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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


Updated: May 23, 2023

The war in Ukraine has thrown a spotlight onto South Africa’s relationship with Russia. Although South Africa publicly proclaims itself ‘non-aligned’ in the conflict, it hosted naval military drills with Russia (and also China) earlier this year and has been accused of supplying arms to Russia. We can say that it has de facto sided with Russia, since it has leaned so heavily that way.

The annual BRICS summit, due to be help in Durban in August, is causing South African leaders a headache after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin in March. As things stand, Putin intends to take up the invitation to travel to South Africa and the latter has a treaty obligation to arrest him. Would the South Africans actually do so?

South Africa and Russia

In the fifteen months since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, South Africa has refused to condemn Russia. It abstained from the crucial early UN General Assembly vote last March that ‘condemned’ Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. It has abstained, too, from subsequent votes in the General Assembly critical of Russia.

If that in itself isn’t enough to dissatisfy Ukraine or its allies, then neither South Africa’s rhetoric nor actions corroborate proclamations of ‘non-alignment’. The ruling African National Congress, at its 55th national conference held in December, adopted a resolution stating that ‘the US provoked war with Russia over Ukraine’ in order to preserve its hegemony (see paragraph 22 of the resolution).

Then there are South Africa’s activities. In January, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov visited Pretoria and, in February, South Africa hosted the already-mentioned trilateral naval exercises with Russian and Chinese forces. The Russian and Chinese main interest was projecting power in Africa; South Africa’s interests in hosting the drills off the Durban coastline were less obvious, since they patently undermined claims of ‘non-alignment’ in the Russo-Ukraine war.

More seriously, earlier this month the US ambassador in South Africa accused the country of covertly shipping weapons to Russia. Referring to a Russian cargo ship docked near Cape Town in December, he said that the US was ‘confident [the vessel] uploaded weapons and ammunition.’ The South African government denied knowledge of any such arms sales and promised to investigate. It is quite possible that arms transfers were made without government consent. No details were forthcoming about what weapons might have been supplied, but South Africa does have a significant defence industry and the US ambassador did not seem to have any doubts about his claim.

Although Russia hasn’t been a major arms client for South Africa in the past, it could be that South African factories are filling orders Russia’s own defence industries cannot fill – quite possibly illicitly. (The UN Conventional Arms Register is a good open source of official data on the licit arms trade.) Just last week South Africa's army chief commander was in Moscow.

The BRICS partnership and the Russo-Ukraine war

One way of interpreting South Africa’s policy of de facto support for Russia is its commitment to the BRICS partnership. The BRICS emerged as a ‘club’ of ostensible rising powers sharing certain grievances about the liberal rules-based order and western states' dominance in setting the global political agenda. The members of the club did not coin the label, and we can reasonably question whether the BRICS grouping really means much today (or ever did), but the South African government clearly thinks it aligns with its interests and that loyalty and ties to the other members afford it status in international affairs.

In terms of their culture, politics and economies, the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – have little in common. The rankings of Brazil, India and South Africa on democracy or political freedoms rank far higher than China or Russia, for example, and economically they are often in competition with one another. Moreover, in so far as the grouping was conceived as a partnership of ‘rising powers’, there are doubts that South Africa qualifies as one and suspicion that Russia may be better characterised as a declining power.

But the BRICS have tried to present themselves as a cohesive group. At the surface level, that cohesion was initially apparent in the BRICS states’ responses to Russia’s invasion, although we now see increasingly differentiated policies.

China’s position on the war has been closely watched (see my comments on China and the war here and here). But, a few weeks ago, China did vote in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution that ‘recognised’ Russia’s ‘aggression against Ukraine’. The resolution primarily concerned cooperation between the Council of Europe and the United Nations, but that China accepted the wording in the preamble suggests at least a willingness to criticise Russia’s actions.

India, like South Africa, has kept up relations with Russia and refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. India has bought Russian oil at a discount, taking advantage of the fact Russia has lost European customers, and dismissed western irritations at its policy. It has held a firmer line than China.

The last member of the group, Brazil, has leaned in the opposite direction. Although its populist president at the time of the invasion, Jair Bolsonaro, said that the country ‘will not take sides’, Brazil did vote in favour of the General Assembly resolution last March. His successor, Lula da Silva, has called on Russia to withdraw its troops and removed most of the ambiguity about where Brazil stands, even if his talk of a peace settlement doesn't fully chime with fully restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity.

Ultimately, the BRICS has never made for a naturally cohesive group. While the BRICS may share grievances against western dominance of the global political agenda, and a belief that their concerns are marginalised, their unity in so far as there is any is rooted in ad hoc convenience not a far-reaching harmony of interests. In the Russo-Ukraine war there is neither convenience nor harmony for the five states.

South Africa and the International Criminal Court

Let alone South Africa’s heavy leaning to Russia’s side, then its difficult relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC) compounds the matter of Putin's prospective visit. It is in that double context that we need to consider how it might respond to the arrest warrant, issued against Putin on allegations of deporting children from Ukraine to Russia (a war crime, and an action also covered by Article 2 of the UN Convention on Genocide).

On the one hand, as a signatory of the Rome Statute, the treaty creating the ICC, South Africa would be obliged to arrest Putin should he step into the country. South African lawyers are reportedly poring over the treaty looking for a way to avoid that obligation, but it seems pretty clear-cut that, should Putin set foot on South African soil and not be arrested, South Africa would be in breach of its commitments.

On the other hand, South Africa’s relationship with the ICC has been fraught. Along with several other African states, it toyed with withdrawing its signature. (It announced its withdrawal a few years ago, only for its government to rescind the notification later.) Many in South Africa and elsewhere see the ICC as a mask for sinister, neocolonial practices; ICC critics point out that the court had only ever indicted Africans -- prior, that is, to the recent indictments against Putin and Russia's commissioner for children's rights.

Faced with pressure to arrest Putin, a concern would be that South Africa simply withdraws from the ICC. That would be a regrettable outcome. As it is, neither China nor Russia is a signatory of the Rome Stature, and given South Africa’s uncertain relationship to the court it must be a possibility that it turns its back on it, too. (Russia had signed, but did not ratify the treaty in protest at the United States’ refusal to sign, and eventually Russia withdrew its signature from the document.)

Given Russia’s need for allies, I cannot imagine that Putin would actually put South Africa in a position of having to pick a side so blatantly. For that reason, my best guess is that Putin will decide against attending the BRICS summit in person. And yet the risk for Putin that South Africa might uphold its ICC commitment? That ain't gonna happen.

It is a paradox, though, that the issue of an arrest warrant for Putin arguably disproves South Africa’s long-standing gripe that the ICC only focuses on Africa - and yet could be the issue that ultimately prompts it to withdraw from the court.

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