Is South Africa’s Foreign Policy a Thorn in the Side of Western Interests? Reported Arms Sales to Russia Are Only the Latest Development

Following accusations levelled on May 11 by U.S. ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety that the country was providing armaments to Russia, with weapons produced in the country loaded onto a Russian ship in December, Pretoria has come under sharp criticism from Washington and its European allies. The German Foreign Ministry Annalena Baerbock, for one, as one of the most outspoken supporters of Kiev’s war effort in Europe, stated that she was “very concerned that there have been these reports,” stating that “if someone were to supply weapons to the aggressor, it would be the opposite of ending the war.” Similar sentiments were expressed across the continent. The office of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa responded to allegations by stressing that there was “no record of an approved arms sale by the state to Russia related to the period/incident in question.”

South Africa has consistently taken a neutral stance in the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian War, while Western powers have provided tens of billions of dollars worth of armaments and deployed considerable numbers of personnel and supporting assets to the country to engage Russian forces directly. While arming Ukraine heavily, Western countries have threatened economic sanctions on any party which provides armaments to Russia – although only North Korea, Belarus and Iran are reported to have done so. While China and India have refrained from providing arms, with India continuing to receive new weapons on schedule despite the war, both have been among the states to maintain high volumes of trade including in dual use goods which has helped Russia withstand Western economic warfare efforts. 

African states’ general lack of support for the Western position in Ukraine has been sharply criticised across the Western world, with President Ramaphosa stating in 2022 regarding pressure to take the Western side in the conflict: “We should not be told by anyone who we associate with and we should never be put in positions where we have to choose who our friends are.” This has reflected the position of much of the non Western world, with only three non Western countries – Singapore, South Korea and Japan – having joined the West in imposing sanctions on Russia. Others such as India, Indonesia and other Asian countries have consistently refrained from taking sides. After the end of the Apartheid rule of its European ethnic minority, South Africa’s foreign policy stances have frequently aligned against Western interests, with the country having been widely labelled a ‘rogue democracy’ in 2011 for its support for the Libyan government when the West launched an intensive and months long air assault. Then president Jacob Zuma visited Libya twice during the conflict and made two attempts to broker a ceasefire, slamming NATO at the time for pursuing “regime change, political assassinations and foreign military occupation” while blocking any efforts towards a peaceful settlement. Pretoria was also a leading critic of the formation and rapid expansion of the U.S. Military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the late 2000s alongside Libya, Nigeria and other African states. 

Although demilitarising significantly following the end of the Cold War, South Africa is considered to have the continent’s leading arms industry significantly ahead of its top competitors from Egypt and Sudan and is a significant arms exporter. Its armaments range from surface to air missiles to artillery rounds and even attack helicopters – a kind of asset few other countries in the world can produce. Although multiple African states have been highly supportive of Russia’s position in Ukraine, Uganda being a leading example, South Africa is best positioned to provide meaningful material support. The South African Navy has also continued to hold joint exercises with the Russian Navy since the war began, which drew further criticism in the Western world and contributed to undermining the narrative of a world united behind the West against Russia. Pretoria also indicated that it would withdraw from the Netherlands based International Criminal Court after it issued a warrant for the arrest of Russian President Vladimir Putin in March, indicating its opposition to the move. The court is seen to have a long history of targeting Western adversaries such as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir, the latter whom Pretoria refused to extradite to the Netherlands in 2015 despite significant European pressure after he paid a state visit to South Africa. The South African government was widely and harshly criticised in Western media at the time for failing to deliver the sitting Sudanese president to Europe, with Sudan’s close ties to China, Russia, Iran and other Western adversaries having long made its leadership a target for sanctions and other hostile measures.