Russia wants to promote strategic partnerships and economic cooperation with African countries, President Vladimir Putin said at VTB Capital’s “Russia Calling” Forum on October 11, 2016.
Putin’s statement came at a time of high tensions between Russia and Western forces. President Jacob Zuma and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa are likely to be among Putin’s allies during this period.
In past years, Zuma and the ANC have become more reliant on Russia and China as foreign patrons. The ANC and Zuma are politically weaker due to scandals around the president, increased factionalism, constrained government resources and electoral setbacks.
Putin has used the opportunity to strengthen Russia’s position in South Africa. Putin’s United Russia party concluded a pact with the ANC in 2013. The BRICS alliance and bilateral relations were also channels in this regard. The strategic partnership has been reflected in increased security and intelligence cooperation, arms industry projects, and a gigantic nuclear energy project.
ANC policy documents and spokesmen reflect a periodic anti-Western rhetoric and consistent support for pro-Russian discourses. The partnership is also visible in the cooperation between South Africa and Russia at the United Nations to oppose resolutions than ensure more freedom for NGOs, media and political opponents.
Sometimes personal networks and mindsets play an enabling role. When Zuma believed he had been poisoned in August 2014, it was to Russia that he allegedly went to get medical treatment.
During the years of the ANC’s guerilla struggle against white rule in South Africa, Zuma was its head of military intelligence. He and other political associates received training in the Soviet Bloc, then one of the ANC’s allies. Putin and some of his close associates today were officers of the Soviet intelligence and security services during this period.
An important ANC policy document in 2015, A Better Africa in a Better and Just World, reflected a pro-Russian worldview. It extolled the value of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and quoted Lenin approvingly on the tranformation of society. The document also claimed a concerted US-led Western effort to destabilize Russia. The ANC government does not recognize EU sanctions imposed against Russia.
In July 2016, South Africa joined China and Russia in voting against a United Nations resolution on the “promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet”. The resolution was however adopted by most other member states and will be used by the UN Human Rights Council. The resolution tried to ensure political commitment from member states to protect freedom of expression and privacy online, and to refrain from shutting down the Internet during key times such as elections or terror attacks. In November 2015, South Africa voted with Russia and China against a UN resolution that would recognise threats against defenders of human rights.
Zuma and the nuclear deal
In 2014, reports emerged that the ANC had funding problems. During the same period, news emerged of a mysterious but major personal deal on a nuclear energy program concluded in Russia between presidents Putin and Zuma.
Major government departments in SA were not involved in the opaque deal, reputed to be worth up to $100 billion. The state law adviser stated that, under the SA Constitution, the deal had to be agreed to by parliament, due to its size and decades-long economic implications for South Africa. However, this public procedure was not followed. Then finance minister Pravin Gordhan and energy minister Ben Martins, who opposed the signing of the agreement, were subsequently moved out of their positions by President Jacob Zuma in May 2014.
Zuma’s close business associates, the Gupta family, stand to benefit in supplying uranium through the family’s majority stakeholding in Shiva Uranium. The nuclear deal has as much potential for corruption as the arms deal scandals of the 1990s, in which Zuma’s role has not yet been clarified.
Arms industry and security cooperation
Security and intelligence cooperation between SA and Russia is strengthening. Many intelligence officials of SA have received training in Russia in recent years. In September 2016, the deputy director of the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSVTS), Anatoly Punchuk, confirmed that the FSVTS had for the first time proposed to South Africa to engage in joint industrial research in the defense sphere.
According to leaked cables obtained by Al Jazeera, the military intelligence services of both countries have been involved in a $100m (£65m) joint satellite surveillance programme. The satellite system, known as Project Condor, was launched into orbit by Russia in December 2014. It provides surveillance coverage of the entire African continent. Project Condor is regarded as a significant part of the envisaged strategic cooperation between Russia and South Africa. Tens of Russian technicians are working in South Africa in close cooperation with South African authorities on the project. The cooperation is also aimed at challenging the domination of African arms sales by the US and France.
Partnership during times of trouble
The agency of the ANC’s own factions should not be underestimated. However, Russian influence in the strategic partnership with the ANC will remain important. During the current tensions of Russia with Western powers, and the ANC’s political troubles, both parties will turn to this partnership for assistance when needed.