STUART THEOBALD: SA’s Russian friendship angers those who actually provide support

SA seems to have a habit of courting and then avoiding disaster. Three years ago, we were hurtling towards existential crisis when our national debt was in a death spiral towards the arms of the IMF. We managed to escape that thanks to the determined work of the National Treasury and some good luck from higher-than-expected commodity prices.

But now we seem determined to commit an international political blunder of epic proportions. Our entreaties to Russia, including the prospect of a visit by Vladimir Putin in August, will put SA on the wrong side of a war, a war that would see the West’s economic and political firepower directed at SA.

Russia has very little economic relationship with SA. We export 50 times more to the US than we do to Russia. We export 150 times more to Europe (including the UK) than we do to Russia. The relative imports are of similar orders of magnitude. Consider also that, according to IMF data, SA’s five biggest direct investors are the Netherlands, the UK, Belgium, the US and Germany, with $136bn between them. The IMF records Russian investments in SA of just $5m. Even if the real number is far larger, it is a fraction of the major Nato powers.

Last year, the US provided $409m of foreign assistance to SA, including extensive funding for the fight against HIV/Aids and the Covid-19 response. Since 2004, the US has invested more than $8bn in SA through the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief. Russian assistance to SA does not show up on any of the major international aid databases.

All of this is at risk. Already, the US Congress is acting after the SA government hosted military exercises with China and Russia. In February, five Republican congressmen introduced a resolution calling for a thorough review of the US-SA relationship. This is the first step of a process that could lead to SA being kicked out of the Agoa preferential trade relationship with the US and potentially far more serious economic sanctions. That bill has a way to go and may fail, but it signals US political anger that will have practical and serious consequences for many aspects of the relationship, as well as that with other Nato countries.

International relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor has been quoted in US media as saying that “we have made it clear that Russia is a friend”. She said this in a radio interview when discussing the Putin visit. The International Criminal Court, of which SA is a signatory, has issued an arrest warrant for Putin over forced relocation of children from occupied areas of Ukraine.

Pandor has said that government is obtaining legal advice over the Putin visit and its obligations under law. But we know from the debacle of then Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in 2015 that the courts have ruled that the SA state must enforce ICC arrest warrants in terms of its own law.

Shamefully, the government let Bashir slip out of the country. So either Putin doesn’t visit, or Putin visits and he is arrested, or Putin visits and the government breaks its own domestic law in not arresting him. It should be obvious which of those three would be best for the country. The invitation must be withdrawn.

SA’s repeated abstentions on key UN resolutions about Russia, joint operations with Russian military, and refusal to impound assets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs have already positioned SA at odds with Western interests.

What could the possible upside of a Putin visit be? There are three strands of saying I can divine from the ANC. First is a struggle-era loyalty, despite Ukraine having been a major source of support within the USSR to the ANC.

Second is the extent of emotional investment in the emerging markets group Brics as a pole of southern power to balance that of the West (Putin is due here for a Brics summit).

Third is perhaps the most nefarious, the financial entanglement of the ANC with Russia. With the party desperate for funds for its 2024 election campaign, all sources must be wooed. In 2022/23, the party received R15m from United Manganese of Kalahari (UMK), a company controlled by sanctioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg and in which the ANC is co-invested via Chancellor House. That was almost half of total donations received that year.

The year before, the party received R10m from UMK, the only donation that year. But its ownership interest is far more material, with amaBhungane estimating that the ANC has received R848m in dividends from UMK.

While the ANC may see these as persuasive, it must surely be able to see the downsides too. The effect on the economy of significant sanctions by the US and Europe would be enormous, and potentially devastating.

• Dr Theobald is chair of research-led consultancy Intellidex. This article first appeared in Business Day.