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

By RW Johnson*

South Africa’s attention has recently focused on the coming BRICS summit and the issue of whether Vladimir Putin will be arrested in compliance with the warrant from the International Criminal Court. It is a somewhat bogus issue: of course he won’t be. Politicians will avoid that, one way or the other.

The ICC is play-acting

The reason that the ICC tackles so many petty African dictators is mainly that it can’t deal with the big boys. In large part the ICC is a case of attempted legal over-reach. Start with the fact that the Court’s jurisdiction is not recognised by many states, including the USA, Russia, China and Israel. It is not clear that such a thing as international law (and certainly not criminal law) even really exists and certainly great power politics have never been regulated by courts or lawyers. Only completely defeated powers like Germany in 1945 have to endure having a Nuremberg Tribunal imposed on them.

RW Johnson on South Africa and Russia
Rhodes scholar, anti-apartheid activist, author and former Oxford don RW “Bill” Johnson.

By going for Putin, the ICC has gone for one of the big boys. It’s a purely political move and can’t possibly work. Russia has already announced that it will treat any attempt to arrest Putin as an act of war, calling for a furious military response. That already makes an arrest unthinkable. So while the ICC has put Ramaphosa in an uncomfortable position, you can be sure he’ll fudge it somehow. After all, Macron, Scholz or Sunak would all fudge it it they had to. No one in their right mind is going to try to arrest Putin.

Ramaphosa may be even more uncomfortable about the spiral of events that he’s got himself into by stopping Naledi Pandor from denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That was, after all, simply what the UN Charter demanded and no one would have been surprised if South Africa had behaved like a good UN member. By opting for a pro-Russian neutrality South Africa has got itself involved in a major international struggle which could have extremely damaging results.

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More play-acting

Take Julius Malema’s sworn determination to protect Putin, shepherding him to and from the airport and making sure no one can arrest him. This too is play-acting, of course: if Putin attends the BRICS Summit his security will be looked after by FSB professionals, not by South Africa’s unreliable security services, let alone the EFF’s amateur hoodlums.

The real point of Malema’s intervention is that he is advertising to the Russians his reliability as an ANC coalition partner. Malema has understood that Putin will be determined to use whatever means required to guarantee that a pro-Moscow government remains in power in South Africa after the 2024 election and he wants to ensure that the EFF will be on the right side of that Russian intervention.

Read more: PREMIUM RW Johnson: Why ANC/EFF most likely post-2024 – and potential consequences, including provincial secession pressure

The difficult issue of BRICS expansion

The other looming, big issue is, of course, BRICS expansion. South Africa will be chairing the BRICS Summit and is doubtless in touch with Beijing and Moscow about this even now.There is a large queue of possible new BRICS members – Senegal, Nigeria, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Iran, to name just a few.

The question this begs is what sort of animal BRICS wishes to become ? The general notion seems to be that it will be a grouping of mainly Third World states with a strong commitment to anti-Westernism, a corresponding wish for a multi-polar world (ie. no single US super-power) and a removal of the dollar from its role as the world’s reserve currency.

Such a grouping might suit the ANC with its 1950s nostalgia for the Spirit of Bandung. For, in effect, such a broad expansion would be a reformulation of the old Non-Aligned Movement – which still exists, with 120 members, though it is a shadow of its old self and its continuing relevance is doubtful. It was a product of the Cold War era and with the Cold War over it’s unclear what it is non-aligned between. Nonetheless, it’s instructive to look at its history.

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The story of the NAM

The NAM grew out of the meeting between Pandit Nehru and the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai in Colombo in 1954, a meeting summed up in the popular Hindi slogan Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai  (“Indians and Chinese are brothers”). The two men drew up the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence:

1. Mutual respect for one another’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

2. Mutual non-aggression.

3. Mutual non-interference in domestic affairs.

4. Equality and mutual benefit.

5. Peaceful co-existence.

These were immensely influential and were adopted wholesale by the 1955 Bandung Conference, “The Asian-African Conference” as it was called, summoned by President Sukarno of Indonesia. It was attended by 29 states including such notable left-wing leaders as Norodom Sihanouk from Cambodia, Burma’s U Nu, North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh and India’s proto-Communist foreign minister, Krishna Menon.  There was a great deal of anti-colonial and anti-imperial rhetoric and great stress on non-alignment and national self-determination.

In 1961 President Tito of Yugoslavia called the first NAM Summit in Belgrade, closely assisted by Nehru and Egypt’s President Nasser. Tito, having split from the Soviet bloc, seems to have seen himself as the NAM leader. Stress was now laid on the fact that NAM members should not join any Cold War military alliance such as NATO or the Warsaw Pact. African independence saw a huge influx of new members and a number of Carribean and Latin American countries also joined.

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The trouble with NAM

The trouble was that NAM was far too big and diverse. It could only agree on vague principles and no one country could really hope to exercise leadership. In the 1970s Fidel Castro attempted a takeover of the NAM and acted as its official spokesman. But this too ended in tears when the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979, infuriating NAM’s many Muslim members. At the UN NAM members voted by 56 -9 to condemn the Soviet invasion (with 26 abstaining). Cuba was one of the nine to support the USSR and Castro lost his leadership role in NAM. Later, Thabo Mbeki seems to have dreamed briefly of leading NAM after its 12th Summit was held in Durban in 2012 but this ambition too quickly faded.

The NAM continues – its 19th Summit will be held at the end of this year in Uganda – but as a somewhat ragged, low-key organisation. It is riven by contradictions and many of its members do not observe the principles of peaceful co-existence: we have seen several wars between India and Pakistan, and the notion of Indians and Chinese being brothers did not survive China’s invasion of India in 1962 and multiple later border conflicts. 

Similarly, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been virtually at war for forty years and the Saudis have also invaded a fellow-member, Yemen. Iran and Iraq have fought a major war and Iraq also invaded Kuwait, a fellow NAM member. Azerbaijan hosted the 18th NAM Summit in 2019 but this has not prevented it from several times invading Armenia. NAM supports Polisario against Morocco in the Western Sahara but Morocco continues merrily as a NAM member, clearly not taking this seriously.

Losing faith in NAM

Moreover, when NAM’s founder state, Yugoslavia, broke up, its successor states expressed little interest in continuing with NAM. Instead Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia all chose to join NATO. Similarly, Malta and Cyprus both chose to quit NAM so that they could join the EU (seen as a Western bloc). Even more strikingly, India has downgraded its participation in NAM and although a host of tiny Carribean and Central American micro-states belong to NAM, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina do not belong. Nor does China.

Moreover NAM’s non-alignment was often bogus. Its anti-Westernism led it to admit states like North Korea, North Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Cuba – all clearly aligned – and today its only European member is the equally aligned Belarus, which now houses Russian nuclear missiles.

The root problem was that “the Third World” or “the Global South” are merely loose political expressions. Despite endless wishful dreams that the Third World might unite to wrest power from the First and Second Worlds, there is absolutely no prospect of anything like that happening. The dreams of the 1970s  of a New International Economic Order (and a New International Information and Communication Order) remained just that, dreams.

Moreover, the Third World has been breaking up. Some NAM members – Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Singapore – are now extremely rich and many Asian and Latin American countries have been climbing out of poverty. As this happens they become increasingly integrated into the globalised (and capitalist) world order. Increasingly, the only really poor states will be in Africa. 

A difficult decision

So BRICS expansion is a difficult decision. South Africa feels an emotional attraction to the “Global South” but the fact is that its position will only be weakened by expansion. It currently has leverage as Africa’s only member of BRICS. Having Nigeria, Senegal and Egypt muscle in as new BRICS members would diminish that.

Moreover, if BRICS expands to include more Third World countries it will merely inherit some of NAM’s contradictions. But it also has its own. Its central pillar is the Russia-China alliance which means it is anything but non-aligned and its enthusiasm for a multi-polar world cannot disguise the fact that, with the West excluded, such a world would revolve around China. South Africa, which was happy to preside over NAM not long ago, may not have understood that BRICS is not non-aligned. It is fully aligned against the West.

South Africa, in company with some other naive Third World states, likes the sound of “a more equitable, multi-polar order”. They share the delusion that forming alliances and passing resolutions can somehow re-balance the world order in their favour. It can’t. What happens is that some Third World states, by dint of immense hard work, discipline and creativity, manage to become middle or upper-income states and thus transform both their economic and international status. They invariably do this by becoming more attractive to foreign investors and more integrated into the globalised world (capitalist) order. This seems to be the only way of escaping from Third World status.

This is really the nub. BRICS’ anti-Westernism seems now to be its main principle. President Lula da Silva of Brazil has just decided to join with Xi in launching a peace initiative for the Russia-Ukraine war but this was immediately discounted in Washington “because he’s a member of BRICS which is anti-Western”. If BRICS now admits such anti-Western rogue states as Iran, Cuba or Venezuela it will merely strengthen this impression. That might suit Putin who has chosen to be an outcast (in his own mind he is leading the way to a new order) but it won’t suit Xi who wants China to be regarded as a responsible leading power – and possible future hegemon – of the international order.

Already the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its forcible annexation of parts of Ukraine and its continued atrocities in that war have violated any notion of human rights, the UN Charter and the principles of peaceful co-existence. China is wary. It has already told Putin that there can be no question of the use of nuclear weapons. Putin has to obey, which means that his continued threat of such weapons is mere bluff.

China will decide

So actually China will decide about BRICS expansion. Probably Xi will then recruit Putin to argue for what Beijing wants and that is what BRICS will do, whatever South Africa thinks. For BRICS is ultimately dominated by the power of China. And China’s plans for BRICS will depend upon it becoming a platform which institutionalises and strengthens China’s role in the international system. China is tightly focused on its own long-term interests and is unbothered by sentimental notions about “Third World solidarity” or loyalty to the “Global South”.

This Chinese dominance is likely to be more of a problem than South Africa realises. For China is an imperial power with territorial claims against multiple neighbouring states. It has already attempted a virtual take-over of the entire South China Sea and when it has been adjudged to have violated the Law of the Sea or other international obligations it simply denounces these as fictions. The China-Russia alliance is actually completely one-sided: Russia, with an economy only 10% of China’s size, is utterly dependent on Chinese goodwill.

On the eve of Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow a Chinese website published a map of Russia in which all the towns of southern Siberia were given their old Chinese names, clearly resurrecting Chinese claims to vast parts of Russia. Any Soviet leader would have exploded with rage at such a provocation. Putin said nothing. He can’t afford to quarrel with Xi.

No event has marked Russian history more deeply than the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. For well over two centuries the Mongols ruled, instilling an Asiatic despotism which Russia, whether under Czarism or Communism, has never since really escaped. The Russians who ruled as the Mongols’ minions had to receive the formal mandate (actually a formal document) of the Mongol emperor. Power was absolute, autocratic and cruel. It remains thus in both Russia and China.

Independent Russian media commentators – who these days sit mainly in exile in Europe, Georgia or Kazakhstan – likened Xi’s visit to that of a Mongol emperor. Xi got what he wanted – heavily discounted prices on Russian oil and gas – but made no offer of military aid in return, which was what Putin desperately needed. All that Xi did was to remark on leaving that he hoped the Russian people would keep re-electing Putin. This was likened to a Mongol emperor giving his mandate to his satrap.

Russia throughout its history has been torn between East and West, between Europe and Asia, but Putin’s clear subordination to Xi is seen as Russia opting decisively for an Asian future as a client of the new Chinese empire. Given the still rising power of China many see this as an irreversible shift.

A sentimental solidarity                             

Where does this leave South Africa ? An initial point is that there is very little expertise or sophistication in Pretoria’s foreign policy views. Its attitudes seem to be based largely on rather crude and out-dated Cold War sympathies and it has little understanding of the immense complexities of a multi-polar world – which it dreams of without any clear idea of what it means – let alone such vast projects as the replacement of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

In that sense the ANC government is simply way out of its depth. It seems to have little appreciation of the huge economic disaster which its foreign policies may cause for South Africa. It also seems to expect the outside world to accept its protestations of its neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war at face value. This is naive. Western politicians are generally far sharper than their South African counterparts and they can see a bogus neutrality for what it is.

The Africa-Russia parliamentary forum (!) met last week – it is to be an annual affair. At it the Russians were encouraging African states to demand reparations from the West for colonialism. This sort of hopeless cause, music to many African ears, is really all about encouraging hostility to the West. At the meeting – which included a virtual Putin – the Speaker of South Africa’s  National Assembly, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said of Russia: “We will continue to lean on you, and you can rest assured that as a country and as a people of South Africa, we will continue to support the people of Russia.”

The revealing phrase here is “we will continue to lean on you”. That is what the ANC did through all the hardest years of the struggle. The USSR was by far its largest backer and most generous donor and ANC cadres drew enormous confidence from the sheer strength of the USSR. MK veterans will all tell you of how their Soviet military instructors told them of the mighty feats of the Red Army in the war against Hitler. Typically, this was all hearsay, verbal stuff: nobody in MK read anything serious about WWII.

The big thing was that the backing of a such a powerful sponsor was wonderful for confidence and morale. But it was also practical: Soviet money paid for all the air tickets, hotels, conferences, seminars, workshops, scholarships, training and weapons that the ANC needed and used. Moreover the USSR offered them the prospect of a brighter world without the West. The fall of the USSR, which deprived them of that vision, was thus unbearably painful.

The ANC knows that it is in deep decline, that it is in very serious trouble. The newspapers already write as if the ANC going under 50% is a done deal. And anyone who walks round an informal settlement or township will be left in little doubt about the anger and despair most black people feel. This creates great nervousness in the ANC elite whose careers and incomes are on the line.

The temptation in this situation to fall back into reliance on the mighty Russian bear is overwhelming. “We lean on you.” Nothing could be more welcome than renewed Russian support and the ANC would sell any number of Ukraines down the river to get it. Russia could even reverse the unfavourable election result which is now one of the ANC’s greatest fears.

This is simply an emotional reflex. There is no awareness in the ANC (or the SACP, let alone the EFF) that Russia is a disintegrating empire and that it is more and more dependent on Beijing. Nor that the Russian army is hopelessly corrupt and shambolic, that it has taken fearful casualties against much smaller Ukrainian forces and is heavily dependent on mercenaries who are mere criminal cannon-fodder. It’s not that the stories about Stalingrad and Kursk aren’t true but they’re 80 years ago. It’s a whole different ball-game now. Pretoria hasn’t even assimilated what a dire fact it is that so much of the Russian intelligentsia has abandoned the country and sits in exile. Apparently many in the ANC also believe that Russia will somehow get South Africa a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Dream on.

Nonetheless, it’s possible that the Russian alliance will see the ANC through at least one more time. The ANC is already being propped up by Viktor Vekselberg’s money and Ramaphosa in his unwisdom has made it a Russian foreign policy imperative to keep the ANC in power. To this end resources will be mobilised, cyber warfare will be waged, kompromat and bribery used (as the Russians used them in the recent Madagascar election) and ultimately, of course, Putin’s men will have no problems at all if violent means are necessary to keep the ANC in power.

Ramaphosa needs to think hard. If things were to go that way South Africa would end up aligned with the non-democratic camp, as dependent on Putin as Belarus and with crippling Western sanctions only too likely. It is hard to believe that he wants that or even to risk that, or for his presidency to end in total ignominy. He can still draw back. The ICC has given him a wonderful excuse to fob Putin off. He would be well advised to take it.

*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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