RW Johnson: Implications for SA of a suddenly fragile Putin; Ramaphosa bombing in Paris

Political scientist RW Johnson reckons there are significant implications here in South Africa after the weekend’s aborted coup in Russia by Prigozhin’s Wagner forces. The ANC and local Communist Party’s support for a suddenly fragile Putin exposes them – and there are implications, too, for the country’s watershed election in 2024. Johnson also sheds light on the parlous state of South Africa’s international relations efforts and the need for a vast improvement in its expertise. Plus, he is scathing about SA president Cyril Ramaphosa’s performance at the Paris summit which raises serious questions about his grasp of geopolitics and economics. – Alec Hogg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Introductions
  • 00:58 – RW Johnson on the attempted Wagner Group coup in Russia and its consequences on South Africa
  • 06:03 – Johnson on the possible disbanding of the Wagner Group and its impact on Africa
  • 07:40 – On if the Wagner rebellion signals an end to their involvement in African conflict
  • 10:15 – On Ramaphosa’s contribution to the Paris summit over the weekend
  • 12:41 – On why international relations are relevant to South Africa
  • 16:19 – On how the SA government handles itself on the global stage
  • 19:38 – Concludes

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Edited transcript of the interview:

Alec Hogg: RW Johnson joins us today following the momentous events of the weekend. Mr. Johnson, you have been cautioning us for some time about the fragility of the Putin project and the potential repercussions for South Africa. Without drawing any immediate conclusions from the weekend’s events, it does appear that South Africa will be affected by Prigozihn’s attempted coup and this has implications as we approach the country’s 2024 election. People are understandably wondering whether this will have a positive or negative outcome for our country.

RW Johnson: Regarding the coup, it will certainly leave the ANC and the Communist Party in an awkward and exposed position. Many of them seem to have bought into the Russian propaganda narrative about Ukraine, with claims of fascist tendencies and NATO’s aggressive expansion. However, Prigozihn’s statement debunked those claims, calling them lies and nonsense. He emphasized the need for negotiation and expressed confidence in President Zelensky’s willingness to engage. Prigozihn, a right-wing Russian nationalist even more extreme than Putin, enjoys considerable support, as seen in the cheering crowds during his departure from Rostov. His words have gone unanswered and unchallenged, and they undermine the ANC and SACP’s narrative on this matter. So, this is certainly a noteworthy development.

Additionally, as you rightly mentioned, the situation in Russia has become increasingly difficult. The oligarchs are growing disillusioned with the Putin regime, leading to discussions about a potential successor. Rumors regarding Putin’s health also circulate, and the general sentiment is that his departure is imminent and possibly not far off. The outcome of this transition could be peaceful or turbulent. It’s worth noting that while the most vocal figures like Prevoshin hold extreme views, the oligarchs themselves want an end to the war. It is costing them financially, impeding their ability to reside in London or provide their children with an English education. The damaged economy and isolation of Russia also affect Russians residing in European countries, who face various difficulties due to their nationality. The “leper factor,” as it were, is strongly present, sometimes unjustly. The oligarchs desire an end to these consequences. Therefore, it’s unclear whether we might witness a complete collapse of the regime’s structure. The outcome remains uncertain, but historically, attempted coups in Russia have often resulted in the downfall of the targeted leader in the subsequent months. Such attempts demonstrate high-level discontent and weaken the regime’s perceived strength. Putin’s current situation appears feeble, as he couldn’t control his own creation. Prigozhin vocalized uncomfortable truths that reverberated throughout Russia and beyond, and there has been no response to his claims. Putin’s image has suffered greatly, and Prigozhin’s ability to announce their journey to Moscow, even though the road was eventually closed, reflects poorly on Putin’s control. The fact that the Russian army was uncertain, reluctant to choose sides or engage in conflict, suggests a lack of full reliability and loyalty from Putin’s perspective. This is an alarming sign. Consequently, it is far from over, and we must patiently observe the unfolding events in the coming months.

Alec Hogg: In a recent article for BizNews Premium, you discussed the involvement of the Wagner Group in Africa. Now that it’s being disbanded, what do you think might happen next?

RW Johnson: It’s unclear at this point. While the Wagner Group in Ukraine is being placed under the command of Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, it seems that some of Prigozhin’s men are accompanying him to Belarus. So he still has some of his supporters with him. This situation leaves those who are operating in Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and other places in a precarious position. It is likely that Prigozhin will attempt to maintain his African operations if possible, as they are lucrative and provide him with leverage within Russia. Although these operations are not supposed to be under the control of the Russian defense minister, we’ll have to wait and see if they continue. However, it’s worth noting that Wagner, as a private army, has relied on support from the Russian state, and it remains to be seen if that support will continue.

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

Alec Hogg: This adds another element to the equation. With Prigozhin potentially staying in Belarus but maintaining his African operations, it could worsen the situation for the continent, where he has been propping up regimes through his mercenaries.

RW Johnson: We cannot be certain if Prigozhin will indeed stay in Belarus or if he’s already there. I would be surprised if he trusts the Belarus regime, as it is closely aligned with Putin’s Russia and acts as a loyal vassal or colony. It’s important to recognize that Russia is an imperial state, seeking to reclaim its former colonies. Concurrently, we see China exerting significant influence in countries like Kazakhstan, Turkestan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and other Central Asian nations, gradually turning them into Chinese colonies. China, too, is an imperial state and believes these territories belong to them, resulting in territorial claims. The Russians perceive a substantial part of the former Soviet Empire slipping away, and they are concerned about Chinese illegal migration into Siberia, a region rich in resources. China’s overpopulation and Russia’s underpopulation further complicate matters. The war has only made it increasingly apparent that Russia is becoming more dependent on China.

Alec Hogg: It’s a complex situation that requires thorough analysis and research. On a different note, Cyril Ramaphosa’s performance at the Paris summit last week seemed disconnected from geopolitics and even economics. You described his contribution, which can be found on YouTube, as a 12 to 15-minute discussion at the end of the summit. The body language of those present indicated skepticism, as much of what Ramaphosa said didn’t seem to make sense. Indeed, Ramaphosa’s performance at the summit raised concerns. His remarks lacked coherence and failed to align with the realities of geopolitics and economics, as observed by the body language of the attendees.

The mindmap of Alec Hogg’s notes for his interview with RW Johnson:

RW Johnson: I think Ramaphosa is way out of his depth and it’s rather pathetic actually. Well, it is evident that he is inexperienced and lacks the required expertise for the role he holds, which is rather disheartening. His speech in Paris, where he emphasized that Africa would only be taken seriously if the West invests significant amounts of money, is quite lamentable. The notion that we have to be rewarded in such a way for our opinions to matter is somewhat saddening. I can envision leaders like Macron privately scoffing at this proposition once they are away from public view. Frankly, he appears to lack the seriousness and gravitas needed for the job.

However, I do agree that there is some truth to this criticism. Overall, many South Africans tend to have a parochial outlook. Being located at the southern tip of Africa, they often lack awareness and understanding of international events, as they do not actively study them. I doubt if he has had the opportunity to delve deeply into global affairs. His knowledge is likely limited to what he has learned on the job in recent years, which may not be substantial. Consequently, he is clearly lacking in experience and falls behind the curve. Former President Thabo Mbeki, on the other hand, possessed a much better grasp of international affairs. Until his controversial stance on issues such as AIDS, he was taken seriously in global circles. However, his credibility waned over time.

Furthermore, I must admit that our Department of International Relations and Cooperation, commonly known as DIRCO, often exhibits amateurism and a lack of depth in their approach. Our ambassadors, unfortunately, do not always excel in their roles. It is quite astonishing that while we are concerned about our relationship with the United States, we have been without an ambassador in Washington for a considerable period. The failure to swiftly appoint someone capable and knowledgeable is truly absurd. These circumstances highlight the need for significant improvement and proper direction in our foreign affairs endeavors.

Read more: Vladimir Putin is reaping the fruits of his own misjudgments – FT Editorial Board

Alec Hogg: We do know that South Africa is an open economy with more than 50% of business activity reliant on either imports or exports. But why is international relations on a political level so relevant?

RW Johnson: Well, you’ve touched on an important aspect with your description. When you have an open economy that heavily relies on imports, exports, and foreign investments, it becomes crucial to be attuned to the global landscape and maintain connections with the countries you depend on. Therefore, it is imperative to stay informed and engaged with our international counterparts.

In my observations, one of the concerns I’ve written about is our leaders’ infatuation with ideas propagated by the BRICS nations, suggesting a shift towards a poly-polar, multipolar world and the reduced dominance of superpowers. They harbor hopes of a different reserve currency, imagining it will happen in the near future. However, these are distant goals that might never materialize. It is as out of touch as their persistent demands for a seat on the UN Security Council. Realistically, South Africa is far down the list, behind countries like India, Germany, Japan, and possibly Indonesia. The idea of an African nation holding a permanent seat on the Security Council is highly improbable and far from realistic.

Similarly, the notion of a multipolar world is not the direction we are heading. In fact, we seem to be regressing into a Cold War-like scenario, with two superpowers—this time being the United States and China—emerging as dominant forces. We are likely to find ourselves in a situation reminiscent of the Cold War era. While there may be more middle powers than before, particularly in Asia, Africa does not stand to benefit significantly. Although some African nations, such as Kenya and Mauritius, are progressing rapidly, they are starting from a disadvantaged position.

Alec Hogg: It’s clear that you have a strong opinion about President Ramaphosa’s performance and the narrative presented by South Africa on the global stage. Can you shed some light on why the president would engage in what you consider to be nonsensical discussions with other world leaders? What influences this kind of discourse, and where does it deviate from the current reality?

Read more: Russian war games: Putin wounded by Prigozhin’s failed rebellion – Professor Abel Esterhuyse

RW Johnson: Well, to be fair, international meetings often involve leaders talking nonsense. In the apartheid era, it was a different kind of nonsense. But it’s hard to take seriously a country that was deeply divided over the issue of multiracial sports teams for such a long time. Looking back, it’s clear that the issue was trivial in the grand scheme of things. We’ve all easily adjusted to the change, and now it seems absurd that it was ever a problem. However, that was the reality for a significant period. The problem lies in the caliber of spokespeople and advisors within the presidency, as well as the shortcomings of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO). Our ambassadors, on the whole, are often individuals with political affiliations rather than experts in their fields. Consequently, the necessary framework of advisors and expertise that should be in place is lacking. It’s challenging for Ramaphosa to find reliable sources of advice on these matters. If he turns to those currently advising him, he’ll likely encounter more nonsense. Therefore, the lack of knowledge and expertise in foreign affairs is not surprising. It’s worth noting that foreign leaders are accustomed to this situation. Initially, they were pleased to engage with Ramaphosa because he seemed knowledgeable and displayed an understanding of global politics, having spent years participating in international forums and engaging with delegates. However, the same cannot be said for the current leaders. This is often the case with many African leaders, making it difficult for Western countries to take them seriously. When leaders like Idi Amin, Hastings Banda, or Mobutu came forward with outrageous statements, they weren’t regarded as credible, despite coming from countries of some importance. It’s challenging for Africans to be perceived as influential players on the international stage, as there are few African leaders who can truly be taken seriously. This is simply a factual observation.

Alec Hogg: Thank you, RW Johnson, political scientist and former Oxford University professor. I’m Alec Hogg from

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