For the past two decades, Southern African leaders have been looking for external support and genuine foreign investment in infrastructure, agriculture, and industry. Besides these economic spheres, the leaders plan to boost significantly business ties with foreign partners and seek effective ways to strengthen exports on foreign markets.
In this regard, Southern African countries welcome investors from all over the world. Russia has a long history of bilateral engagements with the Southern African countries, which constitute the Southern African Development Community.
The Memorandum of Understanding renewed in October 2018 envisages strengthening ties in a broad range of fields and it further shows that SADC remains comparatively as one of Russia's key regional partners in Africa.
According to official documents, Russian Foreign Ministry [MFA] first signed a Memorandum on Cooperation with Southern African countries on September 1, 2003, during an in-depth meeting held between the Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and SADC Executive Secretary Prega Ramsamy.
That agreement primarily aimed at strengthening the diplomatic relations and coordination between the Russian Federation and SADC. The document outlined the most promising areas, as well as the forms and methods of mutually beneficial cooperation in the trade-and-economic and scientific-and-technical areas, transport and communications, energy and mineral resource development, public health, education, and culture.
It sets out the mutual desire of Russia and the SADC member countries to step up the many-sided ties between the parties, including the importance of intensifying political contacts at various levels. Both sides as a top priority task emphasized in the document the necessity of making the maximum use of the existing considerable potential.
Since 2003, Russia has had a staggering economic profile in the African region. Indeed, 15 years have elapsed and not much significant have been achieved due to multiple factors, highly experienced experts say in separate interviews as reported here.
Stergomena Lawrence Tax, Executive Secretary of SADC, said: "Russia and Africa have been partners for many years, and expressed a desire to achieve a new level in the relationship."
According to SADC Executive Secretary, Russia has not been visible in the region as compared to China, India or Brazil. But, for past few years, it is encouraging that Russia has made enthusiastic efforts towards repositioning itself to be a major partner with Southern Africa.
Stergomena Lawrence Tax, a Tanzanian by birth and educated in Japan, was appointed in September 2013 at the 33rd Summit of the Heads of State and Government in Lilongwe, Malawi. She is the first woman to hold the position in the history of the regional bloc, SADC.
Rex Essenowo, Member of the Board of Trustees of Nigerians in Diaspora Europe [NIDO] and Senior Executive of Asian Africa Trade, a Moscow based business lobbying NGO, pointed to Russia's tremendous growing interest in the Southern African region. Similarly, he first welcomed the new development that the agreements have been renewed after 15 years, but this time, there should be some level of commitment - not just signing the Memorandum of Cooperation.
He noted that the key issue emerging from many policy experts is a fresh call on the Russian Government to seriously review and change some of its policy approach currently implemented in Africa. The experts called for more commitment towards development-oriented policies that would help the continent overcome its development problems.
Essenowo, however, expressed optimism that "if Russia intensifies efforts in understanding the African development needs, there could be a smooth flow of effective operations. It is important to note that financial commitments, investment guarantees or some sort of fiscal stimulus plan are needed to improve trade and investment programmes, so as to make policies more effective than a mere declaration of interests."
"In addition, African financial banks and related economic institutions must get up to the task. There is nothing much to talk about without adequate funding and effective management of our resources. We should expect a boost in trade balance between Russia and the SADC region, even with other key regional blocs like East and West Africa," the Trade Expert concluded.
Professor Gerrit Olivier from the Department of Political Science, the University of Pretoria in South Africa, noted that Russian influence in Africa, despite efforts towards resuscitation, remains marginal.
"What seems to irk Russians, in particular, is that very few initiatives go beyond the symbolism, pomp, and circumstance of high-level opening moves. It is still not clear how Southern Africa sees Russia's willingness [and intention] to step up its role in Africa, especially with China becoming more visible and assertive on the continent," he questioned.
While, given its global status, it ought to be active in Africa as Western Europe, the European Union, the United States, and China are, it is all but absent, playing a negligible role, Olivier added.
"At present diplomacy dominates its approach: plethora of agreements have been signed with Southern Africa and various other countries in Africa, official visits from Moscow proliferate apace, but the outcomes remain hardly discernible," Olivier, who previously served as South African Ambassador to the Russian Federation, wrote in an email comment from Pretoria, South Africa.
Alexandra Arkhangelskaya, a Senior Researcher at the Institute of African Studies and a Senior Lecturer at the Moscow High School of Economics said that Russia and Africa needed each other - "Russia is a vast market not only for African minerals but for various other goods and products produced by African countries."
Currently, the signs for Russian-African relations are impressive - declarations of intentions have been made, important bilateral agreements signed - now it remains to be seen how these intentions and agreements would be implemented in practice, she added.
Dr. Martyn Davies, the Chief Executive Officer of the South African-based Frontier Advisory [Pty], suggested to Russian officials the adoption of a model by China to readily fund its companies interested in investing in Africa. He explained that the Chinese model of financing various infrastructure and construction projects in Africa had enhanced investments by the Asian country into the continent. China, the world's second-biggest economy after the United States, is currently Africa's largest trading partner.
There are an estimated 1500 Chinese corporations doing business in Africa, most of which are private companies investing in the infrastructure, industry, agriculture, energy and banking sectors.
Davies said the main factor that had assisted this speedy market engagement between Africa and China was that Russian banks had "de-risked" the projects in Africa from a financial perspective, finally explained that "Russia's banking sector operates quite differently."
Kelvin Dewey Stubborn, South African based Senior Analyst on BRICS and African policy, observes that Southern African region presents attractive growth opportunities for both foreign private and public investment.
"It seems Russia has to change its approach, move forward to deliver on overarching pledges and promises, [long-overdue step] in order to win the hearts of Africans. Undoubtedly, African leaders are not looking for the Soviet-era level of relationships. "
He maintains that Russia is determined to support African peace and security initiatives, to end conflicts on the continent of Africa but how much its [Russia's] overall economic footprint and influence will contribute to improving stability is less certain. As already known, Russia has shown interest in the settlement of various conflicts in Africa, primarily in countries such as South Sudan and the Central African Republic, and the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa.
Stubborn explained the hidden public interpretation that African politicians have become political tourists, passionately going forth and back for diplomatic consultations with little impact on the economic development in Africa. Russia has been engaging with African political elite for many years and this has to reflect on the economy.
According to him, "the world is witnessing how Western, European, Asian and the Gulf states are using economic diplomacy and effectively addressing development needs under the principle of mutual respect, equal cooperation, and mutual benefit for Africa. It's completely a new era that requires a comprehensive system of strategies, get engaged or get disengaged - a totally different reality, a new paradigm shift on the African landscape."
For many policy practitioners such as those mentioned here in this article, Russia's engagement efforts should necessarily include African experts, civil society representatives, and the media - some aspects of public diplomacy as its aim is to appeal and attract partners rather than coerce them into a relationship in one form or the other. Russians have to find ways while dealing with investing in Africa's future.
Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov has acknowledged that Russia's economic cooperation is not as far advanced as political ties but would do well to raise trade and economic ties to a high level of political cooperation by promoting joint activity in order to make broader use of the huge potential of Russian-African trade and investment cooperation.
On the other hand, Lavrov indicated that "Russia is not only committed to long-term cooperation but also ready for large-scale investments in the African markets with an account of possible risks and high competition. Equally important is African businesspeople who are looking to work on the Russian market."
Russia ultimately intends to regain its leading position and influence in Africa. Quite recently, among the initiatives that were designed to strengthen overall ties between Russia and Africa, Lavrov informed that "Russia-Africa forum will be held at the parliamentary level in the near future, followed by a Russia-Africa business forum. All of that will serve as important steps for laying the way to a full-blown Russia-Africa summit, as discussed at the meeting of the BRICS member countries with their African partners in Johannesburg in July."
The Southern African region is the integrated market resulting from a combined population of approximately 327 million people, and a collective GDP of US$ 600 billion , which is supported by generally favorable weather conditions in most parts of the region.