South Africa was scheduled to conduct a joint naval exercise with Russia and China on Friday, a move it describes as usual but which has sparked internal criticism and fears that the drills could jeopardise crucial ties with Western allies.
In the midst of intensifying global tensions emanating from the conflict in Ukraine and China’s increasingly confrontational stance towards Taiwan, world powers are striving for influence in Africa.
Several African governments stubbornly refuse to take sides in order to profit from the diplomatic tug-of-war. Hosting the 10-day Mosi II exercise, which coincides with the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, is a hazardous move, according to observers.
Steven Gruzd of the South African Institute of International Relations stated, “These exercises will be a lightning rod.”
South Africa takes a neutral stance on the Ukraine conflict and abstained from voting on a resolution criticising Russia at the United Nations last year.
It has disputed criticism, citing similar drills conducted with other international partners, including one with France in November.
Last month, South Africa’s defence ministry stated, “As any autonomous and sovereign state, South Africa has the right to handle its foreign relations in accordance with its… national interests.”
Six ambassadors stationed in South Africa, all from NATO or EU nations, told Reuters that they disapproved the drill.
One stated, “It’s not right, and we’ve informed them of our disapproval.”
Russia’s activities have contributed to the dispute.
It has deployed a frigate equipped with the Zircon, a new type of hypersonic cruise missile.
The weapon, which can move at more than five times the speed of sound, has been deemed “unstoppable” by President Vladimir Putin. This month, the Russian news agency TASS stated that the frigate would conduct a training launch during the drill.
“I’m uncertain if South Africa is aware of the potential blowback,” added Gruzd.
The Russian Ministry of Defense did not respond to a request for comment, and the South African National Defence Force refuted the TASS allegation. Nonetheless, those opposed to Russia’s deployment in South African waters continue to express outrage.
On its sides, the ship carrying the Zircon arrived in Cape Town with the letters Z and V, which are used by Russia to support the war in Ukraine.
“Cape Town will not be participating in Russia’s wicked war,” tweeted the city’s mayor, Geordin Hill-Lewis, proclaiming the warship unwelcome.
The governing African National Congress of South Africa has longstanding links to Moscow, which supported its struggle against a racist apartheid regime that many Western states viewed as a Cold War ally.
Cobus van Staden of the China-Global South Project stated, “Russia’s and, to a lesser extent, China’s posture as an anti-colonial ally still resonates across most of Africa, even though others may consider it as ancient history.”
While Russia and China strive to form new international coalitions, he stated that history is gaining prominence in Africa, where a number of countries are eager for alternatives to Western control.
South Africa, for instance, highly values its position within the BRICS bloc alongside Russia, China, India, and Brazil, and supports Beijing’s aspirations to extend membership and bolster its influence.
Yet, there is a possibility that Pretoria’s foreign policy objectives will undermine its economic interests.
“Some companies have asked us if it is still safe to do business with South Africa, out of fear of potential repercussions,” a European envoy told Reuters.
China is currently Africa’s greatest bilateral commercial partner, while the EU is by far South Africa’s largest export market.
According to South African figures, two-way commerce with the European Union amounted to over $53 billion last year, compared to about $750 million with Russia.
Local critics of South Africa’s efforts to strengthen ties with Russia and China argue that economic reality should be sufficient to cause the government to pause.
“It is a slap in the face of our business partners to be so openly on the side of Russia on the anniversary of the invasion,” said Kobus Marais, the opposition Democratic Alliance’s defence spokesman.