The mutinous Yevgeny Prigozhin seems to have survived his failed insurrection relatively well. While his Wagner Group fighters in Ukraine have been absorbed into the Russian army, their presence in Africa continues unaltered and largely unremarked. In the Central African Republic, Wagner virtually runs the state, extracts resources, and brutalises anyone who gets in the way. This is blatant imperialism linked directly to the Kremlin – well-practised in eastern Europe for four decades after World War Two – and is mirrored in other African countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and South Sudan. The recent coup in Niger is possibly another sign of Russian interference. The declaration that followed the second Russia-Africa summit at the end of July contains a section condemning the ongoing colonisation of Africa and exploitation of its resources, which must go down as one of history’s most hypocritical official statements.
The African Union is totally ineffectual, while the South African government seems indifferent to this recolonisation of the continent by Russian imperialists. Indeed, Cyril Ramaphosa appears to have a season ticket to Moscow. South Africa claims neutrality in the Ukraine war, but there is no middle ground in a genocidal conflict: Russia has declared that Ukraine has no right to exist and its brutal military behaviour fully lives up to this billing. South Africa’s supposed neutrality has been put down to the ANC’s decades-old affinity with the Soviet Union; but that was not Russia alone and included Ukraine. There is no justification whatsoever to implicitly condone the destruction wreaked on Ukraine or the creation of millions of refugees. Nor do connections with Russia hold out any political or commercial advantage for South Africa except for knee-jerk anti-Western sentiment totally at odds with the country’s material and cultural connections.
Commentators are scratching their heads at the apparent illogicality and irrationality of Pretoria’s foreign policy. Richard Poplak in the Daily Maverick with admirable forthrightness describes Russia as a ‘white supremacist ethno-nationalist backwater’ which trashes every important value in South Africa’s constitution. But does the answer not lie in the unedifying fact that South Africa and Russia are already so alike and growing more similar?
Both are states run by government-connected mafias. The ANC is now more akin to a criminal organisation of gangsters than a political party as the Zondo Commission conclusively demonstrated. South Africa has its tenderpreneurs and mafia bosses who form part of the political elite; Russia has its oligarchs and their hangers-on. Both nations have a long-term interest in frustrating the move the world requires towards sources of renewable energy. Russia uses its hydrocarbon exports as a political weapon and they are a key part of its economy. Loud voices in the ANC are determined that the role of coal will not be diminished in South Africa: the industry represents significant political power and holds great potential for corruption that is absent from green energy.
Neither Russia nor South Africa has more than passing acquaintance with democracy. Tsarist Russia became part of the communist Soviet Union and shortly after the latter’s disintegration another dictator, a modern tsar called Vladimir Putin, took over. Ukrainians call his doctrine ruscism (Russian fascism). South Africa moved from colonialism to apartheid and then to a supposed democracy that is greatly undermined by ethnic nationalism and traditional leadership. The consequence is that neither has traditions of service to the population at large; for example, their police forces are politically motivated. Neither Russia nor South Africa have a culture of civic custodianship. They are run by Big Men politics tailored to the economic interests of elites.
Both countries are characterised by political violence. In South Africa frequent assassinations are the result of ANC faction fighting, although whistleblowers are also at severe risk. In Russia, the Kremlin murders its critics including investigative journalists. Moscow can be considered the poisoning capital of the world with a global reach. But poison is increasingly a threat in South Africa: former Eskom CEO André de Ruyter found evidence of this at the bottom of his personal coffee cup; while some government institutions no longer maintain predictable catering arrangements. The politics of both countries is brutal.
Paranoia and victimology are common to the leaders of South Africa and Russia. Setbacks and opposition are routinely ascribed to plotters with foreign contacts, usually the CIA or other Western organisations, who are denounced as agents. A further commonality is obsession with a past that focuses on land and is often partly constructed out of myth.
Such similarities place South Africa outside the sphere of liberal democracies, in spite of the promise of its constitution, and closer to the culture of illiberal and authoritarian states. And there is a great deal in the rhetoric of the ANC and the parties it has spawned such as the Economic Freedom Fighters to suggest this is no accident: that significant parts of the political elite are working to undermine the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the press and the safeguards offered by the constitution.
Illiberalism is easily sold: victims with a supposed enemy, grudges and discontents, a carefully managed view of the past interspersed with fake news and lies, and a messiah with a gift for salesmanship. All are fit for purpose in the growing number of authoritarian states. There is an uneasy sense that South Africa may be joining them.
The historian Simon Sebag Montefiore has recently characterised Russia as a sclerotic and corrupt country with the trappings of constitutionality. He might well have been describing South Africa. Is this what ANC leaders see when they look in a mirror called Moscow?
And do they want more of it?
● An earlier version of this piece was published in the Witness on 12 July 2023.