential visit to the BRICS summit in August is presenting President Ramaphosa with an ever growing problem. He must choose whether to continue down the road both he, and the ruling African National Congress (ANC), have determinedly followed in embracing Russian narratives, thereby risking South Africa’s international reputation; or, to firmly pull the handbrake on Moscow’s creeping influence and risk one of its most prominent diplomatic positions in the BRICS alliance. The decision Ramaphosa makes will be pivotal for the future direction of South African foreign policy and other nations across the continent will be keeping a close eye on Pretoria.


The evolution of South Africa’s position to one of relative warmth towards Moscow began with an initial condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine by South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor. In February 2022, Pandor’s department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) expressed its ‘dismay’ at the situation, using a statement – notably since scrubbed from government websites – to urge Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and withdraw.[1] Subsequent statements from DIRCO have emphasised South Africa’s independence and non-alignment, in keeping with its membership of the Non-Alignment Movement, and highlighting what it sees as Western hypocrisy on issues relating to territorial integrity. A solution, said Pandor, ‘will not be found in isolating one party or bringing it to its knees’.[2]


Non-alignment no more?

Over the past year of ongoing violence in Ukraine, South Africa’s evocation of history to justify its proximity to Moscow has however developed pace, drawing accusations of historical blindness, moral failing and hypocrisy.


Internationally, South Africa has drawn international condemnation for allowing joint Russian and Chinese naval exercises and recently hosting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Distancing herself yet more from those words on the first day of the invasion, Foreign Minister Pandor has recently declared Russia an ‘old, historical friend’, of whom ‘we cannot become sudden enemies [with] on the demand of others’.[3]


Perhaps this position is less surprising, when given the previously cosy relationship some ANC members appeared to enjoy with Russian representatives in South Africa. Hours prior to Russia’s invasion, Defence Minister Thandi Modise had been pictured at the Russian Ambassador’s Pretoria residence celebrating ‘Defender of the Fatherland Day’.[4] While attending another such gathering, ANC provincial MP Cameron Dugmore recorded a video referring to the event as a celebration of the ‘relationship that started between the ANC and the former Soviet Union, and how that relationship has continued’, and calling for solutions that create a ‘lasting peace’; all while Russia’s imperial eagle looked down on him from a banner in the background.[5]


Criticism of ANC’s apparent continued rapprochement with Russia over the past year has been fierce within South Africa, with the leader of the opposition and the political party Democratic Alliance (DA), John Steenhuisen, accusing the ANC of having ‘picked the wrong side of history’, but it has been fiercer still in the Western press. David Pilling in the Financial Times said South Africa’s position “smacks not of respect for human rights or non-alignment, but rather for might is right.” Brian Pottinger, a prominent South African journalist, wrote in Unherd that the ANC had embraced an ideology of “nostalgia, self-interest and greed”.[6]


A question of Western moral posturing?

Nostalgia it seems does rule the day, and Western governments should be wary of moral posturing if they hope to get South Africa back on side. Congolese politician Jérémy Lissouba makes the astute argument that demands from the West for countries to unambiguously pick a side risk misunderstanding the complexity of their positions.[7] For South Africa’s ruling class, real or imagined ties between the former Soviet Union and the anti-apartheid movement remain strong, while painful memories of US and UK support for the apartheid regime remain very much in living memory.


This is not a political class inheriting a generational burden, it is one that actively fought for freedom and bears the scars of fascist violence. Further, as ANC leaders often comment, perceived Western moral grandstanding invokes little sympathy. Minister Pandor argued in an event last September that Western inaction in Palestine undermines its support for Ukraine, “you can’t say because Ukraine has been invaded that suddenly sovereignty is very important, because [according to the US] it was never important for Palestine”.[8] As the terms of Western assistance for Africa have always been so unequal, argues Lissouba, Western affirmations of the UN Charter and Universal Declaration for Human Rights have often been viewed with suspicion as ‘pretences to maintain hegemony in the face of existential threats’.[9]


A spotlight on South Africa in the BRICS

Renewed attention will be directed at South Africa if Putin attends August’s BRICS conference. As a full member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) it has the legal obligation to carry out Putin’s arrest. Having wavered before, by failing to arrest Sudanese President al-Bashir in 2015, South Africa would truly damage its international standing by shirking its obligations again – and Ramaphosa’s response has been far from confident. Mirroring Pandor’s flip-flop at the start of the invasion, the President initially stated that the ANC wanted to withdraw from the ICC, followed by a statement hours later that South Africa will remain a member and the comment was made ‘in error’.[10] In recent weeks it has become clear that Ramaphosa wishes to avoid confrontation – deciding to shift to hosting the summit online, despite Putin’s previous acceptance of an in-person invite.[11]


While eyebrows continue to be raised, both within and outside of South Africa, about the country’s continued relationship with the Kremlin, its role as a BRICS member has elevated South Africa’s diplomatic position. South Africa’s membership is a major diplomatic win; and, despite being a far smaller country, both in economy and population, than any other member, its economic ties are strengthening. Between 2017 and 2021, trade with other BRICS members went from R407bn ($22bn) to R702bn ($38bn), and in 2018 65% of all arrivals into South Africa were tourists from other BRICS countries. [12]


What next?

Western countries should be wary of a continued drift that may see South Africa and other regional powers put further distance between themselves and the West. Tackling this, however, cannot rely on claims of moral duty or international obligations based on the will of Western superpowers.


Taking a harder approach may go some way – threatening South Africa’s position in the US’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) has brought opposition and government MPs to Washington. However, ‘big stick’ approaches, such as this and the US’s ‘Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa’ bill, will only stoke allegations of American imperialism and hypocrisy. While the US signalled their intention to engage with the recent US-Africa Summit, lumping an entire continent together furthered suspicion that African leaders are not receiving due respect or understanding. Meanwhile, the UK’s international development fund is spending twice as much within its own borders as it is across the entire continents of Africa and Asia, and further isolation would damage the UK and EU’s chance to follow AGOA’s example and cement meaningful engagement with African countries.[13]


Moreover, the openings left by the US, UK and EU’s insistence on continued uni-polarity has allowed Russia to pursue its commitments in Africa and strengthen its economic ties, which are approached without interference in domestic affairs or tying aid to good governance.[14] To counteract this, the West does not have to abandon its commitment to democracy but must rather engage equally and respectfully. Many across the entire continent have not forgotten being bussed to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, called ‘shithole countries’ by a sitting US president, or witnessing hypocrisy between words and actions on democracy and human rights. In short, something more has to be brought to the table.


Russia’s authoritarianism is a stark contrast to South Africa’s non-racial, rights-based constitution and democracy, so historical support aside they are extremely uncomfortable bedfellows. The US, UK and the European Union should highlight this, bringing South Africa back into the fold by fostering a respectful relationship, not as a former colony, nor as a weapon in a new cold war, but as a democratic nation-state.[15] In turn, this may highlight that Russia’s respect goes only as far as its own economic and strategic interests, creating an opportunity to slow its insidious influence.


Cameron Scheijde is a political communications professional who grew up in Johannesburg, with specialist knowledge of African political affairs. He holds Master’s degrees in African Studies and Political Theory from the University of Oxford, and has formerly worked as an Africa expert for the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation and as a Researcher for Justice Albie Sachs at the South African Constitutional Court. He can be followed on Twitter @camscheijde.


Disclaimer: The view expressed in this piece are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.


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[1] Peter Fabricius, Pretoria scrambles to repair relations with Russia after calling for invasion forces to leave Ukraine, Daily Maverick, February 2022

[2] Naledi Pandor, Minister Naledi Pandor on Russia / Ukraine Conflict, South African Government, April 2022

[3] Eyewitness News, 30 March 2023,

[4] Tom Eaton, The flip flopping ANC has a lot to be grateful to Russia for, TimesLive, March 2022

[5] Eusebius McKaiser, Twitter, February 2022

[6] John Steenhuisen, Address by DA leader, Polity,, David Pilling, South Africa’s Russia stance shows it has lost the moral high ground, Financial Times, February 2023

[7] Brian Pottinger, Why South Africa is siding with Russia, Unherd, November 2022

[8] ​​ Jérémy Lissouba, Relations with Africa, Asia are on the brink of collapse – to Russia’s benefit, Politico, March 2023,

[9] ​​Ibid

[10] Julian Borger, South Africa’s President and Party Sow Confusion over Leaving ICC, The Guardian, April 2023

[11] Kuben Chetty, Putin has confirmed he will attend BRICS summit in Durban says SA’s BRICS sherpa, IOL, April 2023,; Amanda Khoza, SA’s quiet push for virtual Putin visit to solve ICC arrest warrant dilemma, Sunday Times, 30 April 2023

[12]  Cyril Ramaphosa, ‘BRICS partnership has great value for South Africa’, BRICS Summit 2022, June 2022,

[13]  William Worley, Nearly double UK aid spent on refugees at home than on Asia and Africa, Devex, April 2023

[14] SAIIA, ‘Moscow’s Continent: The Principles of Russia’s Africa Policy Engagement’, Occassional Paper 341, March 2023,

[15] NPR, ‘Russia and the West are vying for influence in Africa and Ukraine is a big reason why’, Associated Press, July 2022,

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