South Africa’s diplomacy falters over Russia’s attack on Ukraine

South Africa has again been caught between Scylla and Charybdis in its equivocation in denouncing Russia’s flagrant aggression and President Vladimir Putin’s military adventurism in Ukraine

It has been reported that President Cyril Ramaphosa took exception to the department of international relations and cooperation’s second statement for Russia to disengage its army from Ukraine after Vladimir Putin’s military incursion on 24 February. The first, which called for dialogue and mediation, was seen as rather tepid coming from a country that was supposed to exercise greater moral authority on the global stage. Apparently Ramaphosa’s unhappiness stems from him not having seen the second statement before it was released and which did not reflect his government’s position; and furthermore, Russia expressed its pique at the tone of the statement.

Through the Brics forum (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) it appears that Ramaphosa has developed a close personal chemistry with Putin while Brics has provided the impetus for enhanced trade and investment between the two countries, albeit asymmetric in South Africa’s favour. 

But there is an element of selective amnesia at play if one considers the Brics Declaration at its virtual Delhi summit on 9 September 2021. The declaration enjoins its members and the international community to ensure that all disputes are peacefully resolved and “disallows use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of any country”. Putin, now aided and abetted by Ramaphosa, has obviously ignored the letter and spirit of the declaration by unleashing the full might of his military machine in Ukraine.

But what is at stake for South Africa in a conflict that has geopolitical ramifications beyond Ukraine? To begin with, this week petrol prices will increase by more than 7% to above R21 a litre, causing South Africa’s poor and vulnerable, who are still reeling from the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, to suffer yet again. 

Consumers could also be affected by the price of bread because over the last five years, South Africa has imported 30% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine and such supplies could be disrupted. 

We should not ignore the plight of 200 South Africans (including students) in Ukraine who are trying to flee to safety in Poland but have to contend with discrimination at the border crossing, even though we are told that the South African embassies in Poland, Hungary, and Romania are trying assist them. 

At the level of trade and investment, South Africa could also be affected since some of its large, listed companies have about R77-billion tied up in Russia, compared to about R23-billion which Russians have in South Africa. Zest-Fruit from Stellenbosch is a major exporter and AB Inbev, a mega-brewery that includes SABMiller, has a 50% joint venture in Russia. Naspers, with a 27% stake worth R7.6-billion, is an important shareholder in Russia’s Mail.ru which has a major presence in its internet market. Barloworld and its heavy equipment business have major operations in Russia where 75% of its Eurasian transactions take place.

South Africa’s banking sector could also be affected should sanctions by the United States, the European Union, the UK and Japan exclude Russia from using the Society of Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (Swift) system. This is a neutral platform based in Belgium which links 11 000 financial institutions in 200 countries by facilitating financial transfers, transactions, and trades safely and securely. If Russia is excluded, South African banks will have no choice but to comply by stopping any transactions with their Russian counterparts.

How the conflict will end and what the final economic and diplomatic costs are for South Africa remain difficult to discern since, as Winston Churchill once said: “There are no certainties in war”. But Putin’s attempt to advance Russia’s geopolitical footprint in his near abroad reflects his quest to restore some of the former imperial glory of the Soviet Union, whose demise for him was a “genuine tragedy” as he called it. 

In 1999, he attacked the breakaway republic of Chechnya and installed a puppet regime in its capital, Grozny. In 2008, he invaded Georgia, a sovereign country, and in the process secured the Russian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In 2014, Ukraine was again in his crosshairs when he formally annexed Crimea while Russian-backed separatists went to war in the Donbas region in south-eastern Ukraine. Putin faces a similar prospect as Napoleon’s misguided adventure in Spain in 1808. There Napoleon became embroiled in protracted and costly guerrilla warfare, leading him to complain that he was being bled dry by the “Spanish ulcer”. Could a “Ukrainian ulcer” be Putin’s ultimate fate?

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Garth le Pere
Dr Garth le Pere is a visiting professor in the political studies department at the University of Pretoria and a senior associate at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection. His areas of interest and publications include international political economy, political philosophy, public policy, multilateral trade and emerging markets, and South Africa’s foreign policy.

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