🔒 Premium – FT Editorial Board: SA’s arms to Russia undercuts supposedly neutral stance

By The Editorial Board of the Financial Times of London

There are three possible explanations for the diplomatic storm that has broken out between South Africa and the US after Washington’s ambassador alleged that armaments had been loaded on to a ship docked in South Africa and bound for Russia.

Two of these reflect miserably on Pretoria and the ruling African National Congress. The first is that Cyril Ramaphosa’s government really had no idea that arms were being loaded on to the Lady R in Simon’s Town last December. That would be a shocking admission, since it is supposed to be a secure military base. But given the dysfunctionality of the ANC and the levels of corruption and criminality that have permeated core state institutions, it is not entirely implausible.

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The second explanation is that South Africa’s government knew full well it was exporting arms to Russia — whether out of a misplaced loyalty to Moscow harking back to the days of the Soviet Union, which backed the ANC’s liberation struggle more than 30 years ago, or because it felt obliged to stick by a fellow Brics country. This would mean South Africa knowingly supplied arms to Moscow in defiance of western sanctions.

Read more: SA in Bloomberg global newsletter’s spotlight: “Embracing Putin is a gamble”

The third explanation is that US intelligence is wrong. Given the number of satellites the US may have pointed at the Lady R, this seems unlikely. America’s ambassador said he would “bet his life” on the veracity of the information. Sceptics will point to his later apology, though this seems to have been more over the tone than the content. They will also recall phoney US intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Yet Washington has learnt lessons. Recent US intelligence pertaining to Russia’s intentions in Ukraine has proved depressingly accurate.

Embarrassingly, Ramaphosa has felt obliged to order an inquiry into what went on in his country’s own naval base. Even if this somehow exonerates him, South Africa’s foreign policy will remain in a shambles.

Read more: The mysterious Lady R: More questions re SA’s arms-to-Russia claims with Prof Esterhuyse

Pretoria has declared itself neutral in the Russia-Ukraine war, saying it prefers a peaceful solution to picking sides. Yet its actions lean clearly towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In February, South Africa conducted joint naval exercises off its coast with Russia and China. The ANC has done little to distance itself from the conclusions of its youth league that the crooked referendums Russia used to annex parts of eastern Ukraine last September were a “beautiful, wonderful process”. Ramaphosa has been fawning in his public dealings with Putin.

The contortions South Africa has gone through highlight a wider issue. Developing countries have a legitimate aspiration to push for a new world order that better represents their interests in a multipolar world. They are right to point out that institutions created after the second world war — from the IMF and the World Bank to the UN — no longer reflect the world we live in.

Read more: John Steenhuisen calls out Ramaphosa over Russian arms deal

But whatever South Africa is doing is clearly not the way to go about it. Pretoria’s flip-flopping and obfuscations in relation to the Russia-Ukraine war reflect the reality that it will not be straightforward to replace the US-led rules-based order with something consistent and credible.

Defenders of South Africa’s position point out it is a sovereign country with a sovereign foreign policy. That does not mean Pretoria can pass off a pro-Russian stance as somehow neutral. South Africa has benefited from much international goodwill, born of its overthrow of the apartheid regime. As such, it enjoys preferential access to the US and European markets, a huge boon for its carmaking and other industries. If Pretoria wants to throw in its lot with Putin, that is its choice. But it should realise that such choices have consequences.

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