It has been an uncomfortable few months for South African diplomacy.
A country that would like to be seen as a wise and steady ambassador for a negotiated peace in Ukraine, and a crusading champion of a non-aligned, multi-polar world, has been caught up in a string of very public international squabbles that have left its government looking muddled and indecisive, and its currency sinking to new lows.
At issue is South Africa’s warm relationship with Russia – and a growing Western perception that the country has decided to back Moscow in its war against Ukraine, and perhaps even to send it weapons.
But is that perception fair? And what could it all mean for South Africa’s reputation and its increasingly fragile economy?
“It’s a nightmare,” admitted one senior South African official. They were speaking off-the-record in Cape Town this week, on the sidelines of a meeting of foreign ministers of the Brics group, comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
Western diplomats have privately expressed deep frustration about South Africa’s stance towards Russia and its shaky attempts to live up to its self-declared “impartiality” in relation to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The government’s heart is with the Russians. There’s no doubt about it. They believe the world is slipping out of Western hands – that the Russians are stronger and will win, and that they’re investing in a strategic future, a new world order,” said Irina Filatova, a Russian academic based in Cape Town.
But others here argue that the West has got it all wrong and is misreading South Africa and fretting over what amounts to a storm in a diplomatic teacup.
“Nobody serious within the [South African] government wants to move away from the US, the UK and EU. Everybody knows these are extremely important trade partners. It’s just a mess in terms of timing and perception, not in terms of substance,” argued political analyst Philani Mthembu.
So where did things go wrong?
South Africa’s initial response to Russia’s invasion was to call on Moscow to withdraw its forces “immediately”. Soon afterwards it changed tack, declined to condemn the Kremlin at the United Nations, and adopted a policy of neutrality towards the conflict.
But that neutral stance has since been undermined by a series of actions and statements that have riled Ukraine’s allies.
South Africa hosted Russia’s navy for exercises on the first anniversary of the invasion.
It warmly welcomed a succession of senior Kremlin officials, and later sent its army chief to Moscow on a “combat readiness” trip.
And senior officials here have often repeated Kremlin talking points about how the US is waging a “proxy” war and how a Western-armed Ukraine now poses a threat to Russia.
Western diplomatic frustration finally burst into public view at a recent news conference by US Ambassador Reuben Brigety.
He accused South Africa of “arming Russia” by shipping “weapons and ammunitions” on a Russian ship that docked in a well-guarded navy port near Cape Town last December.
“We are confident that weapons were loaded on to that vessel. I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion,” said Ambassador Brigety, who went on to raise the possibility that America might respond with trade restrictions.
The ambassador’s comments provoked fury from many quarters in South Africa, with some quick to see a colonial mentality on display.
“He was completely out of order. Must we kowtow to whatever the Americans say? I really don’t agree with that. This is geopolitical blackmail,” said Mavuso Msimang, a prominent veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Many South Africans remember Moscow’s support for liberation movements across the continent, and favour moves – championed by the Brics group – for a more multi-polar world.
South Africa’s Defence Minister Thandi Modise summed up the government’s frustration. She thundered a single South African slang word, that put politely means “nothing”, to describe exactly how many weapons South Africa had shipped to Russia.
African peace proposal
There have been whispers here that the US ambassador may have overstated his case, but while he later sought to “correct any misimpressions”, he pointedly failed to apologise or to withdraw his claims.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa – beset by domestic crises – has played for time by calling for an independent investigation into what was, or was not, smuggled, or shipped, through South Africa’s navy base in Simon’s Town.
Since then, in a move that may help patch up his government’s neutral status, he has announced plans for a six-president-strong African peace delegation to both Moscow and Kyiv.
“It won’t be a walk in the park… but it has to be done,” South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor told a local radio station.
In the meantime, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) has accused the African National Congress (ANC) of sucking up to Russia simply because the near-bankrupt governing party wants to continue pocketing large donations from the Kremlin and its proxies.
“South Africa simply cannot be complicit in a war of aggression that now risks undermining both our domestic priorities and international peace and security,” fumed a DA official.
The economic cost of South Africa’s muddled diplomacy already looks high.
After the weapons spat with the US ambassador, the South African currency, the rand, sank sharply against the US dollar, and there are legitimate concerns that foreign investment and foreign trade deals could suffer.
Bad news for a country already grappling with a failing energy system, chronic unemployment and collapsing infrastructure.
And South Africa now faces another diplomatic headache, as it struggles to decide whether to stand by an invitation it has extended to President Vladimir Putin to visit Johannesburg in August for a Brics summit.
He is subject to an international arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes in Ukraine. If he does come, South Africa would be legally obliged to arrest him.
“If Putin arrives, I think the shock will be severe. There will be an absolutely massive [Western] backlash. The currency would blow up,” warned market analyst Peter Attard Montalto, expressing concern that South Africa was being manipulated by Russia and needlessly antagonising Western nations.
But behind the scenes there are growing indications that South Africa is frantically looking for ways to avoid hosting Mr Putin, perhaps by moving the summit to another country, as it continues to juggle its economic dependence on Western nations, with its growing ties to Brics.