South Africa’s divisions over Russia policy expose racial fault lines

Kenneth R. Rosen


In this edition, South African political divisions over the war are inflaming racial divisions.

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Since the war in Ukraine began, South Africa has, in no particular order, hosted Russian naval vessels for joint military exercises, warmly welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Pretoria, invited Vladimir Putin to an upcoming BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) conference in August — despite an International Criminal Court arrest warrant that would in theory have obligated South Africa, a party to the ICC, to detain the Russian president — and helped to transport weapons to Russia.

As Russia looks to charm Africa and form an alternative base of international support to compensate for being shunned by the West, the continent’s most developed economy, South Africa, has been a key ally. 

Trade between South Africa and Russia grew by 16.4% in 2022 despite sanctions. But South Africa’s trade with Russia is negligible compared with the volume of its trade with NATO countries. Nearly a dozen NATO countries are, individually, bigger trading partners for South Africa than Russia. So when South Africa describes Russia as a “valued partner,” it is gesturing at a relationship that is deeper and more sentimental than transactional. 

The Soviet Union played a significant role in weakening apartheid in South Africa and paving the way for the rise of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. Many African revolutionary leaders, including Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor as president, received education and training in Moscow. And Russia is seen as the heir of the Soviet legacy.

But there are more hard-nosed reasons, too. South Africa, much like India, is committed politically to being part of a rebalancing of the post-Cold War world order. It wants to be a major player in a multipolar global system. Putin is canny enough to flatter that ambition.

Still, South Africa’s studied “neutrality” in the matter of the war in Ukraine has resulted in repercussions at home, even inflaming racial divides between the largely white Afrikaans and English-speaking supporters of the Democratic Alliance party and the governing African National Congress.


When the Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen visited Ukraine in May 2022, knives were sharpened on social media, in government and across the country.

“We’re part of BRICS… the conflict doesn’t stop Russia having relations with other countries in the world,” said Clayson Monyela, South Africa’s head of diplomacy at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, who emphasized the country’s non-aligned position.

The Democratic Alliance, which traces its roots back to a progressive, anti-apartheid party, has white leadership in a country with an ugly history of racial oppression. It also enjoys largely white support, even as the white population of South Africa has dwindled to below 8% in recent years. Steenhuisen has said that it is “strongly in South Africa’s interest to stand with the free world” in support of Ukraine. His strident support has been criticized in South Africa as self-aggrandizing, hypocritical and even as privileging European lives. 

The Democratic Alliance “is another outpost of Europe in South Africa, so they support anything that panders to the West,” said Mzwanele Manyi, a prominent new member of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the third largest party in South Africa and a radical movement that self-describes as anti-imperialist and Marxist-Leninist.

On the other side, some of the most fervent defenders of Russia in South Africa, and across the global South, also vocally oppose the economic privileges that the country’s white minority still enjoys. Both the government and official opposition have denied that race is a factor in how they see the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“The DA has said nothing about Sudan because it is only Africans affected, they’re not European. It is a party that is so blatantly racist, that continues to devalue Africans,” Manyi said.

A spokesperson for the Economic Freedom Fighters said that unwillingness to condemn Russia wasn’t a matter of race. It was about long-time loyalty. “South Africans have not forgotten that it was Russia that supported us during the dark and unnatural days of oppression,” the spokesperson said, “when we fought against apartheid and the Bantustanization of our beloved country.”


The economic damage to South Africa, which leans heavily on its trade partnerships with the European Union and the United States, has been considerable. Its neutrality in the war with Ukraine will likely exacerbate existing economic woes, including inadequate infrastructure and inflation, and possibly reduce investment and inflict lasting damage on the local industry, pushing the country closer into Russia’s sphere of influence. And while the U.S. is unlikely to take any punitive measures against South Africa, despite the recent accusations of South Africa supplying weapons to Russia, it’s a precarious diplomatic position to negotiate.

“If Belarus can be charged with complicity,” asked an opposition Democratic Alliance politician after the joint naval drills with Russia took place, “why can’t South Africa?” 

The internal debate in South Africa, as divisions grow among various political constituencies, offers a glimpse into something larger and more complex: the issues facing the Southern African Development Community, a union of 16 nations, comprising 380 million people, whose governments can’t decide where they stand on Russia’s invasion. As Ukraine continues to argue that it is fighting an anti-imperial war and defending itself against having its territory, language and culture usurped, South Africa too might have to consider the moral implications of its neutrality.

For the Kremlin, South Africa remains an important indication that Russia continues to have support and sympathy in Africa, though most of the continent has condemned the invasion of Ukraine. And for South Africa, maintaining closeness to Russia and China, as well as closeness to the West, shows that it can walk a diplomatic tightrope and have influence in global affairs.

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