Why is South Africa neutral towards Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and even, U.S. lawmakers allege, “deepening its military relationship with Russia over the past year?”  It partly owes to a misplaced sense of national gratitude for Soviet opposition to apartheid during the Cold War.

South Africa’s president was recently in St. Petersburg with other African leaders to advocate for a peace settlement, to which Putin was unreceptive.  He even interrupted the presentation before 3 of the 7 Africans leaders could speak.  The Africans also meet with Zelensky in Kiev, where they experienced Russian rocket attacks, which they rightly understood as an insult to their peace initiative.  

Perhaps the negative experiences will cool South Africa’s apparent desire for military collaboration with Russia.  The Republican and Democratic leadership of the U.S. Senate and House foreign relations committees complained that “South Africa’s government has formally taken a neutral stance on Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, but has deepened its military relationship with Russia over the past year.”

Specifically, the lawmakers say South Africa covertly shipped arms to Russia, conducted joint military exercises with Russia and China, and allowed a Russian military cargo plane to land in South Africa.  They also warn that Putin is invited to the August BRICS summit in South Africa, despite an outstanding arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (to which the U.S. does not itself belong.) South Africa’s army commander has also visited Moscow to discuss “combat readiness.”

South Africa is officially neutral in the war between Russia and Ukraine.  But in March South Africa’s foreign minister, hosting a visiting Russian official, declared: “There are some who don’t wish us to have relations with an old historical friend. We have made it clear that Russia is a friend, and we have had cooperative partnerships for many, many years.” She recalled Russia’s support in the anti-apartheid struggle of 30 years and more ago.

Recalling Soviet support for the African National Congress’s long revolution against the apartheid regime is a common theme for especially older South Africans.  One South African local office holder and apartheid struggle veteran told The Washington Post:  “Even people like me [who support U.S. ties] will always feel affection for the Soviet Union because of its stance at the time when the West was totally opposed to us fighting against apartheid. But the current Russia is no Soviet Union. It’s something completely different.”

During the apartheid years, the African National Congress was aligned with the Soviet supported South African Communist Party, receiving arms and funding from the Soviet bloc.  Of course, the Soviet Union was not seeking a South Africa with Western style democracy and equal liberty for all. It hoped for a communized, one-party state, similar to then Marxist regimes in neighboring Angola and Mozambique.  Even more importantly, Moscow wanted a Soviet-aligned South Africa whose vast mineral wealth, strategic location at the cape of Africa, and economic dominance of southern Africa would serve Soviet interests.  What the USSR desired for South Africa was ultimately not what most South Africans, black or white, wanted for their country.  Fortunately, the Soviet Union fell and was removed as a factor in South Africa’s transition to democratic majority rule. 

Soviet support for the African National Congress against the white minority regime was always self-serving and never with South African interests in mind.  Sovietized regimes in Angola and Mozambique were disasters for human rights, political stability, and economics. Fortunately, despite Moscow’s aspirations, South Africa averted their harsh fate.

It was controversial when Nelson Mandela, after his release from prison, visited dictators like Libya’s Muammar Kaddafi and Cuba’s Fidel Castro to thank them for their support of the anti-apartheid movement.  The motivations for their support for the African National Congress were as sinister as the Soviet Union’s. Mandela’s gratitude to brutal tyrants overlooked the suffering of their victims. It was also the opposite of what the anti-apartheid struggle demanded of America and the West, which was to prioritize human rights over national interests. South Africa’s white minority regime was an ally against the Soviet Union.  But ultimately America and the West prioritized human rights for South Africa’s oppressed black majority over the relative strategic safety offered by the anti-communist Afrikaner regime.  

A mature South Africa, 30 years after the apartheid struggle, should be able to reflect dispassionately and unromantically on who supported that struggle with what motivations.  The Soviet Union 40 years ago was at least a great if malevolent power that offered tangible goods and services to the African National Congress and its revolutionary allies.  Today a highly diminished and somewhat isolated Russia offers relatively little strategically or economically. The trinkets it can dispense are hardly worth the consequent obligation.

In terms of national interests, South Africa has little to gain from any perceived partiality towards Russia.  And it is foolishly churlish to align with Russia based on romanticized and air-brushed memories of the Soviet past.  South Africa as a modern democracy looking towards the future should be unequivocal in opposing Russian aggression against Ukraine.  It should live up to what it expected of other nations during the apartheid struggle.  And it should discern that its future belongs with the democracies and not with the autocrats, just as opponents of apartheid discerned over 30 years ago.  

National gratitude is a virtue but only if wisely calculated and directed, based at least partly on intent.  Was aid rendered for mutual benefit or merely for exploitation and subversion? Discerning nations will know the difference.