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For its own good, SA must take the regional lead against Russia

This article appeared in the Opinion and Analysis section of the Sunday Times Daily (SA) on 27/02/2022

In the cacophony of diplomatic noise that followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, SA’s swift statement released by the department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco) hours after the start of the invasion and calling out Russia directly went largely unnoticed.

Unique among Brics, its underlying tone was notably different in its directness. The change in tone was even noticed by the Russian embassy which, in its usual cold, curt and cutting fashion, responded on social media with the simple sentence: “Kindly refrain from interfering.”

To what extent this will mark a turning point in relations between the two remains to be seen. But for some, a change of tact hasn’t come fast enough. For Russia’s engagement with Africa, and in particular, its disinformation campaigns and its “mercenaries-for-mining-concessions” model that preys on weak and largely undemocratic African states, is seen by many as a direct threat to the long-term stability of the continent and even SA.  

“Russia is attempting to undermine a rules-based international system so that it can leverage its interest via pliable African leaders,” explained Joe Siegel, director of research at the African Centre for Strategic Studies, a Washington-based research and academic think-tank. In his research, he claims that eight African leaders have been co-opted in this way by Russia. A threat that is very much now on SA’s doorstep, with three of those leaders in Southern Africa – in Madagascar, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. 

I think SA’s influence, partly because of the way it has decided to operate, has not always led from the front in the region. It will be interesting to see whether what happens in Ukraine is a tipping point in the way SA engages.

Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, Chief Executive at South Africa’s Institute of International Affairs.

And it is very much in play in the heart of Southern Africa. Way before Sadc and Rwandan forces were invited to Mozambique to assist the government in dealing with the insurgency in the north in Cabo Delgado last year, the well-publicised Russian mercenaries outfit, the Wagner Group, was called upon in September 2019. It failed spectacularly though and left by March 2020, but connections between Mozambique and Russia run deep. The Russians maintain a small military contingent there and have been aggressively pushing to re-establish more comprehensive ties ever since, especially to reinforce its claims on Mozambican gas fields through the state-owned parastatal Rosneft.

“I think if you look at Russian engagement in certain conflict areas, I don’t think it’s positive. And you can make the same case for the involvement of other external actors in conflicts. Africa has too much of that already,” rued Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, chief executive at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), an independent public policy think-tank.

The old Soviet connections have also been resurrected in Angola, where Siegel described President Joao Lourenco’s old military training in the USSR as well as his current political woes, with divisions in his ruling party in an election year, coupled with Angola’s vast reserves in diamond, oil, gold and mineral resources, as making him ripe for Russian intervention. Opaque mining concessions plague Zimbabwe’s dealings with Russia too, with concessions in platinum mining having been signed in exchange for military hardware. “Greater strengthening of the current government in Zimbabwe is a problem as it delays further resolution of Zimbabwe,” Sidiropoulos explained.

Disinformation is the other divisive and invisible way in which Russia undermines democratic interests for its geostrategic and business gains in the region. The best documented was Madagascar’s presidential elections in 2018, undertaken under the direct orders of President Vladimir Putin himself to protect Russian chromium mining interests on the island, according to a comprehensive piece by the New York Times in November 2019. 

SA’s long-standing policy of non-interference, and its two decade-long approach of working with international and regional bodies such as the AU and in particular Sadc, often leads to inertia as witnessed in the dithering over the peacekeeping force in Mozambique and more recently in Eswatini during civil unrest there.

“I think SA’s influence, partly because of the way it has decided to operate, has not always led from the front in the region,” said Sidiropoulos. “It will be interesting to see whether what happens in Ukraine is a tipping point in the way SA engages.”  But she warned that the country’s ability to do anything is constrained. “How do you curtail disinformation? Do we even have those resources?” 

Siegle on the other hand pointed to effective efforts in the Baltic states at countering Russian disinformation. And while he admits that Africa is starting from a far lower institutional capacity, some of the efforts tap into networks of citizen volunteers that seek out fake news.

“Young Africans have demonstrated great talent and innovation in adapting new digital technologies for the public good,” he said, “To the extent that African countries with strong institutions like SA can expose these unlawful actions, it can hold Russia accountable. And in the process, it will help reset norms for what is tolerated in Southern Africa and the continent.”

And it has proof of concept in its successful soft-power push to promote the interests of the continent during Covid. “While SA may wish to pursue an independent and non-interventionist foreign policy, it is not in SA’s interest to compromise its sovereignty or to see other African countries’ sovereignty compromised through these malign actions,” Siegle reiterated.

One thing is for sure, if not tackled, the increased instability that is currently manifesting itself at an alarming rate on its doorstep and worsened by Russian interference will only pose increasing problems for SA in future.

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