The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put tremendous strain on the strategic partnership between South Africa and the United States. Since the invasion, the South African government has been unwilling to demand that Russia unilaterally put an end to hostilities and withdraw its forces from the sovereign territory of its neighbor.
This is despite the fact that South African foreign policy is supposed to be conducted in accordance with the values and principles set forth in the constitution. This includes the advancement of human rights and promotion of democracy.
The South African government has not appeared especially bothered by this apparent contradiction in their international relations. From its perspective, it has assumed a reasonable stance in a world characterized by an “unequal application” of Western principles in armed conflicts and other insecure environments. To be fair, South Africa is not alone. Just ask India and Vietnam.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has exposed the practical limits of the strategic partnership between South Africa and the United States. Recent events suggest those limits include the provisioning of military products and services to the Russian government and Russian private military contractors.
Now, questions have been raised as to whether the South African government crossed that line and, if so, does that count as a redline in the strategic partnership for the US government. While the world awaits the answers, it is important for regional observers to reflect on the series of events that led to this historic low in relations between South Africa and the United States.
That requires a rapid tracing of the series of events that led to US Ambassador, Reuben Brigety, going out and leveling public accusations against the African National Congress and the South African government. When viewed in this context, it becomes clear that the ambassador’s remarks are effectively an acknowledgment of the structural instabilities that exist in the strategic partnership between South Africa and the United States.
The Ramaphosa administration and Biden administration will need to mitigate those instabilities with haste. Otherwise, the strategic partnership could very well collapse before next year’s national elections in both countries. That is the reality.
Last March, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa insinuated that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) instigated the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In his words, the “war could have been avoided if NATO had heeded the warnings from amongst its own leaders and officials over the years that its eastward expansion would lead to greater, not less, instability in the region.”
For that reason, he indicated that South Africa would not take “a very adversarial stance against Russia.” In October, the South African government went further. It gave permission to dock to a Russian superyacht that was under Western sanctions. This was justified on the grounds that the South African government does not have a “legal obligation to abide by sanctions” that are imposed by Western governments.
Last December, a Russian cargo ship was dispatched to South Africa. In the vicinity of Naval Base Simon’s Town, its crew may have switched off its maritime tracking system. Soon, local residents observed the Western-sanctioned vessel docked at the largest base of the South African Navy. There, local residents reported materials being loaded and unloaded the ship “under the cover of darkness.”
When questioned, Defense Spokesperson Kobus Marais responded that, to the best of his knowledge, the ship had docked to offload “an old, outstanding order for ammunition.” According to Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fights, there was nothing inappropriate with such a transfer since it is “consistent with international best practice to honor contractual trade obligations and relationships.”
A few weeks later, the African National Congress hosted its 55th National Conference. There, the African National Congress openly criticized American foreign policy. In the Resolution on International Relations, the African National Congress observed that “US-led expansionist military strategies” had resulted in “Western imperialist dominance over Eastern Europe.”
As an anti-imperialist and anti-colonial party, the African National Congress not only decried “a conspicuous failure of the current global institutions to resolve conflicts fairly, justly and equitably in order to safeguard the interests of all nations.” It went further. It concluded that the Russia-Ukrainian War was “provoked” by an American government pursuing an imperialist agenda that was informed by the Wolfowitz Doctrine.
In February, Airports Company South Africa proposed structural changes to its fueling operations at its airports. These changes were designed to separate refueling operations from thru-putting to ensure that “a sanctioned friend of the South African government” would receive “servicing and refueling” as needed.
This division was intended to break forced alignment “with the stance the oil companies’ headquarters and home countries take in terms of sanctions against Russia.” Note, this move followed at least two earlier incidents where international oil companies had actually refused to refuel the Russian aircraft under Western sanctions that had been granted permission to land at commercial airports in South Africa.
These refusals had angered some members of parliament from the African National Congress who demanded public assurances that the state-owned airport management company would not “indirectly impose” Western sanctions on Russia. After those assurances were given, Air BP decided to cease all operations in South Africa.
Around the same time, the South African government hosted a major military exercise between China, Russia, and South Africa. Those exercises coincided with the one year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They also involved the Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov, which was armed with Zircon hypersonic missiles.
Prior to the exercises, there was an official visit by Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, with the South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor. On the sidelines, Minister Pandor stressed that it would be “an abuse of international practice” to prevent the South African government from conducting ”military exercises with friends.” In the end, the US government expressed public concern about the exercises.
The US Embassy in South Africa cautioned that the exercises would not only present the South African government with a diplomatic challenge. It would lead South Africans to ask whether their country should be “associated with the symbol ‘Z’ painted on the side of the frigate the Admiral Gorshkov.”
In April, a Russian cargo plane owned by an American-sanctioned company was permitted to land at Waterkloof Air Force Base. The plane purportedly delivered diplomatic mail to the Russian embassy.
However, the company reportedly has “handled cargo shipments for sanctioned Russian Federation defense entities” in the past. A few weeks later, Assistant Secretary for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Mallory Stewart was dispatched to South Africa and Egypt.
Note, Egypt is another country where suspicions have been raised about illicit weapons transfers to Russia. Between May 9-10, Assistant Secretary Stewart held talks with senior government officials at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation Republic of South Africa. Around the same time, the main opposition party, Democratic Alliance, issued a public statement chastizing the African National Congress for abusing Air Force Base Waterkloof and Naval Base Simonstown for their “narrow political interests.”
They also submitted a Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) application requesting the disclosure of “who authorized the landing at Waterkloof and the docking at the naval base, including the type of goods that were brought in and out.”
On May 11, bilateral relations finally boiled over. During a press briefing, US Ambassador Reuben declared that “the South African government is in fact not not aligned” with Russia. This led to a rapid deterioration in the strategic partnership between South Africa and the United States.
In his remarks, the ambassador went on to outline a series of accusations against the African National Congress. He observed that its senior leadership had published “outrageous” and “patently false” statements in the Resolution on International Relations that were openly “hostile” to the national security interests of the US government.
Moreover, he maintained that the African National Congress Headquarters, Luthuli House, had been unresponsive to his repeated attempts to open dialogue on these matters. To rub salt in the wound, Ambassador Reuben confirmed the existence of intelligence that showed that weapons and ammunition were loaded onto the Russian vessel at Naval Base Simon’s Town.
In his words, the US government was “confident that weapons were loaded into that vessel, and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion.” He characterized such behavior by a strategic partner as “fundamentally unacceptable.”
The South African government was quick to respond to the allegations regarding the arms transfer at Naval Base Simon’s Town. The spokesperson to the President, Vincent Magwenya, claimed that the ambassador had undermined “the spirit of cooperation and partnership” that existed between the two countries in resolving the matter.
He noted that the South African government had launched “an independent inquiry” into the accusations made by the US government, and the two countries had agreed to allow that investigation “to run its course,” with the United States Intelligence Community providing supporting evidence.
For its part, the South African Department of Defense issued a statement in support of the independent investigation as it would provide “an opportunity to ventilate its side of the story with concrete evidence,” and thereby “deal with allegations surrounding the purpose of such a visit in front of a competent officer of the law instead of hearsay or speculation.”
Separately, the South African government issued a démarche to the ambassador through diplomatic channels. This led to the arrangement of a meeting between Ambassador Reuben and Foreign Minister Pandor. Following that meeting, the South African government reaffirmed that the National Conventional Arms Control Committee had never approved of a “sale of arms to Russia related to the period and incident in question.”
Noting that the independent inquiry would provide a “platform to establish facts and role players in the incident in question,” the South African government promised that anyone “found to have broken the law will face consequences.”
Moving forward, the South African government claimed that an agreement had been reached to “use established diplomatic channels to raise whatever issue may arise in the management of the bilateral relations between the two countries.”
For his part, Ambassador Reuben noted that the meeting had provided a platform to “correct any mis-impressions left by [his] public remarks.” Perhaps not surprisingly, he never provided clarification on what, if any, mis-impressions had arisen.
This breakdown in bilateral relations brought about a wide array of secondary effects. One of the first dominos to fall was the South African economy.
Almost immediately, South African bond yields skyrocketed due to investor concerns quoted in Bloomberg that “a diplomatic row” between Pretoria and Washington could put “preferential trade access … worth billions of dollars to South Africa at risk.” In parallel, the South African rand fell “to the weakest level on record against the dollar.”
This was after the rand had recently fallen to a three-year low due to increasing fears “of scheduled blackouts known as loadshedding worsening during winter.” Investors were spooked. And, they seemed to have good reasons for it. The main opposition party pointed out that “close to 77% of foreign direct investment stock” of South Africa has come from the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States in recent years.
Domestic politics was another arm to cascade. In South Africa, Clement Manythela cautioned his listeners that the South African government “has been cagey about this Russian vessel for so long – since its arrival and dawn departure. There has been no official explanation from the Department of Defense. No explanation from the South African National Defense Force. No explanation from the Navy either.
“This is despite a number of calls from politicians. Repeated media requests for information. So whatever information the government gives you now, take it with a pinch of salt. They were never interested in transparency from the word go. So anything is possible.”
With such doubts being expressed by the media a year out from a national election, it is not surprising that national politicians tried to capitalize on the controversy for political gain.
The strongest recriminations have been leveled by the Democratic Alliance. That party not only suggested that “President Ramaphosa and his government have already lied to South Africa and the world as to our country’s involvement in this devastating conflict.”
They said that it “signals” that South Africa has, under the leadership of the African National Congress, “regressed into a nation that has abandoned the principles of freedom, fairness, and equality.”
As the Shadow Minister for International Relations and Cooperation volleyed, the South African government is now “complicit in a war of aggression that … risks undermining both our domestic priorities and international peace and security.” ActionSA leadership expressed similar beliefs that the South African government has “never had a non-aligned approach to the Ukraine-Russian war.”
Rather than “supporting Russia during the ongoing war,” its politicians demanded that the South African government “come clean about … support for a dictatorial regime which is alleged to be actively funding” the African National Congress.
The Economic Freedom Fighters have waged a radically different attack. Its leader, Julius Malema, argued that “American concerns are misplaced.” He claimed that the South African government “has got no capacity to empower Russians with weapons against their own handlers.”
Using inflammatory language, he went even further. He alleged that the US government “is just becoming a crybaby trying to find a way into punishing South Africa because of our position on the Russia-Ukraine war.”
The National Freedom Party charted a similar tack. Its leadership condemned the decision by the South African government “to establish a commission of inquiry into the alleged supply of weapons to Russia.”
In their words, the United States government has no “moral authority to make any demands or claims against the South African Government given the fact that it is the USA and its allies that are supplying arms and ammunition to the Ukrainians in this proxy war with Russia.”
In the United States, the harshest criticisms have been voiced by a Member of Congress from the Republican Party. After the news of the incident broke, the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Risch, publicly rebuked the South African government for its “anti-American screeds” and maltreatment of an American ambassador. As for the démarche, he added that such behavior “doesn’t reflect friendship or a neutral partner.”
Afterward, Ranking Member Risch extended a jab across the domestic political aisle when he publicly criticized the US government for failing to stand behind an American ambassador who “spoke honestly about an issue of grave concern to US national security.”
These words will resonate with other Members of Congress who have previously called on the US government to keep Congress better apprised of the strategic partnership by providing regular and comprehensive briefings on subjects relating to South Africa.
Michael Walsh is an Adjunct Fellow at the Center for African Studies at Howard University and a Visiting Researcher at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.