🔒 Premium RW Johnson: Curiouser and Curiouser – a G7 Story

By RW Johnson*

The G7 meets in Hiroshima, Japan on May 21 and, as we know, this time South Africa will not be in attendance. This decision was probably taken following the visit to South Africa in February this year by Janet Yellen, the US Treasury Secretary. Ms. Yellen told her hosts that the US was gravely disturbed by reports that South Africa had sold arms to the Russians, loading them onto the Lady R. She was told the matter would be investigated by a judicial inquiry led by a retired judge – but as soon as she departed this move was cancelled or forgotten. 

The US was doubtless frustrated by this poor response. One result was South Africa’s omission from the G7 list of invitees. Another, a while later, was ambassador Brigety’s broadside.

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As we know, when President Ramaphosa finally puts his mind to it, a judge will be hauled out of retirement to look into the question of what was going on with the Lady R. But there’s really no need for this. Only a day after this announcement the word was already out from unimpeachable sources in Cape Town that a consignment of ammunition for Russia had indeed been loaded onto the Lady R but that the paperwork was so arranged as to make the purchaser look like Belarus – though that country too is under sanctions. 

Read more: SA-US Relations: Lady R crisis looms amidst complex standoff, what do we really want? Katzenellenbogen

The only question left in doubt was whether this ammunition was for Russian forces in Ukraine or for the Wagner Group of mercenaries. On its way back to Russia the Lady R docked in Port Sudan. The Wagner Group is, of course, heavily involved in the ongoing war in the Sudan. In return for a gold mine, it is very actively supporting the rebel Rapid Support Forces of Mohamed Hemetti. So all that is left to find out is whether the Lady R off-loaded its South African ammunition in Port Sudan or not. It seems rather unlikely that a retired South African judge is going to bother to find out about that, though doubtless Thandi Modise, South Africa’s defence minister, already knows the answer. 

President Ramaphosa, now thoroughly put on notice that South Africa’s non-alignment is in grave doubt, has responded with the almost comic opera idea of an African peace mission to Kiev and Moscow. The mission is apparently to consist of  Egypt (ruled by a military dictator), Uganda (where President Museveni has already had 37 years in power), the Congo Republic (where President Nguesso has already had 39 years in power), Senegal (whose president is about to run for an unconstitutional third term), Zambia (just bailed out again by the IMF)  and power-stricken South Africa. 

President Zelenskyy was, of course, an expert comedian before becoming president. No doubt Vladimir Putin has a grim sense of humour of his own, though Zelenskyy says Putin is “very much afraid” of humour because it is a way of truth-telling. Be that as it may, both of them will no doubt hide a smile as they receive this absurd African peace mission, which lacks any leverage or even any real moral status. 

It is interesting, meanwhile, to see who has replaced South Africa on the G7 guest list. The countries invited to Hiroshima are Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Australia, Vietnam, the Comoros and the Cook Islands. 

It is clear from this that an attempt is being made to bring together all the major actors in the Indo-Pacific region who are likely to provide a bulwark against expanding Chinese power. The fact that the G7 are willing to invite Vietnam, a Communist country, is very striking. This undoubtedly stems from Vietnam’s sturdy independence from China (with which it has fought a war) and the fact that Vietnam and India are now the favoured alternatives for Western companies diversifying away from China. 

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But why the Comoros (population 851,000) ? Or the Cook Islands (population 15,000) ? 

The answer is, of course, that the African Union campaigned to be invited to the G7. Given that the AU cannot even finance itself – it relies on EU subsidies – it was unlikely that this would be taken seriously. But the  drop South Africa, by saying “Very well, instead of having a leading African state we will have the AU, representing all African states”. And the AU President is President Azali Assoumani of the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros. Some Africans may have reservations at thus being represented by an Arabic-speaker who initially came to power by means of a military coup.

The Cook Islands (there are 15 tiny islands but with an Exclusive Economic Zone of almost 2 million square kilometres) are not even independent – almost all its people are New Zealand citizens – though they are self-governing, with King Charles III as their constitutional monarch. 

The key to their G7 invitation is that their former prime minister, Henry Puna, is the Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum which groups Australia, New Zealand and fifteen islands strung right across the Pacific –  Fiji, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Western Samoa, Vanuatu, Tonga and so on. (Only Kiribati has withdrawn in a huff, claiming that a Micronesian should have got Puna’s job.)

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

The major reference here was the shocking news in May 2022 that China had signed a far-reaching security pact with the Solomon Islands. The US, Australia and New Zealand were tremendously jolted at the thought that China might make similar pacts with other Pacific islands, just as it had turned multiple rocky outcrops in the South China Sea into military bases. Bringing all those islands into closer touch with the G7 and the major powers of the Indo-Pacific was a way of heading that off. 

South Africa might reflect on that for it shows how easily the major powers have shifted their focus away from Africa altogether and towards the Indo-Pacific region where the really big issues of the 21st century will be settled.

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*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.