🔒 Premium – RW Johnson: Fairy tales for grownups? SA’s too-obvious links to Wagner Group

By RW Johnson*

The exploits of Russia’s Wagner Group and its founder and boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, occupy a great deal of space in the news. This private army, thought to have up to 50,000 men in Ukraine (an estimated 10,000 regular mercenaries, a hearsay 40,000 convicts), has also been active in Syria, Libya, Mozambique, Mali, Sudan and the Central African Republic.

The CAR is, indeed, now a virtual Wagner colony – the President, Fautin-Archange Touadera, is a Wagner puppet and Wagner soldiers are seen everywhere – controlling the borders, providing security for the elite, manning bases and running gold and diamond mines. In effect the CAR has become the Wagner HQ in the heart of Africa.


Everywhere Wagner mercenaries are a byword for brutality and human rights abuses, exchanging their protection service favours for mining concessions and industrial-scale smuggling of gold and diamonds.  For all that, they are in demand, especially by the Sahel regimes threatened by jihadists.

Many African states are extremely fragile, rickety affairs, with useless, unreliable or sometimes mutinous armies. Dealing with Wagner may mean dealing with the devil but for leaders worried about their own survival that’s still a whole lot better than having no one to rely on.

Read more: To Russia With Love: Why Pretoria won’t drop Putin

The dream of a peaceful Africa

Of course Pan-Africanists like Thabo Mbeki liked to believe that African wars were the result of the colonial inheritance and would die out once Africa was free. But the opposite seems to be the case. Before colonialism, wars in Africa were common.

Colonialism suppressed all that, cruelly no doubt, and for anywhere between 60 and 200 years the Pax Colonial ruled everywhere. Only with the retreat of colonialism and the era of independence did multiple wars return. This pattern was true of South Africa too. As the era of liberation neared there were few casualties in the armed struggle between the MK and the SADF but 15,000 died in the war between the

UDF/ANC and Inkatha.

So, as far one can see, wars are likely to remain a permanent reality in independent Africa. Recently we have seen wars in the DRC, Libya, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, northern Nigeria, Somalia, the Central African Republic and Mozambique. In addition, of course, many African states have military regimes, all of which came to power by force and which are only too likely to leave power only by force. All in all, Africa is an extremely promising market both for arms suppliers and mercenaries.

So the Wagner Group is still expanding its operations. It seems already to have moved into Burkina Faso (where the regime has foolishly kicked out the French who were keeping the jihadists at bay). The result is that there, as also in Mali, the jihadists are clearly winning. For no matter how brutal the Wagner troops are, they don’t have the numbers to match the jihadists, they are nothing like as well trained or equipped as the French, and they lack their knowledge of the terrain.

Moreover, the French had vastly superior intelligence and they had air power, which Wagner mainly lacks. In addition Wagner troops have been sighted in Chad and have had discussions in Brazzaville about a possible role in the Congo Republic. Wagner election monitors also helped certify the last (rigged) Zimbabwean elections as free and fair.

Read more: RW Johnson: The mistaken nostalgia for the Mbeki Presidency

Pretoria’s surprising silence

Historically the ANC has always denounced mercenary interventions in Africa, even those carried out for largely humanitarian reasons. Mercenaries were seen, not without reason, as the worst sort of colonial adventurers. Which makes it all the more surprising and interesting that Pretoria has had nothing to say about the spreading plague of the Wagner group in Africa.

This is presumably because Prigozhin is a close ally of Putin and the Wagner Group clearly acts in cahoots with the Russian state. Thus, for example, when Wagner was invited by Omar al-Bashir to suppress the uprising in western Sudan. There they made a deal with the Rapid Support Force commander, Hemeti, for which the pay-off was a gold mine, with the gold exported to Russia. Al-Bashir and Putin had meanwhile agreed on a Russian naval base at Port Sudan.

So, since the ANC government is now in bed with the Russians (and ANC officials depend on Russian money for their pay) it would appear that Pretoria either views the Wagner Group as “good mercenaries” or, at the least, is scared to criticise them. There might, after all, be circumstances in which the Wagner Group might be useful to the ANC domestically.

If any other group of mercenary adventurers was marauding round the continent, brutalising and killing local Africans and grabbing their mineral resources, Pretoria would no doubt have been almost hysterical in its denunciation. But on the Wagner Group’s activities the ANC is completely silent. For the ANC is in deep trouble and needs to “lean on” Russian support, as the Speaker of Parliament, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula put it.

Read more: RW Johnson: The coming crunch over South Africa-Russia relations

The Lady R and the Il-76

All of which poses further questions about the two recent mysterious events when (a) the Russian container ship, the Lady R, docked at night at Simonstown Naval Base in early December and (b) the arrival, also at night, at Waterkloof Air Force Base of a Russian Ilyushin Il-76 military transport plane on April 24. According to the SANDF spokesman, Brigadier-General Andries Mahapa, the plane was merely delivering “diplomatic mail” for the Russian Embassy in Pretoria.

The first point to note is that the Lady R is under US and EU sanctions for secretly carrying arms shipments. Similarly, the airline that owns the Il-76, Aviacon Zitotrans, is also under US sanctions for transporting arms to the Russian armed forces in Ukraine.

Secondly, the Lady R arrived at night and left at dawn, obviously trying to achieve maximum secrecy. Nonetheless she was observed both to download cargo onto waiting trucks and also to take other cargo on board. It is almost unheard of for Simonstown to be used for cargo operations – such traffic would normally go to Table Bay – and, even more unusually, armed guards made sure that no one could get close to the trucks onto which cargo was downloaded.

There was great public pressure for an explanation but the SANDF refused all comment. Finally the Minister of Defence, Thandi Modise, gave an explanation only two weeks later. The cargo off-loaded, she said was “an old, outstanding order for ammunition used by the Special Forces”. She was, though, extremely vague and said that really she would “be guessing” until she saw the full paperwork dealing with the matter. The Defence Department promised a full explanation later – but in fact provided none.

Clearly, the USA asked Pretoria for an explanation for Ms Modise continued “…the reason you are interested and America is interested in that vessel coming into our shores, is actually because America threatens the rest of Africa – not just South Africa – of anything (sic) that is even smelling of Russia. As far as they’re concerned we must consume all the Russian vodka quickly, and if it is depleted you will be found wanting for drinking the Russian vodka”.  

Read more: RW Johnson on CR’s myopia; Russian interference in 2024; alternatives to ANC/EFF (IFP anyone?)

Nonsensical explanations

Leaving aside Ms Modise’s ungrammatical and embarrassing sense of humour, her explanation makes no sense. Anyone who remembers the arms deal will know that no part of the SANDF uses Russian weaponry or requires ammunition brought from Russia. And there was no attempt to explain the extreme secrecy surrounding the Lady R’s visit. Moreover, no explanation at all was offered as to what the cargo loaded onto the Lady R had been.  

The explanation for the visit of the Il-76 was similarly nonsensical. The Il-76, a huge four engined monster, has a payload of 47 tonnes. It is hardly the plane you’d choose to deliver diplomatic mail. In any case, Russia has had an embassy in Pretoria ever since 1992. The first thing any embassy does is to make regular arrangements for the delivery and dispatch of diplomatic mail. These arrangements have been working smoothly for over thirty years, so why the sudden need for the monstrous Il-76 to make a stealthy (night-time) arrival at an air force base, and not a commercial airport?

Moreover the Il-76, once it left Russia, landed at 13 different destinations, all in Africa – it arrived at Waterkloof from Luanda and departed for Harare. The flight’s routing on its Flight Radar 24 application is clearly visible for all the other destinations where it landed – but mysteriously missing is any reference to landing or taking off from Waterkloof.

An interesting hypothesis

The final piece of the jigsaw is that the Il-76 originally took off from Chkalovsky Air Base, 31 kilometres north-east of Moscow. This air base houses the military aviation test centre for all military aircraft. With all the latest fighters, bombers, helicopters etc being tested here the base is necessarily shrouded in secrecy. The base is also home to the Russian Air Force’s Special Purpose Aviation Division and to its 223rd and 224th flight detachments. These are the detachments which service all the logistical needs of the Wagner Group.

This enables us to put two and two together. Start with the fact that both the Lady R and the airline owning the Il-76 are under sanctions for secretly carrying arms shipments. Ignore the nonsensical official “explanations”. Note that the Il-76 took off from the air base which quite specifically looks after the logistical needs of the Wagner Group and note that the Il-76 has the heavy carrier capacity required for arms shipments. Note, too, the armed guards protecting the trucks taking cargo off the Lady R – suggesting the extreme sensitivity of that cargo, which also doubtless explains the extreme secrecy attending both the visits of the Lady R and the Il-76.

In other words, everything suggests that both these visits were for arms deliveries. It is most unlikely that the arms were for the SANDF. So the arms were either for the use of Russians or their allies. But the regular Russian armed forces have no presence in Africa. The only Russian forces on the continent belong to the Wagner Group. So it looks possible that both these mysterious visits were about funnelling arms to the Wagner mercenaries, with South Africa’s full collaboration. The Il-76, with its 47 tonne capacity, may well have been dropping off other munitions at its many other African destinations (it made 13 African stops, remember).

Imagine if that were so. Such collaboration would, of course, be a huge embarrassment for Pretoria if discovered. That would go far to explain the secrecy and the armed guards. The whole subject would engender great nervousness in the parts of the government dealing with this matter and they would try to invent cover stories to explain whatever they could – or just refuse to explain altogether. Such nervousness might even lead one to make extremely poor jokes about America’s threats for our drinking lots of Russian vodka.

*RW Johnson is a British journalist, political scientist, and historian who lives in South Africa and has been a citizen and passport holder of the country for almost thirty years. Born in England, he was educated at Natal University and Oxford University, as a Rhodes Scholar. He was a fellow in politics at Magdalen College, Oxford, for 26 years and remains an emeritus fellow.

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