Two weeks ago, a Russian frigate docked in South Africa’s Simon’s Town naval base near Cape Town. Admiral Nikolai Evmenov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian navy and his crew were not there for a swim with the penguins nearby but to lead a joint naval exercise off Durban and Richard’s Bay. The exercise involves the South African Defense Force (SADF) and the naval forces of the People’s Liberation Army of China. Evmenov’s ship carries the Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, Putin’s pride and joy.
The Mayor of Cape Town, Major Geordin Hill-Lewis, a member of the Democratic Alliance, expressed sentiments common to Western Governments and many observers: “All freedom-loving people around the world should rightly be outraged at the South African government's indefensible position and the moral position in this conflict. So, while the Russian ship is here and has been allowed here by the national state, it is certainly not welcome in the Mother City." Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, at first condemned the Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine but then back-tracked under pressure from her President, Cyril Ramaphosa.
South Africa’s policy towards Russia is not exceptional. Over 40% of African States have been abstaining from UN votes against Russian aggression in Ukraine. But South Africa, as a member of BRICS a loose association of Brazil, Russia, India and China, is the most significant.
Is there any more to say? Yes, even though there is always the risk that explanation will be interpreted as condoning. Why does President Cyril Ramaphosa - head of the Student Christian Movement at school, celebrated leader of the South African National Union of Mineworkers, legally trained, the adroit negotiator who facilitated the deal with President F.W. De Klerk that brought Mandela to power, and a successful businessman - keep this sort of company?
We need to go back to the 1960s and early 1970s to the days of the ANC’s then lackluster struggle against the apartheid regime when the Soviet Bloc were almost the ANC’s only supporters. The South African Communist Party and its leaders were an integral and influential part of the ANC and seem to have had relatively high immunity to infiltration by BOSS (Bureau of State Security). The Soviet Union provided funds. From 1987-1988, Cuba and East Germany fought the apartheid army to a standstill and forced their retreat within Angola. The contrast with the policies of the Western powers could not have been more different.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meeting with the Press during the 1987 Vancouver Commonwealth Conference, refusing to support sanctions advocated by the anti-apartheid movement, described the ANC threat to ‘target’ British companies in South Africa as showing ‘what a typical terrorist organisation it is’. When, in May 1990, her Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, sought £1 million to fund UNHCR repatriation of South African refugees, she categorically refused saying she would never give money to any organisation that practised violence. Forthright and undiplomatic but not out of step with the hostility of British FCO policy towards the ANC.
US governments were no less hostile. Reagan adamantly opposed sanctions for years until Congress forced his hand in 1986. That July the New York Times reported credible suspicions that US satellite intelligence was being shared with the apartheid regime. This may have been behind the large-scale slaughter of Namibian nationalist guerrillas, SWAPO entering South African-occupied Namibia from Angola.
British policy aimed to split off a supposedly ‘nationalist’ section of the ANC from the communists. When that failed, virtuously pushing for Mandela’s release in the late 1980s, Britain stood by whilst members of the European Economic Community (EEC) dabbled with the idea of supporting the - violent - Zulu Nationalist movement Inkatha to divide the black vote in the 1994 elections. All of the southern African liberation movements were viewed by Western governments through the prism of the Cold War. Only the Nordics responded with a supportive position seeing the future danger of the ANC beholden solely to the communist world.
The most notable was Sweden which began funding the external movement of the ANC from 1977, and from 1982 under the leader of the Social Democrats, Olof Palme, increasingly funded what they called the ‘home-front component’, the ANC’s internal movement. It may have cost the Swedish Prime Minister his life. In 1986 at the height of the repression in South Africa, Palme was assassinated by an unknown assailant in the street outside a Stockholm cinema. Funding was managed clandestinely from the Swedish Legation in Pretoria under the resourceful direction on Birgitta Karlstrom Dorph, the Legation’s head, using the Churches and civil society organisations such as the trades unions as intermediaries. Is it too much to imagine that Sweden’s non-alignment in the Cold War and support for the ANC, versus Western governments’ opposition, impressed Ramaphosa?
Shortly after the inauguration of the new government in 1994, South Africa joined the non-aligned movement and, from Mandela through the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki, made peaceful resolution of conflicts a foreign policy goal. South Africa’s government has a sovereign right to adopt neutrality especially when the dominant narrative is that the world faces a re-run of the Cold War - at a much higher temperature. But joint exercises with Russia during Putin’s imperialist war does not look much like neutrality. The ruling ANC would argue that they conduct naval exercises with other countries such as France. But they should not be oblivious to the timing of such exercises nor heedless of the abhorrence in which most UN member States hold Putin’s Russia.
True, neutral States have never consistently managed punctilious even-handed treatment of the two sides in a conflict. Nor is neutrality necessarily for all seasons as Finland and Sweden, now seeking membership of NATO, have shown.
But hundreds didn’t die and thousands suffer in the anti-apartheid struggle to give succour and propaganda opportunities to brutal autocracies. Their sacrifice was to bring about a non-racial democratic South Africa.