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Could the war in Ukraine spoil US-South Africa ties?

The conflict has been tough for bilateral relations, but some experts see opportunities for cooperation amid the tensions.

Reporting | Africa

In the early days of December, 2022, a Russian ship docked at South Africa’s largest naval base. The Lady R had turned off its transponders as it neared the port, where it arrived under the cover of darkness.

Despite the Cold War-esque precautions, word of the ship’s arrival in Simon’s Town quickly got out, provoking a backlash from Western states eager to isolate Russia. South Africa, as it often has in the past year, defended its right to maintain ties with all superpowers as part of its policy of neutrality, and the controversy seemed to blow over as quickly as it had begun.

But then a new allegation emerged: The United States started to say behind closed doors that South Africa had loaded weapons onto the Lady R during its three-day port call. Knowing that such an accusation could prove disastrous, Pretoria dispatched a high-level delegation to Washington in early May.

The goal of the trip was to show that South Africa was taking the allegations seriously and wanted to avoid damaging its ties with the United States, according to Stanley Makgohlo, the counsellor political at South Africa’s embassy in Washington.

“As a supporter of peace [in Ukraine], we cannot leave something like this unattended,” Makgohlo argued, noting that the envoys told U.S. officials that President Cyril Ramaphosa planned to open an investigation into the incident.

But, just as the delegation returned home, the U.S. ambassador to Pretoria called a press conference and took the allegation public.

“We are confident that weapons were loaded onto that vessel, and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion,” said Amb. Reuben Brigety, adding that he would like to see Pretoria start “practicing its non-alignment policy.”

The allegation had an immediate effect on the South African rand, driving the currency’s value down by nearly five percent against the U.S. dollar — a record low. According to South African officials, Brigety later “apologized unreservedly” for the accusation, but his regret appeared to be more about the public venue in which he announced his claim rather than its substance.

After the press conference, Ramaphosa, who leads the National African Congress (ANC), publicly announced an official inquiry into the allegation and appointed a retired judge to lead it. Experts have expressed doubts about the accusation, noting that Pretoria has an onerous and transparent process for arms transfers and that the country’s biggest weapons maker is largely owned by Rheinmetall, a European company. But the possibility remains that a clandestine arms transfer may have taken place.

Regardless of the truth behind Brigety’s claims, the episode highlights the extent to which the war in Ukraine has strained U.S.-South African relations. Pretoria has particularly frustrated Washington with its consistent abstentions during UN votes that condemn Russia’s invasion. (Makgohlo argues that his country’s decisions were more of a “yes, but” than a no, adding that the resolutions put too little emphasis on diplomacy and peace talks.)

“American sentiment that has been expressed behind closed doors has now been made public, to the surprise and perhaps shock of South African government officials, ANC officials, and so on,” said Priyal Singh, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria. “I would say it was a long time coming.”

The split, experts say, comes down to a fundamental difference in worldviews. While the United States considers the war an unprovoked act of aggression by a revanchist power, South African leaders believe that its roots go much deeper. For the ANC, which has led the country since the 1990s, the conflict is little more than the latest proxy battle between East and West, and it is in Pretoria’s best interest to avoid picking a side.

Given the level of trade between the two countries, this seemingly academic split could have major implications, according to South African journalist John Matisonn.

“It seems to me that, in all sorts of areas, we’re losing clout, we’re losing influence,” Matisonn argued. “Our defense of our position is just weak.”

The battle over how to approach the war in Ukraine is far from the first touchy topic in U.S.-South Africa relations. Many in the ANC, which first took power under President Nelson Mandela in 1994, view the U.S. as a key facilitator of the former apartheid regime.

“There has always been an inherent tension in the sense that South Africa has viewed the U.S. as having been on the wrong side of history when it came to the liberation movement,” said Philani Mthembu of the Pretoria-based Institute for Global Dialogue.

This perception only grew as the U.S. “War on Terror” became a globe-spanning crusade. When South African officials told their U.S. counterparts in 2003 that they had conclusive evidence that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, Washington ignored their warnings and went forward with the invasion anyway. By the late 2000s, officials in Pretoria had grown more certain than ever that the U.S. was no better than the superpowers that had come before it.

Despite these political problems, economic ties between the two countries have flourished. This is largely thanks to South Africa’s inclusion in the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, which allows certain African countries to export a range of products to the U.S. without tariffs. (Notably, AGOA is set for a renewal in 2025, and U.S. lawmakers will have to decide if Pretoria gets to stay in the program.)

When it comes to Russia, the story is largely flipped. Economic ties between the two countries have always been weak, but the Soviet Union actively opposed apartheid and often allowed ANC officials to live and study in exile in Moscow, meaning that many of the party’s top figures have decades-old connections with the country. This is particularly true of military officials, as Gustavo de Carvalho of the South African Institute of International Affairs explained.

“Colleagues at the Department of Defense tend to have a very pro-Russia approach,” said de Carvalho, whose work focuses on Russia-South Africa relations. “The Ministry of Foreign Relations tends to be, in principle, more committed to the idea of non-alignment.”

This may help to explain why Pretoria made the particularly controversial decision to hold military exercises with Russia on the anniversary of its invasion of Ukraine. Notably, Makgohlo argued that these exercises were planned “way in advance” and noted that his country had also held exercises with the U.S. in recent years. But such explanations have largely rung hollow in Washington.

Some see a more sinister reason for Pretoria’s insistence on maintaining close ties with Moscow. Earlier this year, reports emerged that a firm owned in part by a prominent Russian oligarch had given the ANC a donation of more than $800,000. A spokesperson for the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, said at the time that the money “flies in the face of South Africa’s quest for and respect for human rights.”

The response to the revelation was a stark reminder that not everyone in the country is so eager to maintain ties with Russia. As Matisonn noted, business leaders and many regular South Africans fear that taking a stand against the United States at this moment risks doing more harm than good, especially when it comes to trade. And a poll from last year showed that 74 percent of ANC supporters viewed the invasion as “an act of aggression that must be condemned” — a far cry from the ANC’s position.

These controversies could become sharper as South Africa gears up for elections next year. Experts say the race is shaping up to be the closest one ever, with the ANC facing the possibility of losing power for the first time since the end of apartheid.

Foreign policy appears likely to play a larger role in these elections than it has in previous years. But the pressure is not only coming from those who want more condemnation of Russia, as Mthembu noted. If the ANC ends up having to form a coalition government, its most likely partner would be the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) — a party with an explicitly pro-Russia, anti-U.S. platform.

In other words, South Africa’s position on the war in Ukraine is unlikely to shift in ways the United States would approve of. But that doesn’t have to mean a break in relations if each side can learn to live with the other’s views on the conflict.

From a U.S. perspective, this means avoiding drastic steps like cutting South Africa out of AGOA, which would only push ANC officials further toward Russia, according to de Carvalho.

“The more one pushes South Africa to do something, the more South Africa pushes back,” he argued. “South Africa tends to be very reactive when it feels that an external power is imposing a position on the country or forcing South Africa to make choices.”

On the other hand, experts say South Africa would do well to avoid incendiary moves like its poorly timed military exercises with Russia. Some argue that Pretoria should also step up its contacts with officials in Kyiv in order to underscore the country’s neutral stance.

Improved relations could have major upsides for both countries when it comes to the conflict in Ukraine. South Africa recently joined five other African states in sending a peace mission to eastern Europe, a move that has been in the making for months, according to Mthembu.

Despite their bitter conflict, Moscow and Kyiv have reacted to the delegation with cautious optimism, a potentially promising development for Washington given recent reports that the Biden administration is considering a push for peace negotiations later this year.

As Mthembu notes, South Africa is also hosting a BRICS summit later this year that Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely try to attend, though Pretoria would no doubt face pressure to arrest Putin given the case against him for war crimes at the International Criminal Court. The BRICS grouping — a counterweight to the Western-led Group of 7 made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — will bring together many of the most powerful leaders from the Global South.

If the U.S. can avoid overly harsh condemnation of the talks and quietly influence their substance, the meetings could provide an opportunity for nations friendly to Russia to push Putin to drop some of his most ambitious demands and come to the negotiating table with Ukraine.

“All of those avenues give an opportunity to [have] a serious discussion with Russian counterparts about the potential to bring this conflict to an end,” Mthembu said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sign bilateral agreements after meetings in July, 2018. (CC BY 4.0/ Office of the President of the Russian Federation)
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