Cape Town, Berlin Difficult talks await when German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) lands on Tuesday night after a more than ten-hour flight for a short visit to South Africa. Because the South African government took a pro-Russian stance in the Ukraine war. While it does not openly admit this – South Africa is abstaining from UN resolutions against the Russian invasion – the signs are very clear. The country is suspected of even supplying weapons to Russia.
Like Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD), Baerbock wants to convince South Africa last year that this attitude is not in Germany’s interest. Scholz and Baerbock have been traveling around the world for months, as has Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens). The goal: to win over the south.
In light of the Wagner mercenary group’s uprising over the weekend, Baerbock now has another argument on her side. Experts see the absolute power of Russian President Vladimir Putin in his country weakened. The rebellion of the Wagner group could also affect the course of the war in Ukraine.
Shortly before her departure, Baerbock appealed to the South African government: “When the country of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu raises its voice against injustice, the world will listen,” she said. That’s why she wanted to talk in Pretoria about “how South Africa can throw its weight behind the scales to end Russian aggression and uphold the UN Charter.”
At the end of February, South Africa held a multi-day military maneuver together with China and Russia – on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of all things. Even more explosive, however, is the US suspicion that South Africa might have supplied weapons to Moscow.
Three quarters of respondents against Russia’s actions
Reuben Brigety, US ambassador to the South African capital Pretoria, said a few weeks ago that he was certain that a South African ship had been loaded with weapons destined for Russia in December 2022. Baerbock had then expressed “very concerned”. A South African commission of inquiry is now investigating the allegations.
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South Africa’s pro-Russian stance is not only leading to diplomatic irritations with the West. Even within the country, many people are dissatisfied. In recent opinion polls, almost three quarters of those questioned spoke out against Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
On her trip to South Africa, Baerbock therefore wanted to meet not only talks with the government but also civil society. However, because of the attempted coup in Russia, she postponed her originally planned visit to Cape Town. The Green politician found it more important to be present at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels planned for Monday to exchange views on the situation.
On Tuesday she will meet her South African counterpart Naledi Pandor in Pretoria for a meeting of the German-South African binational commission. According to the German Foreign Ministry, the talks will also deal with concrete cooperation on topics such as the development of green hydrogen and the dual training of specialists.
Meanwhile, observers are puzzled as to why South Africa is so sympathetic to Moscow. “South Africa was once a staunch opponent of American-led intervention in Iraq,” write experts including Greg Mills and Ray Hartley of Johannesburg’s Brenthurst Foundation, “making it all the more curious that it now backs Russia’s unilateral intervention in Ukraine.”
South Africa’s newfound friendship with Russia
At first glance, the newly blossomed friendship with Russia lies in the two countries’ shared history. Many of South Africa’s current policy makers studied in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and harbor feelings of nostalgia for the period. Above all, they remember the lavish military aid that Moscow gave to many resistance movements in southern Africa in their fight against apartheid. As in many other African countries, both Russia and China in South Africa can also take advantage of a latent anti-Western resentment.
However, despite their shared history, the South African government’s stance on Russia was by no means unambiguous, particularly at the start of the war. In February 2022, Foreign Minister Pandor sharply criticized the Russian invasion and called for Russian troops to withdraw.
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But then she took a radical turn. Earlier in the year, Pandor expressed his enthusiasm during a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to South Africa. According to Pandor, she is proud to maintain such excellent diplomatic relations with Russia.
Observers believe that the initial criticism of Russia was not in the interests of the African National Congress (ANC) party, which has been in power since 1994 – nor in the interests of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. The experts at the Brenthurst Foundation suspect the ANC’s party-political interests to be at the expense of the country. A possible motive: the hope for support from Russia in the upcoming elections for the coming year.
Worrying about the next elections
Russia Today (RT), the Kremlin’s propaganda mouthpiece, plans to open its first large English-speaking office on the continent in the business metropolis of Johannesburg. South Africa experts Mills and Hartley fear that Russia could use this to manipulate the elections in the country – possibly in the interest of the ANC.
The party has every reason to be concerned about the next elections. Because by South African standards it could be dangerous for them: more and more polls indicate that the ANC could fall below the 50 percent mark for the first time in 30 years.
“For a hard-pressed ANC struggling to regain power, the Putin model is attractive,” Mills and Hartley believe. After all, Putin sits at the head of a state with a small, materially favored elite without being threatened with losing power through elections.
South Africa’s pro-Russian stance will be put to the test in August. Then comes the BRICS summit, at which the heads of state and government of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are expected in Cape Town, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However, he is wanted with an international arrest warrant. If no other solution can be found by then – debates are currently ongoing as to whether South Africa could protect him with immunity – the South African authorities would have to arrest Putin.
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