Analysis: Southern Africa sets the tone as big power contenders line up

  • Russia and the United States on high-level visits to the region
  • The region has historical ties to Russia but greater Western trade
  • War in Ukraine intensifies geopolitical rivalry over Africa

JOHANNESBURG, Jan 26 (Reuters) – South Africa and its neighbors were at the center of a struggle for influence this week as senior Russian and U.S. officials visited, providing a rare moment of leverage to governments in a continent more accustomed to being shaken by events. than courted.

With a war in Europe pitting invading Russian forces against the Ukrainian military stocked with Western weapons, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen were both looking for more international support. wide.

For southern African countries, which have strong ideological and historical sympathies for Russia but hold much larger trade balances with the European Union and the United States, this rivalry represents an opportunity.

“They have the opportunity to play against each other to get concessions, to get more aid, more trade,” said Steven Gruzd of the South African Institute of International Affairs. “That’s precisely what we’re seeing right now.”

The war in Ukraine has intensified long-running competition between major powers for access to Africa’s abundant natural resources and the diplomatic prize of its 54 votes at the UN.

But Africa’s voting patterns at the United Nations show a continent divided over which side to back in Ukraine’s war.

Landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique and with a gross domestic product of less than $5 billion, the small kingdom of Eswatini does not often attract the attention of world powers. No Russian diplomat is based there.

Nonetheless, Lavrov made a stopover after visiting South Africa, which his counterpart Thulisile Dladla called a “deep honour”. Both parties signed a visa waiver agreement.

Eswatini is counting on the United States for help, but its absolute monarchy has come under American human rights criticism.


For South Africa, economic engine and diplomatic heavyweight of the continent, it was an opportunity to thumb its nose at a Western alliance that it considers too authoritarian and hegemonic.

Receiving Lavrov in Pretoria, his counterpart Naledi Pandor defended the planned joint military exercises with Russia and China as a “natural course of relations” between “friends”, and suggested that South Africa no longer believes that Russia had to withdraw from Ukraine unless there was a peace agreement. is agreed.

South Africa, alongside Russia and China, is pushing for a “multipolar” world in which geopolitical power is less concentrated around the United States. For this reason, he is an enthusiastic supporter of a proposed political and commercial alliance between Brazil, Russia, India, China and himself (BRICS) – for which he is organizing a summit later this year. .

“A more inclusive multipolar world. This is the vision of the BRICS family and to which we all subscribe,” Anil Sooklal, South African official in charge of BRICS, told Reuters.

But South Africa’s exports to Russia were $587 million in 2020, while its exports to the United States in the same year were $10.2 billion, according to data from the South Africa Observatory. economic complexity (OEC).

“South Africa takes the BRICS very seriously, but the reality is that the BRICS have (offered) very little,” said Tom Lodge, professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Limerick. “It didn’t bring the kind of benefits that South Africa was hoping for.”

China, an ally of Russia, a major trading partner, is more interested in commodities like wine and wool than in high-tech, value-added products that South Africa wants to sell, Lodge said, adding that “the United States offers better business opportunities”.

Yet despite South Africa’s refusal to vote against Russia at the UN and its rejection of NATO’s position on Ukraine, Yellen has met with South African officials and will visit mining sites on Thursday that risk losing jobs due to the transition to green energy, of which the United States is a major financial backer.


While Angola’s aging political class still remembers Russia’s support for its Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in its 27-year civil war against Washington-backed rebels, there is had a marked turn towards the West since President João Lourenço took over in 2017.

“Angola is one of the few African countries to condemn Russia’s actions – apparently under pressure from the EU,” said South African political risk analyst Marisa Lourenço, noting “a strong pivot towards the United States and away from Russia”.

Angola is also seeking to deepen its ties with Germany, France and its former colonial ruler, Portugal, she said. Lourenço even suggested in a Voice of America interview in December that he would like to abandon Russian military aid in favor of the US military equipment program.

That didn’t stop Lavrov from making a courtesy visit to Luanda on Wednesday, where he offered to double university scholarships for Angolan students to 300 next year in an exercise in Russian soft power. The Russian Alrosa, the world’s largest diamond producer, holds a 41% stake in a huge Angolan mine.

“Russians want to say very loudly that they are not isolated and that they are welcome everywhere,” said Irina Filatova, professor emeritus of humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

“(It) won’t endear (southern Africa) to the United States or the British, but that doesn’t mean they will stop trading,” she said. “It’s too important.”

Editing by William Maclean

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