© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov talk ahead of a bilateral meeting, in Pretoria, South Africa, January 23, 2023. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/File Photo
By Tim Cocks and Carien Du Plessis
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa and its neighbors were at the center of a struggle for influence this week when top Russian and U.S. officials visited, offering a rare moment of leverage for governments on a continent more accustomed to being swayed by events than courtship.
With the war in Europe pitting Russian forces against a Western-armed Ukrainian army, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen were looking for broader international support.
For southern African countries, which maintain strong ideological and historical sympathies with Russia but have far more significant trade balances with the European Union and the United States, this rivalry represents an opportunity.
“They have the opportunity to play each other off to get concessions; to get more aid, more trade,” said Steven Gruzd of the South African Institute of International Affairs. “That’s exactly what we’re seeing at the moment.”
The war in Ukraine has intensified a long-standing competition between the great powers for access to Africa’s rich natural resources and the diplomatic prize of its 54 UN votes.
But African voting patterns at the United Nations show the continent is divided over which side to support in the Ukraine war.
Located between South Africa and Mozambique and with a gross domestic product of less than $5 billion, the tiny kingdom of Eswatini doesn’t often attract the attention of world powers. No Russian diplomat is stationed there.
However, Lavrov stopped after a visit to South Africa, which his counterpart Thulisile Dladla described as a “deep honour”. The two sides signed an agreement on the abolition of visas.
Eswatini relies on aid from the United States, but its absolute monarchy has suffered criticism from the US on human rights issues.
For South Africa, the continent’s economic powerhouse and diplomatic heavyweight, it was an opportunity to thumb its nose at a Western alliance it sees as too bossy and hegemonic.
Receiving Lavrov in Pretoria, his counterpart Naledi Pandor defended joint military exercises planned with Russia and China as a “natural course of relations” between “friends” and suggested South Africa no longer believed Russia should withdraw from Ukraine unless it reach a peace agreement is agreed.
South Africa, along with Russia and China, is pushing for a “multipolar” world in which geopolitical power is less concentrated around the United States. For this reason, she is an enthusiastic supporter of the proposed political and trade alliance between Brazil, Russia, India, China and herself (BRICS) — for which she is holding a summit later this year.
“A more inclusive multipolar world. This is the vision of the BRICS family and what we all agree on,” Anil Sooklal, the South African official in charge of BRICS, told Reuters.
But South African exports to Russia were $587 million in 2020, while exports to the United States were $10.2 billion in the same year, according to data from The Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC).
“South Africa takes BRICS very seriously, but the reality is that BRICS (has offered) very little,” said Tom Lodge, professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Limerick. “It has not brought the benefits that South Africa had hoped for.”
Russia’s ally China, a major trading partner, was more interested in basics like wine and wool than the high-tech, value-added products South Africa wanted to sell, Lodge said, adding that “the United States provides better trade opportunities.”
Still, despite South Africa’s refusal to vote against Russia at the UN and its rejection of NATO’s position on Ukraine, Yellen met with South African officials and on Thursday will visit mining sites that could lose jobs due to the transition to green energy. The United States is the main financier.
While Angola’s aging political class still remembers Russia’s support for the then-Marxist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in its 27-year civil war against Washington-backed rebels, there has been a significant shift towards the West since President João Lourenço took over in 2017 .
“Angola is one of the few African countries that condemns Russia’s actions – apparently under pressure from the EU,” said South African political risk analyst Marisa Lourenco, noting “a strong turn toward the US and away from Russia.”
Angola is also seeking to deepen ties with Germany, France and its former colonial ruler Portugal, she said. Lourenço even suggested in an interview with Voice of America in December that he would like to forgo Russian military aid in favor of the US military equipment program.
That did not stop Lavrov from paying a visit to Luanda on Wednesday, where he offered to double university scholarships for Angolan students to 300 next year in an exercise of Russian soft power. Russia’s Alrosa, the world’s largest diamond producer, has a 41% stake in a large mine in Angola.
“Russians want to say very loudly that they are not isolated and that they are welcome everywhere,” said Irina Filatova, emeritus professor of humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
“(It) won’t appeal to (South Africa) the US or the British, but that doesn’t mean they will stop trading,” she said. – It’s too important.