South African President Cyril Ramaphosa stunned many diplomats when, fresh off a phone call with President Vladimir Putin, he said the country had been approached to mediate in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

He said the move was due to South Africa’s “relations with the Russian Federation” and because it was a member of the Brics group of countries alongside Brazil, Russia, India and China. “South Africa has been approached to play a mediating role,” says Ramaphosa tweeted last week.

Lacking details on how such a role would work alongside other mediation efforts, such as Israel’s, and whether Ukraine itself had been informed, South Africa’s main opposition said the refusal of the continent’s most industrialized economy to allow the invasion of To condemn Ukraine’s “tacit support” of the action under an “embarrassing layer of neutrality”.

“To the amazement of the world, the same ANC that once relied on global solidarity in its fight against oppression is now openly siding with the oppressor,” Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen said in a debate on the war in South Africa. . parliament on Tuesday.

South Africa’s government surprised American and European partners a few days before Ramaphosa spoke to the Russian president when it quietly dropped an early demand for Moscow to withdraw its troops, then joined India and China in abstaining. of a vote in the UN General Assembly to condemn the invasion.

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It was not the only one in Africa who refused to condemn the Russian aggression. Another 16 African countries abstained and eight were absent from the vote, making Africa the continent with the most implicit support for Russia’s position. Eritrea, which is led by an isolated autocratic regime, voted against the UN resolution.

That reflects Russia’s growing presence across the continent through resource companies, arms sales and the supply of mercenaries to countries like the Central African Republic and Mali, which both abstained from the vote.

“South Africa has always consistently shown allegiance to international law, regardless of the circumstances. † † Russia is an aggressor, and South Africa, however diplomatic they would have liked to be, should be aligned with that true north,” said Mzukisi Qobo, head of the Wits School of Governance at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg. “It goes against what South Africa believes in.”

Nostalgia for the Soviet Union’s support for the fight against apartheid, an inward-looking and divided ANC, and a limited capacity to conduct foreign policy after years of decline in the post-apartheid state have all played a role in the position of South Africa, analysts say.

South Africa prides itself on being a voice of compromise in conflict, building on its own history of negotiations to end apartheid. But Ramaphosa’s failure to revive foreign policymaking after years of decline under his predecessor Jacob Zuma has left South African diplomacy with diminished influence even in its own region, said Piers Pigou, an adviser to the United Nations. International Crisis Group in Southern Africa. He cited a lack of input into recent crises in Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine's Ambassador to the UN, addressed the UN General Assembly in New York on March 2.Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, addressed the UN General Assembly in New York on March 2 © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

South Africa has few direct economic or military interests at stake in its relationship with Russia that would have necessitated a realpolitik approach. Unlike India or other African states that rely on Russian parts to maintain their armed forces, South Africa uses its own or Western suppliers.

In 2020, Russia accounted for about 1 percent of South Africa’s imports and 0.5 percent of its exports. That compares with 20 percent of South African exports going to the EU, the country’s largest trading partner, according to Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies, a think tank.

South Africa’s stagnant economy will struggle with higher oil and fertilizer prices if a protracted war disrupts Russia’s role as a major producer of both commodities.

Ideology has shaped the ANC’s views on the conflict more than these thin ties to the real world. Although Ukraine was part of the USSR, the party seems to have projected onto Putin’s Russia only fond memories of Soviet aid in the struggle to end apartheid.

The resurgence of the liberation-fighting Soviet left, such as the ANC’s anti-apartheid struggle, is one of the ways Putin has built a “useful past” from what he otherwise sees as the catastrophe of the Soviet Union’s collapse, he said. Hilary Lynd, a historian of the left. between the USSR and South Africa.

“These omissions and gaps are the result of a very active process of framing a historical narrative in a certain way,” Lynd said. “That was deliberately done by the Putin government.”

African countries that abstained from the UN vote earlier this month included countries with close ideological or military ties to Russia, such as Algeria, Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, wrote Mahama Tawat, a research fellow at the University of Montpellier. Others, including Namibia and South Africa, recalled Soviet support for liberation movements.

For these countries, Lynd said, “it seems very natural to equate Putin’s Russia with the Soviet Union.”

Additional reporting by David Pilling

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