Funding MK, Fighting the GNU… Russia’s Strategy for SA – Irina Filatova

The Government of National Unity (GNU) is likely to have been a “complete disappointment” for Russia. That is the opinion of SA-Russia expert Dr Irina Filatova who predicts that the Russians will now try to work with the part of the African National Congress (ANC) which is “radically inclined” towards former President Jacob Zuma. Professor Filatova believes Russia has funded Mr Zuma’s MK Party in the hope that his faction could be returned to the ANC, preferably heading it and getting rid of President Cyril Ramaphosa “because then the ANC would become the old ANC where Zuma could dictate the policy, and where Russia would have supreme influence”. Professor Filatova also explains where South Africa fits into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest vision for BRICS as “an independent organisation regulating international relations…based entirely on power”.

Sign up for your early morning brew of the BizNews Insider to keep you up to speed with the content that matters. The newsletter will land in your inbox at 5:30am weekdays. Register here.

Join us for BizNews’ first investment-focused conference on Thursday, 12 September, in Hermanus, featuring top experts like Frans Cronje, Piet Viljoen, and more. Get insights on electricity and exploiting SA’s gas bounty from new and familiar faces. Register here.

Watch here

Listen here

Summary of the interview

In an interview with Chris Steyn from BizNews, SA-Russia expert Dr. Irina Filatova discussed the alleged financial link between former President Jacob Zuma’s MK Party and Russian Military Intelligence. Filatova mentioned that several South African political leaders, including John Steenhuisen, Mmusi Maimane, and Herman Mashaba, have suggested that Russian money funded Zuma’s election campaign. She noted the sophistication and visible wealth of MKP’s campaign despite not declaring the sources of its funds, raising suspicions about foreign funding.

Filatova highlighted the historical and ideological ties between Zuma and Russia, pointing out that Russia had strategic reasons for supporting Zuma, including potential benefits from a nuclear deal. She explained that Russia’s model for funding nuclear projects involves long-term dependencies, as seen in Hungary. Filatova suggested that Russia’s support aimed to strengthen the Zuma faction within the ANC, potentially influencing South Africa’s policies in Russia’s favor.

Regarding the new Government of National Unity, Filatova expressed doubt about Russia’s approval, given its preference for a Zuma-led ANC. She also touched on the broader geopolitical implications, including Russia’s efforts to forge alliances within BRICS and counter Western influence. Filatova concluded with a reflection on South Africa’s potential choices in aligning with global powers.

Extended transcript of the interview ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Chris Steyn (00:03.42)

The alleged link between former President Jacob Zuma’s MK Party and Russian Military Intelligence is a hot topic. We speak to SA-Russia expert, Dr. Irina Filatova. Welcome, Professor. 

Professor, John Steenhuisen, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, is one of those who has stated emphatically that Russian money has been flowing to MKP.

Chris Steyn (00:32.636)

What do you say? Have you seen any evidence of this? And why would Russia even be so interested in MK? What scenario could they have had in mind?

Irina Filatova (00:48.52)

There are several things. First of all, John Steenhuisen was not the only leader of any party in South Africa to mention the possibility or even being sure that Zuma’s party was funded by the Russians. Mmusi Maimane said the same. He said that at least a few hundred million were spent on Zuma’s campaign and that…this was a very sophisticated election campaign. And also, Herman Mashaba said the same, that definitely there was a lot of money going into that campaign. 

And it is surprising for a new party to be so organised and to have so much money. From my friends in Natal, I heard that Zuma’s party election officials, officers, were driving around in absolutely wonderful expensive cars and that they drove around to the smallest villages, that there were a lot of these cars and that they drove to smallest villages where not the ANC and not the DA and no any other party reached. That there were posters everywhere in KZN and that they were very, very visible. 

So this is kind of a persistent topic. And the interesting thing is that the MKP never declared where the money is coming from. We all know that a party which has got more than a hundred million donations, donations which amount to more than a hundred million, had to declare them. Now, Zuma and his comrades never declared anything. And IEC was asked about these donations and whether they have investigated them. And they said, no, we can’t investigate because there were no complaints.

Irina Filatova (03:03.56)

And I don’t know whether such complaints could follow or not. But one thing is quite clear, is that no paper trail has been found and nobody has evereverybody was so busy with the elections that nobody even tried to find this paper trail of this money.

No documents are known and we don’t know whether they will be ever found or not, but there is of course every reason for Russia to fund Zuma and his party. 

What…is it’s interest? Of course they are ideologically very close and of course Zuma is an old comrade of Putin and they met very often and…it was during Zuma’s presidency that South Africa with the Russian help and Russian support joined BRICS and it is also true that it was under Zuma that an attempt was made to sign a deal, nuclear deal with Russia, which would be a very beneficial thing for Russia. And I will return to it in a moment. 

And since then with Zuma in power and not in power and after he was demoted and even after he left the ANC. There’s no doubt that people who are close to him, if you think about Duduzile Sambudla Zuma, if you think about his close comrades, they all announced, declared on social media in their posters, on their t-shirts during the campaign, announced their allegiance to Russia.

Irina Filatova (05:12.2)

Zuma’s campaign even used the t-shirts where Zuma was standing next to Putin and they were shaking hands. I don’t know whether you have seen that or not, but this t-shirt and people in it were all over the social media. 

So why would Russia be interested now that Zuma is not in power and he is very old?just out of old loyalty. I do not think so. I think that there was a direct interest, first of all, about this nuclear deal. You see, people who discuss it, and I must declare immediately that I understand nothing in nuclear power and nuclear plants and so on, I am told by specialists that the model that Russians use for such nuclear plants, it’s very advanced and it doesn’t, no parallels exist anywhere in the West and they are very good, very reliable, very safe, etc. So people are quoting the costs and the cost reportedly for South Africa would be about a trillion rands. 

But, you know what what is interesting to me in this connection is not even the cost because the conditions of Russia’s deal with any country – and it has been building this nuclear powers all over Africa now. It has been building them now. It has an agreement with Zimbabwe, Mali, Burkina Faso, and many countries in Asia, Global South. This is what Russia is now interested in and where it is vying and fighting for influence. 

So the model of funding it uses is very interesting and it is very beneficial for the countries which signed such a deal.

Irina Filatova (07:24.328)

The Russians pay 90% of the costs upfront. They take all of the expenses, building expenses, construction expenses, exploitation expenses, they provide the stuff completely. They treat it as their own property. There’s no sort of participation on the part of the country recipient of such power plant, except buying the energy. And it seems all very good, particularly if 90% are paid upfront and the repayments can be stretched over many years, even over many decades. 

But here is a bit of a catch. Yes. To build a nuclear plant costs about 10 years. The exploitation period is about 60 years. To dismantle it costs a lot of money, and it lasts for another 10 to 20 years. So even one power plant ties up the country which it has to Russia for many decades, you see. And what it means is very easy to understand if we look at Hungary, for example. Hungary lives off Russia’s energy, about 40% is provided by Russian nuclear energy in Hungary. And that means that whether it likes it or not, it has to support Russia. It depends on its benevolence. It depends on how much energy it will get. It depends entirely on how it looks at the world and how it behaves through these eyes. And that is why Hungary said very clearly that it is not going to support any sanctions which the Western Alliance has, the Western countries declared against Russia in connection with its invasion of Ukraine. 

So that is where we stand. That is where we stand. Good nuclear energy, if you want it, then you tie it in that country which gets it. You are tied, you have to realise that you are tied to a particular kind of policy. You are tied to a particular mode of behavior for many, many, many decades. You can’t get out of it. 

So I think that by supporting Zuma, what Russia could, if it did give this money, and it’s highly probable, I think that it did. What could it hope to achieve? I think that it was, it couldn’t count on just Zuma returning to power as President. And I don’t think that it could count on outright Zuma’s victory. It would be difficult and I think the Russians understood it. I think they also could see easily that MK is not, how would I say it, is not quite well organised. We can see it from what happened after the elections when they just didn’t emerge for one set of negotiations, were late for another sort of negotiations, and they are already losing votes. 

I think the idea was to get the Zuma faction back to the ANC to show the ANC that this is an indispensable element and to return Zuma to the ANC and the influence of that faction together with its love and support declared, politically declared support for Cuba, Russia and Palestine against the Western imperialism as they formulated it. 

Irina Filatova (12:17.736)

So, if that faction returned to the ANC, and particularly if they returned to heading the ANC, getting rid of Ramaphosa, then that would have been the best scenario. Because then the ANC would become the old ANC where Zuma could dictate the policy, and where Russia would have supreme influence. 

And this is, of course, against the context of the divided world of the present day. So that’s where we stay, and that’s where the Government of National Unity must have been a complete disappointment for the Russians, because they treat the DA as a Western stooge and… somebody who is completely a complete enemy of Russia. Well, it remains to be seen how it works.

Chris Steyn (13:20.316)

Sorry to interrupt you. That’s exactly what I want to ask you. What you can tell us about Russia’s attitude towards the new Government of National Unity and what that could mean for the road ahead for South Africa.

Irina Filatova (13:36.456)

Well, I don’t know that they have expressed any particular attitude. I don’t think that they can. I don’t think so. Yeah. I don’t think that this is the result that they wanted. Definitely not. 

Irina Filatova (14:06.216)

And, I’m absolutely sure that they are disappointed in the results of the elections for the ANC, because even ANC alone, without Zuma, would have been much, much better than what has happened. So I think they will try to work with the ANC, with the part of the ANC which is radically inclined towards Zuma or his ideas and they would try to support these elements and they would try to work against the other elements within the Government of National Unity. 

They could, I’m not sure, but within the ANC of course there are people who did not necessarily desert the ANC in favour of Zuma. They could stay within the ANC and they could be still inclined to have a union with Russia. Even if only for the nuclear deal. The nuclear deals are all secret. They leave a lot of space for graft.

Chris Steyn (15:23.076)

Now, going abroad after the Zelensky-initiated peace talks in Switzerland, the talk of peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia suddenly re-emerged. What was that all about? How likely is that? And where would South Africa stand on that?

Irina Filatova (15:45.064)

Chris, first of all, it was not peace negotiations. It was called Peace Summit. And I don’t think that it was meant to be a negotiation. What Zelensky wanted was a kind of an expression of solidarity with Ukraine on the part of the majority of the countries of the world. And this is what he was seeking. He was seeking the confirmation of some support for Ukraine, particularly on the part of the Global South. 

This did not work quite well. This did not work quite well because Switzerland invited 160 countries. Only 92 countries attended and of course Russia was not invited, but China decided not to attend. And then they signed a communique, and I’ll come back to that, of these 92 countries only 77 signed. I mean, at first, only 80 signed, and then three withdrew their signatures. So not a very good result, particularly because the agenda which Zelensky promoted was very modest. It was extremely modest. Food security, nuclear security, and prisoners exchange. That’s all. Humanitarian goals.

During the debate, these goals were even made narrower. They were narrowed to what? Nuclear security was narrowed to the return of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the biggest nuclear plant in Europe, under Ukrainian control, where it has always been.

Irina Filatova (18:00.488)

Then food security was limited to the provision of the security of the Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea and security of shipments of Ukrainian grain in the Black Sea. And then the prisoners exchange. Prisoners exchange everybody for everybody, return the civilians, return Ukrainian children. So even that agenda was not signed by so many countries. 

Now it is interesting that in particular, BRICS countries were very prominent among those which did not sign this communicate. If we look at who did not sign, there was India, there was Brazil, there was South Africa, of course, there was Saudi Arabia. There was the United Arab Emirates, and unexpectedly among those who signed were Turkey and Serbia and Hungary. So the agenda was so modest that even these three countries found it possible to sign, not offending Russia at all. But the Greek countries didn’t. And I wonder why, what was it? Okay, they love Russia, they want good relations with Russia, they want Russia’s cheap oil and gas, etc. etc. South Africa is not getting even that. 

But I think that one of the most important things, one of the most important reasons could be completely different, and that is that on the 14th…the summit took place on by 15th and 16th June. And on 14th June, just before this summit, in order to somehow show Zelensky and everybody who was listening that you can’t speak of any of questions of importance without Russia, Putin made a speech in the Russian Foreign Ministry and what he spoke about was a Peace Plan. And the Peace Plan was quite amazing, I must say, and it was the first time that he formulated it. What he offered was the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the Ukrainian territories, Ukrainian territories which Russia only partially occupied, which is Donetsk and Lugansk regions, and the…Kherson regions. It does not occupy Kherson. Now it wants the whole Kherson region. So, what he declared was that as soon as Ukraine agrees to these conditions and as soon as it starts withdrawal of the troops, we shall declare a ceasefire and we’ll start negotiations as if there would be anything to negotiate after such a step.

And of course, the Ukrainian membership of NATO was absolutely unacceptable. So why did Putin offer this plan? And why he offered it on 14 June, just because the summit is quite obvious? He wanted to divide the West. He wanted to say, look, Europe, he spoke a lot about Europe. Europe is more or less occupied or colonised by the United States. And we want a new security system, which is Eurasian security system, which would include both Russia and Europe. Now, why did he say that?

Irina Filatova (22:32.36)

Of course not for Europe. Not for the benefit of Ukraine and not for the benefit of the Americans. He said that for the benefit of the Right-wing parties which obviously had a very strong showing at the EU elections and which are rising throughout Europe. So many of them are pro-Russian, many of them are Right-wing pro-Russian parties. Nationalistic, traditionalist etc etc. So that is one of the reasons now that such he conceptualised such a security system which would exclude the Americans. Let’s divide the world. We have Europe, the whole of it, Eurasia, and you have your America and okay we’ll leave you with the Latin America or South America if they want to. 

Now, so that’s one idea. He also spoke of BRICS as a possibly alternative system of security or a global organisation which would be of a new kind. It would be a multi-polar organisation, possibly instead of the United Nations, I don’t know if he didn’t say that, or alongside the United Nations, but obviously it would be a system, an organisation, he spoke that it would be a multi-polar organisation, but where there wouldn’t be any place for countries which are not members. And my understanding of this new vision of BRICS as such an independent organisation regulating international relations would be based entirely on power. I mean, it would be ruled by who might is right.

Irina Filatova (24:51.72)

So that is the new multi-polar world that we are going to see. So that is where South Africa has to choose. Does it want to live entirely in the world where might is right and where a more powerful country might say, look, I’m actually interested in some of your mines. Can you please give them to us? Or South Africa itself is a stronger country in the neighborhood may say, look, some sort of this or so Eswatini does not make any sense. We’ll just occupy their territory.

Do we want to live in such a world or do we want to live in the world where territorial integrity and sovereignty still matters something? I do not know. It’s for the South Africans to decide and for the Government of National Unity. You see, that is where one of the major contradictions may lie.

Chris Steyn (26:09.564)

Thank you. That was SA-Russia expert, Professor Irina Filatova speaking to BizNews. I’m Chris Steyn. Thank you, Professor.

Read also: