South Africa plans to conduct joint military exercises with the Chinese and Russian navies off its east coast next month, despite the Kremlin’s ongoing war on Ukraine. The opposition Democratic Alliance has slammed the decision, saying it means that contrary to its "neutral" stance on Russia’s Ukraine war, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party has effectively sided with Moscow.
The China-Russia-South Africa drills, named Operation Mosi, which means smoke, are to take place off Durban from February 17 to 26.
While South Africa has held joint naval exercises with Russia in the past, in 2019, these latest ones overlap with the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its ongoing war against Kyiv.
Pretoria has officially remained “neutral” on the conflict, refusing to condemn the Kremlin’s invasion in a U.N. vote last year.
But South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, says hosting Russian warships shows the ruling African National Congress, or the ANC, has chosen sides.
Kobus Marais is the party’s shadow defense minister.
“While our government has claimed to be neutral, this is just another of many incidents where the ANC has clearly exposed their favoritism towards Russia and has in fact done nothing but to showcase and prove [the] government’s lack of neutrality in this case,” he said.
Marais says the South Africa of Nelson Mandela, once a beacon of democracy, risks losing its international standing by siding with what he calls “the most despicable autocracies of the world.”
Moscow’s invasion, the biggest in Europe since World War II, has been widely condemned internationally.
Western governments have hit Russia with diplomatic isolation and heavy sanctions and have been supplying weapons to Ukraine to defend itself.
Steven Gruzd, the head of the Russia-Africa program at the South African Institute of International Affairs, says South Africa’s hosting the drills risks its further isolation from the West while playing into Russia’s hands.
“Russia is trying to indicate that it’s not isolated internationally, that it has international military reach. And South Africa, by agreeing to hold these exercises, or going ahead with them, is feeding into that narrative that Moscow’s putting out,” he said.
South Africa’s African National Congress party has close ideological and historical ties to Russia under the Soviet Union, which backed its anti-apartheid struggle against white minority rule.
South Africa and Russia are also members of the BRICS group of leading, emerging economies, which includes Brazil, India, and China.
While many countries have shunned the Kremlin over its invasion, some nations, including those in BRICS, have not.
Ukraine’s Ambassador to South Africa Liubov Abravitova was clear to VOA in her criticism of the scheduled military drills.
“And on South Africa, Russia, China military exercises, let me just ask you, what the army that is killing innocent people, the army of rapists and murderers, what can they bring to [the] South African army as added value?” she said.
Some analysts say the world is in a new cold war, with authoritarian nations China and Russia on one side and Western democracies on the other.
This conflict is increasingly playing out in Africa as both sides scramble for influence on the strategically and politically important continent.
South Africa’s Department of Defense spokesman Siphiwe Dlamini tells VOA they will not reconsider the joint drills.
“I’d like to repeat that the exercise will go ahead with the two countries in South Africa in February. In relation to the military-to-military relations between these two countries and many others, which include the United States, where exercises have been held with each of those countries,” he said.
Despite pressure from Western governments, and visits last year by U.S. officials, Pretoria has continued to improve relations with Moscow.
South Africa in December received a sanctioned Russian ship that officials say was delivering ammunition ordered before the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine.
South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor will on Monday host Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
In August, South Africa will host the BRICS summit and has invited Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to attend.