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South Africa’s Neutral Stance on Russia Risks International Ties: Analysts

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin , center, shakes hands with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, right, prior to a photo with heads of countries taking part in the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Oct. 24, 2019.
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin , center, shakes hands with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, right, prior to a photo with heads of countries taking part in the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Oct. 24, 2019.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday defended his neutral stance on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, calling for talks — not condemnation.

Critics have blasted the government for failing to support Ukraine against its neighbor. Analysts say South Africa is allowing historic political and economic ties with Moscow to risk relations with the rest of the world.

Negotiation rather than weapons or economic pressure is the mechanism Ramaphosa would like to see used to settle the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Ramaphosa’s unwavering stance overruled an earlier call by the country’s international relations department for Russia to withdraw its forces.

Leaza Jernberg is a Johannesburg-based independent researcher and consultant on diplomacy.

“The Department of International Relations and Cooperation, [which] is largely the diplomat for South Africa, their initial instinct was to say, ‘Well, this was not acceptable.’ And that was kind of pulled back by the president who I think has this concern about allies and Russian and what this looks like," Jernberg said. "So even within South Africa, South Africa's position is very contested, even within government.”

South Africa’s ties to Russia stretch back to the 1960s when the Soviet Union gave support to anti-apartheid freedom fighters.

In subsequent years, politicians, including those from the ruling party, the African National Congress, maintained close ties with Russia.

Which is why analysts said it’s no surprise that a foundation headed by former president Jacob Zuma has voiced support for Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Richard Calland is a public law professor at the University of Cape Town.

“He [Putin] had a very close relationship with our former President, Jacob Zuma," Calland said. "It was a corrupt relationship. It fueled an illegal in the end, the court said, illegal procurement of Russian nuclear power, which was stopped by the courts. And I fear that that interferes at least with some political attitudes in South Africa. But I don't believe that it was the direct reason for the position that South Africa has taken.”

Instead, Calland says, South African officials are simply following the country’s standard position on foreign conflicts.

“I'm well acquainted with and in close contact with South Africa's kind of senior diplomatic officials, and they are very steeped in this tradition of non-alignment," Calland said. "Political dialogue is their middle name, so to speak. And I think that on this one, they wanted to maintain this kind of nonpartisan position in order to promote that dialogue.”

Another factor at play is the country’s position within the economic bloc, BRICS, which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Analysts said South Africa may be attempting to maintain trade relations with Russia and China.

But international relations expert Jernberg said that stance is ultimately counterproductive.

“In that case, we're actually backing the wrong horse," Jernberg said. "When you look at the EU, the European Union as a block, South Africa’s combined trade to the European Union is actually far larger. And so then if you're going to make an economic argument, you should surely be arguing that between the United States and between, and Europe, is actually a greater economic interest.”

Whatever the motives, it has left Western nations siding with Ukraine disappointed, and experts warn there could be implications for South Africa in the future.

Ina Gouws is a political science lecturer at South Africa’s University of the Free State.

“These kinds of things down the road, become problematic," Gouws said. "If you don't display that kind of cooperation and sound thinking, and firm condemnation when a country does something like this, down the road, it bites you when you need support from the international community.”

While the ramifications for South Africa remain uncertain, experts agree it’s unlikely the country will change its position any time soon.