Cyril’s Rubicon? RW Johnson on arms-to-Russia torpedo for SA’s motor industry, AGOA, ARV supplies.

South Africa’s foremost political scientist RW Johnson provides context on the US’s accusation that South Africa has been supplying arms to Russia. It’s reminiscent of PW Botha’s “Rubicon” blunder in August 1985, which sparked massive disinvestment, demand for immediate repayment of foreign debt, an economic collapse and rocketing interest rates. Johnson says Pretoria’s actions threaten hundreds of thousands of South African jobs – and lives. Most apparent are SA motor manufacturers whose lifeblood is selling into the USA and Europe. Equally at risk is the country’s membership of AGOA which gives SA exporters duty-free access to the US market “as a favour” because, strictly speaking, SA shouldn’t qualify. Johnson also points out that millions of South Africans living with HIV/Aids receive antiretrovirals purely through the generosity of US donors – another critical source of goodwill threatened by Pretoria’s actions. He spoke to Alec Hogg of BizNews.


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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 01:17 – RW Johnson on the US Ambassador’s claim that South Africa supplied Russia with arms
  • 07:21 – On the consequences of these claims
  • 09:39 – On the probable impact of these claims on the economy
  • 12:55 – On Russia’s Wagner Group
  • 15:19 – RW Johnson gives his theory on the current situation
  • 17:16 – On what South Africans can expect to happen
  • 19:54 – On the possible effect on the 2024 election
  • 22:38 – On the geopolitical consequences of a Russian loss in Ukraine

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Excerpts from the interview

RW Johnson on the consequences of allegations that SA supplied arms to Russia

I think the first point really is that Russia is clearly very, very short of war material. That is clear. They’ve actually been using T-34 tanks, which are Second World War tanks, which, my God, I mean, that’s actually amazing. And they’ve been scrounging what they can get from Iran and North Korea, those are the only other two countries that have been supplying them with arms, both of them international lepers, both of them under sanctions from the US. So that’s the company that we would appear to be in.

Read more: Rand hits all-time low of R19.27/$ after US says SA is supplying arms to Russia.

The point really is that the Americans and the Europeans have, since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, made it clear that they’re taking sanctions against Russia or those who give them aid. They’re trying to prevent this sort of thing happening. And if South Africa have done this, [then] they’ve done it in full knowledge that this was the risk they were running. How they could imagine [that] they could get away with this, I do not know. I don’t think they realise that they’re playing in the big league now. Trying to pull the wool over John Steenhuisen’s eyes is one thing, but not over the Americans. It’s very, very serious, [becuae of] the complications [and] the likely outcomes of AGOA. 

Read more: SA probes allegations of weapon shipments to Russia despite neutrality on Ukraine invasion

On the possible effect on the South African economy

A lot of the cars we make in the Eastern Cape, Durban and Pretoria are exported to the United States, and an awful lot of the rest go to Europe. Now what no one is saying, but which ought to be considered, is that what has tended to happen in these matters – for example [what happened] with the Chinese telephone company Huawei in America – is that the Americans took strong measures against them. And then all the more reluctantly and a bit more slowly, all the European countries followed. So if America takes action over AGOA, for example, it’s only too likely that European countries will follow along because the EU is taking the same attitude on Ukraine as the Americans. So that would put at risk almost the entire output of our car industry and it would threaten several hundred thousand jobs. It’s about 8% of the economy and [this news] might close it down, those companies might just all leave. 

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