Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 South Africa has proclaimed a policy of non-alignment in that conflict. This position was placed in doubt when US Ambassador Ruben Brigety claimed recently that he had evidence that South African arms and ammunition were loaded on a Russian ship in December 2022.
Brigety concluded that South Africa's alleged behaviour did
The South African government, which regulates the sale of arms and ammunition to and from the country, has vehemently denied Brigety's accusation. Thandi Modise, the minister of defence, said that nothing "was loaded onto the Russian ship". However President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that an independent commission, headed by a retired judge, would probe the American claims.
I have studied South Africa's foreign relations for the last decade, including its alliance policy.
Brigety is correct. Though South Africa maintains that it is non-aligned, the agreements it has made and the actions it has taken over the past decade make it clear that it is aligned with the Russian Federation.
The South Africa-Russia partnership
In 2013 South Africa inked a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership deal with Russia. Signed by presidents Jacob Zuma and Vladimir Putin, this declaration lays out a framework for cooperation between the two nations. It covers a wide range of areas, including political, economic, technological and cultural collaboration.
The only other state South Africa has such a far reaching agreement with is China. But the agreement with Russia contains a passage that makes that accord even more consequential than that with China. It stipulates:
Non-participation in any military-political or other alliances, associations or armed conflicts directed against the other Side, or in any treaties, agreements or understandings infringing upon the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity or national security interests of the other Side.
In short, South Africa and Russia will not challenge or condemn each other. This is essentially a non-aggression pact. An agreement international relations scholars classify as a type of alliance.
The opening paragraphs of the pact emphasise that the foundation of the relationship between South Africa and Russia is
the rich and fruitful experience of cooperation in different spheres accumulated over the period of struggle against apartheid...
Officials of South Africa's governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), regularly refer to this history. The minister of international relations and cooperation, Naledi Pandor, stated in March:
We have made it clear that Russia is a friend and we have had cooperative partnerships for many years, including partnerships as we combated the apartheid regime.
Similarly, after Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year, Lindiwe Zulu, South Africa's minister of social development and chairperson of the ANC's subcommittee on international relations, said
Russia is our friend through and through ... We are not about to denounce that relationship that we have always had.
The partnership in effect
South African-Russian relations have been guided by the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement over the last decade. When Russia invaded the Ukrainian territory of Crimea the year after the agreement was signed, South Africa did not protest.
Instead, South African and Russian officials were busy working towards an expansive and now notorious nuclear deal. In their book Nuclear: Inside South Africa's Secret Deal, journalist Karyn Maughan and former national treasury insider Kirsten Pearson show that the objective of this agreement was not to enhance the country's capacity for energy production at a reasonable cost. Instead, a major motivation for the then Zuma administration was geopolitics - enhancing the relationship between South Africa and Russia.
South Africa has also sought increased military cooperation with its partners in the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) group. During the 2013 BRICS summit in the South African port city of Durban, South Africa held an accompanying armaments exposition to spur cooperation and trade among the states in the group.
Military coordination between Russia and South Africa has recently expanded. The two states, along with China, have held naval exercises in 2019 and again in 2023. The timing of the latter exercises - in the midst of Russia's ongoing war with Ukraine and on the anniversary of the conflict - was noteworthy.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 Pretoria refused to criticise the attack. The Ramaphosa administration claimed its position was motivated by its longstanding belief that such conflicts should be resolved through negotiations. Taking sides, it said, would not encourage such negotiations.
However, When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Pretoria unequivocally (and correctly) condemned Washington.
Arms to an ally
Ambassador Brigety's claims about South African arms shipments to Russia should be taken seriously. He is an experienced diplomat, scholar and soldier. He surely recalls Colin Powell's erroneous statement to the United Nations in 2003 about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. He would be cautious to go public with a claim of this nature unless he was confident in its credibility.
Furthermore, unlike the Iraq situation in which political pressure from senior Bush administration officials led to the manipulation of intelligence, there is no one in the Biden administration who has a vested interest in singling out South Africa by spinning intelligence reports. Brigety would not bet his life on the accuracy of these reports unless he fully believed them.
South Africa's alleged shipment of weapons to Russia is consistent with its increasingly close ties with Moscow over the past decade. Whether such alignment is wise should be the subject of future debate, but the fact that South Africa is aligned with Russia should not.
Christopher Williams, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of the Witwatersrand