South Africa and its neighbours were at the centre of a tussle for influence this week when top Russian and U.S. officials visited, offering a rare moment of leverage for governments on a continent more used to being buffeted by events than wooed.
With a war in Europe pitting invading Russian forces against Ukraine’s army supplied with Western arms, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen were both on the hunt for broader international support.
For the countries of southern Africa, which maintain strong ideological and historical sympathies for Russia but hold far more significant trade balances with the European Union and United States, that rivalry presents an opportunity.
“They have the opportunity to play one side off against the other to get concessions; to get more aid, more trade,” said Steven Gruzd from the South African Institute of International Affairs. “That’s precisely what we’re seeing at the moment.”
The war in Ukraine has intensified long-standing great power competition for access to Africa’s abundant natural resources and the diplomatic prize of its 54 U.N. votes.
But Africa’s voting patterns at the United Nations show a continent divided over which side to support in Ukraine’s war.
Landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique and with a gross domestic product of less than $5 billion, the tiny kingdom of Eswatini doesn’t often command the attention of world powers. No Russian diplomat is based there.
Nevertheless Lavrov made a stopover after visiting South Africa, which his counterpart Thulisile Dladla described as a “profound honour.” The two sides signed a visa waver agreement.
Eswatini relies on the United States for aid, but its absolute monarchy has suffered U.S. criticism on human rights.
For South Africa, the continent’s economic powerhouse and diplomatic heavyweight, it was an opportunity to thumb its nose at a Western alliance it regards as too bossy and hegemonic.
Receiving Lavrov in Pretoria, his counterpart Naledi Pandor defended joint military drills planned with Russia and China as a “natural course of relations” between “friends”, and suggested South Africa no longer believed that Russia ought to withdraw from Ukraine, unless a peace deal is agreed.
South Africa, alongside Russia and China, is pushing for a “multipolar” world in which geopolitical power is less concentrated around the United States. For that reason, it is an enthusiastic exponent of a proposed political and trade alliance between Brazil, Russia, India, China and itself (BRICS) — for which it is holding a summit later this year.
“A more inclusive multipolar world. This is the vision of the BRICS family and what we all subscribe to,” Anil Sooklal, South Africa’s official in charge of BRICS, told Reuters.
But South Africa’s exports to Russia were $587 million in 2020, while its exports to the United States in the same year were $10.2 billion, data from The Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC) shows.
“South Africa takes BRICS very seriously, but reality is BRICS has (offered it) very little,” said Tom Lodge, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Limerick. “It hasn’t delivered the kind of benefits South Africa was hoping to get.”
Russia-ally China, a major trade partner, has been more interested in basics like wine and wool than the high-tech value -added products South Africa wants to sell, Lodge said, adding, “the United States provides better trading opportunities.”
Yet despite South Africa’s refusal to vote against Russia at the U.N. and its rejection of NATO’s stance on Ukraine, Yellen met South African officials and on Thursday will visit mining sites that stand to lose jobs from the transition to green energy of which the United States is a major funder.
While Angola’s ageing political class still remembers Russia’s support for its 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 marked shift towards the West since President João Lourenço took over in 2017.
“Angola is one of a few African countries to condemn Russia’s actions – apparently under pressure from the EU,” said South African political risk analyst Marisa Lourenco, noting “a strong pivot towards the U.S. 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 ditch Russian military assistance in favour of the U.S. military equipment programme.
That didn’t stop Lavrov making courtesy call to Luanda on Wednesday, where he offered to double university scholarships to 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 massive Angolan mine.
“The Russians do want to say very loudly that they are not isolated, and that they are welcome everywhere,” said Irina Filatova, Emeritus humanities professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
“(That) will not endear (southern Africa) to the U.S. or the British, but it doesn’t mean they will stop trading,” she said. “It’s too important.”